Before jumping into the Rebel Stakes preview and analysis of the last two weeks’ Kentucky Derby preps, more than a few words are needed about the ongoing crisis at Santa Anita.
Is it the dirt? The turf? The horses? Drugs going into horses? Drugs not going into horses? The weather? Bad luck? No luck at all? Some or all these things?
The answers to these questions – the ones surrounding the alarming deaths of 22 racehorses at Santa Anita this winter – are at best uncertain. The latest fatality came in training Thursday morning, while TV news crews were there like Dalmatians waiting for a fire alarm.
Guesswork has led horsemen to declare an unusually wet winter compromised the foundation of the racetrack. More guesswork has led The Stronach Group on Thursday to declare an end to race-day medication at both Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields. Even more guesswork – some of it uninformed conjecture – has led to the theory that unfit horses are being propped up with drugs only to run themselves to death for horsemen being pushed to get runners on the track.
The guesswork may be educated, but lacking comments from the horses themselves, it is guesswork nonetheless.
By all appearances, Thursday’s decision to ban race-day medication, restrict other backstretch drugs and eliminate the use of whips in races was made unilaterally by Belinda Stronach, chairwoman and president of The Stronach Group.
“The thing that upset me more than reading about the changes that they want to do is that nobody was really consulted about it,” longtime Santa Anita trainer John Shirreffs told VSiN on Thursday night. “For these dramatic changes it would have been nice if Santa Anita management had shown the horsemen a little more consideration. That never happened.”
But both Stronach and her chief operating officer Tim Ritvo said earlier in the day that they could no longer afford to delay action.
“The time has come for this industry to evolve,” Ritvo said in an open letter posted Thursday by Stronach. “It must do so for the sake of the horses and the people who depend on this sport for their livelihoods.”
Neither Stronach nor Ritvo said when these new rules would be put into effect, bringing into question whether the Breeders’ Cup – an entity that itself tried and failed to enact a Lasix ban in the ’00s – will still happen at Santa Anita as scheduled in November.
“We have not changed our commitment to hold the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita this fall,” Breeders’ Cup spokesman Jim Gluckson told VSiN on Thursday afternoon. “We are in close communication with Santa Anita officials and believe they are taking all the necessary steps.”
For now, racing is still set to resume at Santa Anita next Friday after a 15-day suspension. Training has not been canceled; in fact it went on with only a brief interruption after Thursday’s latest breakdown.
It is unreasonable to expect that a horse will never again die on a racetrack let alone at Santa Anita. Fatal breakdowns in races happen across North America about once every 620 starts, according to the most recent statistics from the Jockey Club. That does not even count morning training.
So Santa Anita – and racing itself – is boxed into a corner. If so much as one more horse dies while this story is still fresh, then the calls will get louder to close the track for the rest of a meet that runs through late June. But the track must get back to business at some point.
If Thursday’s anti-drug doctrine is taken at face value, then track management must believe medication has been abused – or is at least to blame for this winter’s trouble. Whether that is true is, well, more guesswork. And not even time may tell.
Finding context in preps like the Rebel(s)
Teachers used to tell me when I was a kid that they were less interested in whether my math answers were right. They were more interested in the work I did to get there.
Forgetting the shaky state of my arithmetic as I approach geezerdom, that old lesson from Marigold Elementary School in Chico, Calif., is especially important to remember on the way to that big horse race in seven weeks on Central Avenue in Louisville, Ky.
Never mind who has won them. The points preps for the Kentucky Derby the past two weeks have been like watching commuter traffic here in Las Vegas. There is always some clown with a big ride racing as fast as he can to blow past everyone. His reward? A waste of fuel – and a red light that allows all behind him to catch up and eventually pass him.
This weekend a lot of traffic has been diverted south. The suspension of racing at Santa Anita led a fleet of eight California colts to Oaklawn Park, Ark., for Saturday’s running of not one but two divisions of the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes.
“We never dreamed the day would come they would close down Santa Anita, but we’re getting through it,” said Bob Baffert, the trainer of consensus Derby futures favorites Game Winner and Improbable. “We knew the Rebel was always there, but at first we were thinking not to ship. I think it’s very nice of them to want to split that race. That’s the key thing.”
As with the pairs of horses entered by fellow California trainers Jerry Hollendorfer and Richard Mandella, Baffert’s two will not face one another as they would have had last week’s San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita not been canceled. Instead, they will be the favorites Saturday in separate fields racing for their shares of a combined $1.5 million.
Since the purse was pumped up 50 percent by the Cella family that owns the track, the Derby qualifying points were adjusted, too. Each division of the Rebel will be worth 37½ to the first-place finisher, making them “win and you’re damn near in” races.
Because of the top-heavy fields descending on the track at Hot Springs, there will be a rush to judgment – if not the growing number of futures pools – that the two winning horses will be standout favorites for the Derby. But instead of being like a pair of Sweet 16 games in the NCAA Tournament, the twin runnings of the Rebel should be treated more like those Thursday night Duels at Daytona. The top finishers will not necessarily be the best choices to win the big race.
The same thought certainly applies to what has happened this month in the Fountain of Youth, the Gotham Stakes and the Tampa Bay Derby. Do sub-23s for a quarter mile look useful in forecasting a Derby winner? How about opening half-miles of 45.69, 44.42 and 45.85? With their closing victories Code Of Honor, Haikal and Tacitus were certainly beneficiaries, but they can hardly expect to chase that sort of pace May 4.
Instead, the most important thing to gauge from those races, from Saturday’s Rebels and from every prep going forward is not how fast they started but how fast they finished.
It may not be too early to apply the Final Fractions Theory advanced so effectively by former Louisville Courier-Journal turf writer Jennie Rees. That is the pattern that reveals 26 of the last 29 Derby winners finished the last furlong of their final, nine-furlong prep in 13 seconds or less or the last three furlongs in 38 or less.
We are not at the nine-furlong stage yet, but this illustrates the need to finish strong and fast when extending 3-year-olds to the eventual 1¼ miles of the Derby. So which horses fared best extending to 8½ furlongs on the dirt the past two weeks?
The closing times for the mile of the Gotham really flattered no one. Haikal made up 14 lengths to win with a so-so finishing quarter-mile of 24.70. Based on 0.2 seconds per length shown on the race chart, runner-up Mind Control closed in 25.10 seconds, third-place Instagrand in 25.80 and pace-setting Much Better wilted to a 26.70 finish to wind up fourth. Hot pace or not, 25-plus at the end of a one-turn mile is not a finishing time worthy of a big Derby futures bet.
In the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth, Code Of Honor erased an 8½-length gap with a 32.63-second finish over the last 2½ furlongs. Bourbon War was more impressive finishing second, making up 9¼ lengths in 32.28. Third-place Vekoma closed in 33.18. After getting sucked into a speed duel with a 132-1 long shot, the lightly raced and unfairly hyped favorite Hidden Scroll faded to a 34.03 close but did well to stay within three lengths in finishing fourth.
The most impressive finishes came at the Tampa Bay Derby, also 1 1/16 miles. Tacitus wiped out 10½ lengths by running the last 2½ furlongs in 30.98 seconds. Third-place Win Win Win, the favorite, covered that same ground in 31.33, about a half-second faster than runner-up Outshine. Pace-setting Zenden lumbered home with a finish of 32.83.
The problem in trying to apply these closing fractions to the Derby futures is that there is no way they will be running that fast up front at Churchill Downs this spring. Speedsters just do not earn enough points finishing fourth in preps, and under the current terms of engagement, they certainly do not end up wearing roses.
The qualifying system that rewards pace-chasers rather than speedsters is in its seventh year. In that time the only front-runner to finish better than 12th in the Derby was Dortmund, third to American Pharoah in 2015.
Conversely, since Orb closed from deep in the slop in 2013, the last five Derby winners were never more than four lengths off the lead, nor were they any worse than third at any call. So look somewhat askance at those deep-closing victories the past two weeks.
As for this weekend in crisp, dry weather at Oaklawn, the best advice for Derby players is to look inside the results and see how the races are run, especially since both divisions are full of more front-runners.
In other words, it’s not whether you win or lose the Rebel, it’s how you came up with four when you add two and two. Or something like that.
Editor's note: In the original posting of this column, it was incorrectly stated that 17 eventual winners in Kentucky used the Rebel as a prep, but only three of them finished first at Oaklawn. In fact, 17 Rebel winners since 1983 have advanced to the Kentucky Derby, but only three went on to win the roses.
Hard to beat Improbable and Game Winner
Much as I habitually bet long shots to beat heavy favorites, that may not be the best strategy to attack the two Rebels.
Drawn widest in the field of nine for the first division Saturday at 5:57 p.m. EDT, the undefeated Improbable (3-5 on the morning line) might be best suited racing to the lead before the quick arrival of the first turn. But he has shown in all three of his races that he does just fine racing just off the pace. That may be the most realistic expectation with all the speed in this field.
