To borrow Bill O'Reilly's tag line, the spin stops here in Saturday's $300,000 Rebel S. (G2) for the brilliantly-speedy THE FACTOR (War Front): will the Bob Baffert pupil pass his two-turn audition? Or might he fail to live up to the hype and burst his Kentucky Derby (G1) bubble? Either way, The Factor is entering the no-spin zone at Oaklawn Park.
The 1 1/16-mile Rebel shapes up as a true test for the highly-regarded colt. His 10 rivals include a strong locally-based group, led by Southwest S. (G3) winner ARCHARCHARCH (Arch) and runner-up J P'S GUSTO (Successful Appeal), and fellow Southern California shipper SWAY AWAY (Afleet Alex), who comes off a terrific second to The Factor in the February 20 San Vicente S. (G2) at Santa Anita.
Named for O'Reilly's top-rated cable news program, The Factor has sizzled in his two career victories, both at speed-friendly Santa Anita. On the meet's opening day, December 26, the gray generated plenty of buzz when breaking his maiden by 8 1/4 lengths in a track-record time of 1:06.98 for six furlongs. A contrarian, on the other hand, might respond that the track was playing freakishly fast that day. Later on the card, the seven-furlong track record set by Hall of Famer Spectacular Bid, which stood for almost 31 years, was also eclipsed.
The Factor battled foot issues in January and, as a result, lost valuable training time. Baffert transferred him across town to Hollywood Park, where he was able to get in two works on the Cushion Track in advance of the San Vicente. Despite not being perfectly fit for the seven-furlong affair, The Factor burned off his pace rivals through torrid fractions, opened up a 1 1/2-length advantage, and had enough left to stave off the furious rally of Sway Away by three-quarters of a length. The result was flattered when San Vicente third-placer Premier Pegasus (Fusaichi Pegasus) came back to romp in last Saturday's San Felipe S. (G2). Yet, a contrarian could contend that The Factor's task was aided considerably by the track bias in favor of speed.
With a pedigree and running style that prompt questions about his stamina, The Factor sets out to prove that he can harness his natural speed over a route of ground. He has drawn in the middle of the field, in post 6, and should have little difficulty in securing the early lead with Baffert's go-to rider Martin Garcia. The only other Rebel entrant who might attempt to go with him early is the Wayne Lukas-trained SARATOGA RED (Eddington), a debut winner going a mile here in the slop on February 24.
The Factor, who arrived at Oaklawn Wednesday, galloped about 1 1/2 miles at around 8:15 a.m. (CDT) Thursday.
"He got over the track good this morning," assistant trainer Jim Barnes said. "He just jumps such a long way out there. He has a huge stride."
Sway Away will also be stretching out to two turns for the first time, but his pedigree and running style suggest that he'll improve with added distance. A hard-charging runner-up to J P's Gusto in the August 8 Best Pal S. (G2) at Del Mar, Sway Away was sidelined for the next six months until the San Vicente. The Jeff Bonde trainee trailed early in that sprint, but uncorked a huge move down the stretch to reach contention. Although drawing up to The Factor's flank, he could not get any closer, and must hope that the change of venue, and longer trip, will help him turn the tables. Garrett Gomez renews his partnership with the deep closer, who will break from post 9.
Sway Away is not the only son of Afleet Alex who bids to erase his sire's bad memories of the Rebel. Afleet Alex suffered the only unplaced effort of his career in the 2005 Rebel, finishing an uncharacteristic last before being diagnosed with a lung infection, and the champion sends out two potential avengers Saturday.
The other is ELITE ALEX (Afleet Alex), who has had more than his share of bad luck this meet at Oaklawn. Conditioned by his sire's trainer, Tim Ritchey, Elite Alex virtually lost all chance when breaking awkwardly in a January 15 allowance/optional claimer. Yet he regrouped and nearly pulled off the victory, just being outdueled by ALTERNATION (Distorted Humor). In the Southwest, Elite Alex was compromised in a different way. Parked out wide throughout, he got up for third. The two losses have not discouraged his rider, Calvin Borel. The winner of three of the past four runnings of the Kentucky Derby, Borel has said that Elite Alex reminds him of Street Sense, the 2007 Derby champ. His luck didn't improve at the Rebel draw, however, for he wound up in post 10.
Elite Alex hopes that a better trip will enable him to overturn the Southwest result, where he was beaten a total of 2 1/4 lengths by Archarcharch. The Jinks Fires-trained Archarcharch offers an instructive example of how the trip can make all the difference. After breaking his maiden in the six-furlong Sugar Bowl S. at Fair Grounds on December 18, he earned even-money favoritism in the January 17 Smarty Jones S. at Oaklawn. Unfortunately, he argued the early pace in that two-turn debut, and ultimately faded to a distant fourth behind CALEB'S POSSE (Posse) and Dreaminofthewin (Successful Appeal). Off such a disappointing effort, Archarcharch was overlooked at 14-1 in the Southwest. Reverting to stalking tactics there, he got back on track with a one-length upset of J P's Gusto. Regular rider Jon Court will look to carve out another score, this time from the rail.
Fires will nearly have the field surrounded, for his other contender, BLUEGRASS JAM (Bluegrass Cat), has drawn post 12. He was most recently third in an off-the-turf allowance/optional claimer at Fair Grounds, and two starts back, played second fiddle to J W BLUE (Sky Mesa) in an allowance at Oaklawn.
"They've got us wedged pretty well down in there," Fires said of Archarcharch's rail draw. "It means we will have to leave there running, but that's the way it goes. I feel a little better about the other one outside (Bluegrass Jam) because he's a one-run horse. He will have to use a little to slide over, but I know he will make his run."
J P's Gusto is entitled to move forward in his second start for new trainer Joe Petalino. Previously based in Southern California with David Hofmans, the bay was an accomplished two-year-old last season. Besides his Best Pal victory over Sway Away, he also garnered such notable events as the Del Mar Futurity (G1) and Hollywood Juvenile Championship (G3). J P's Gusto was not as successful when stepping up to 1 1/16 miles, finishing second in the Norfolk S. (G1) and CashCall Futurity (G1) and sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1). He was switched to Petalino's barn in order to compete in Oaklawn's stakes series for three-year-olds, and opened his campaign with a troubled second in the Southwest. Ramon Dominguez once again flies in for the mount aboard J P's Gusto, who will break just to the inside of The Factor from post 5.
PICKO'S PRIDE (Cactus Ridge) was another who met trouble in an eventful running of the Southwest, with the 79-1 longshot having to wait in traffic en route to his fourth-place effort. Caleb's Posse, the Smarty Jