Having raced just once since his Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) conquest, Godolphin shipper Rebel’s Romance hopes to use Sunday’s $250,000 Bowling Green (G2) at Saratoga as a springboard to a big second half. The Charlie Appleby trainee leads an overflow cast for the 1 3/8-mile stepping stone to the Aug. 26 Sword Dancer (G1) at the Spa on Travers Day.
A Dubai Carnival star on the dirt as a three-year-old, Rebel’s Romance reinvented himself on turf in a globetrotting 2022 campaign. The Dubawi gelding went 5-for-5 after the surface switch, a skein that began in his British base, extended through a pair of German Group 1s, and culminated in a course-record performance in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Keeneland.
Rebel’s Romance was supposed to resume in the Dubai City of Gold (G2) on Super Saturday, but he was scratched due to inflammation in a leg. Although he made it to the March 25 Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) on World Cup night, it wasn’t a shock that he sustained his first turf loss. Rebel’s Romance ran well below form in seventh behind Japan’s superstar Equinox and multiple Group 1 winner Westover (who runs in Saturday’s blockbuster King George VI & Queen Elizabeth [G1] at Ascot).
Given time to regroup, Rebel’s Romance is eligible to turn in a more characteristic effort on Sunday. Richard Mullen picks up the mount on the one to beat, who drew post 9 of 10 in the main body of the field.
“He’s traveled this trip pretty well and he’s settled in good shape,” said Chris Connett, Appleby’s traveling head lad. “He’s a typical Dubawi, he’s got better with age. He’s a big horse that’s really grown into his frame….
“The team always has held the horse in high regard. As a three-year-old, he won the UAE Derby (G2) on the dirt. Up until this year in Dubai, he was unbeaten on the turf. He’s a classy animal.”
While Rebel’s Romance cuts back slightly in trip, the progressive Never Explain steps up a couple of furlongs for Shug McGaughey. The son of Street Sense racked up three in a row, capped by the Dinner Party (G3) in course-record time at Pimlico, and most recently finished a better-than-appears second in the Monmouth (G3).
Frequent bridesmaid Soldier Rising, who was runner-up in the Man o’ War (G1) and Manhattan (G1) in his last pair at Belmont Park, could be better suited by the change of venue. A close third in the 2022 Sword Dancer here, the Frankel gelding was also second to the top-class international visitor State of Rest in the 2021 Saratoga Derby (G1). Soldier Rising is joined by a newcomer to the Christophe Clement barn, Tawny Port, who tries turf for the first time. Last year’s Lexington (G3) and Ohio Derby (G3) winner had prior form on Turfway’s all-weather, suggesting that he could be rejuvenated by the surface.
Strong Quality tired to fifth in the Manhattan after setting a robust pace in his stakes debut. The Mark Casse four-year-old might carry his speed a bit better on the Spa’s inner turf.
Verstappen announced himself as a divisional up-and-comer by taking the April 22 Elkhorn (G2) at 16-1, but he failed to build on that when seventh in the Man o’ War. Trainer Brendan Walsh is encouraged by his ensuing third in the Jonathan B. Schuster Memorial at Horseshoe Indianapolis.
“He ran very well the last day at Indiana,” Walsh said. “We knew that (1 1/16 miles) would be a little sharp for him, and he nearly won it. It was way too short for him, but we were looking at the big picture to come up here and have a go at the Bowling Green. I probably ran him back a little quick in the Man o’ War off of his huge run at Keeneland, but the race was there and you take these shots. This time around, he’s been here two weeks and we were able to work him on the turf here. He’s fit and ready to go.”
The Grey Wizard has settled for second behind two other Appleby celebrities, Nations Pride in last fall’s Jockey Club Derby (G3) and Siskany in the Belmont Gold Cup (G2) in his latest over two miles. The Graham Motion pupil would probably prefer a longer trip.
“I’m very happy with him,” Motion said. “We’ve kind of pointed for this race for a while. He seems like he keeps improving every time I run him. I wish this was a mile and a half – the distance is what really helps him. He’s not very quick from the gate and that’s part of the problem; it puts him at a disadvantage. Johnny (Velazquez) knows him so well, and that’s a big help.
“We’ve taken some shots with this guy, but he’s always kind of responded. He’s a horse that has improved a lot since we got him, and I’m not saying that because of us; I’m saying that because he’s gotten older and figured it out.”
At the opposite end of the career trajectory are a couple of past Bowling Green winners – Channel Maker, who dead-heated for the win in the 2018 edition, and defending champion Rockemperor. Channel Maker has the better overall resume, as the champion turf male of 2020. But the nine-year-old is in declining form of late, checking in fourth in the Elkhorn, sixth in the Man o’ War, and 10th in the Belmont Gold Cup. Although seven-year-old Rockemperor doesn’t win very often himself, there’s precedent for him to rebound from an unplaced effort in the Manhattan. He’s one of two from the well-stocked Chad Brown barn, along with the multiple graded-placed Highest Honors, who exits a sixth in the Manhattan.
The also-eligible, Daunt, is enduring a bout of seconditis in allowance company.
Carded as the ninth race on Sunday, the Bowling Green is slated for 5:44 p.m. (ET).