Galilean (3-1) also drew wide, in post 8, and he won his last race tracking close to the lead. But that was against less taxing competition than he will face Saturday, when he also carries three extra pounds because of his three stakes wins. Still, he has shown a turn of foot that is difficult to ignore in this spot for Hollendorfer.
Long Range Toddy (10-1) was a troubled third on this track at this distance last month in the Southwest Stakes, but he seems to be regressing. In fact, that is red flag this winter for so many of Steve Asmussen’s 3-year-olds, six of which are racing in the two divisions Saturday.
Maiden winner Easy Shot (15-1) appears to be the value play in the first division. He finished third in the slop last month in the Robert B. Lewis. He has since delivered two bullet works in southern California. Richard Eramia, who keeps his tack at Oaklawn, gets the ride for trainer Keith Desormeaux. If this race provides another case of early speed breaking down, and with no pure closer in the field, Easy Shot could be the beneficiary.
Undefeated Game Winner (4-5) makes his 3-year-old debut in the second division of the Rebel on Saturday at 7:06 p.m. EDT. Not only does he have the benefit of being trained by Baffert, two of his four wins have come at this race’s distance in Grade 1 races. Last seen 4½ months ago winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, rust is the only thing that can beat Game Winner, especially in a race where Joel Rosario can park him off the leaders and pounce before the second turn.
Despite getting Mike Smith to ride, Omaha Beach (7-2) looks like an underlay after needing five races to break his maiden in a sprint last month in the slop at Santa Anita. He has been favored in all his races until now, so he seems destined to disappoint.
Trained by Mark Casse, Our Braintrust (6-1) deserves a long look after what he has done this winter at Aqueduct. He finished a close second to Mind Control in the Jerome and even closer third to Tax and Not That Brady last month in the Withers.
Winner of the Sham Stakes in January at Santa Anita, Gunmetal Gray (10-1) is the nearest thing to a closer in either of these fields. But he has lost four of his six races by an average of 7¾ lengths, including twice with this weekend’s rider Flavien Prat.
There may be money to be made in exotics by boxing Omaha Beach, Our Braintrust and Captain Von Trapp (15-1) underneath Game Winner. Captain Von Trapp may not be the best of the four Asmussens here, but he is 2-for-2 at Oaklawn Park this year, and racing from mid-pack, he could jump on a breakdown of early pace.
One other play here may be horizontal – an Oaklawn Pick 3 book-ending the Rebel chalk around the $350,000 Essex Handicap. Nine older horses that have been starved for graded-stakes wins are in this 1 1/16-mile race Saturday at 6:29 p.m. My ticket will exclude the favorite Giant Expectations (5-2), winless in five tries since the end of 2017. It will include the closer Hence (9-2) with Smith riding; class-dropping Nanoosh (20-1); the durable gelding Chris And Dave (15-1); and last year’s Risen Star runner-up Snapper Sinclair (9-2).
May the longest shot win.
Racing notes and opinions
About a month earlier than usual, the Westgate here in Las Vegas posted Kentucky Derby futures Tuesday, opening Game Winner and Improbable as 6-1 co-favorites followed by Code Of Honor and War Of Will at 10-1 and Galilean at 16-1. Where William Hill lists 149 horses with Game Winner 4-1 and Improbable 5-1, the Westgate has included 38.
There are 15 shopping days until the UAE Derby – meaning 15 days until that race’s winner becomes the annually overhyped, “can’t miss” Kentucky Derby horse. Just a reminder that in all the time that race has been run, the best Kentucky finish for an import from Dubai was fifth – Master Of Hounds in 2011. At least all the money bet on this year’s soon to be much-ballyhooed UAE Derby winner will make the odds longer for the true contenders at Churchill Downs.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. With not one but two runnings of the Rebel Stakes on Saturday, Oaklawn Park in Arkansas is the focal point. Oaklawn paddock analyst Nancy Ury-Holthus helps to handicap these latest Kentucky Derby points preps. Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds talks about his Rebel contenders Galilean and Gunmetal Gray and their chances of upsetting Improbable and Game Winner. Trainer John Shirreffs reacts to the decision to expand drug restrictions at Santa Anita after the 22nd death of a horse there this winter. The Racehorses by the Letters feature looks at the best ever starting with “S.” The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available at Apple, Google Play, Stitcher and other leading podcast platforms.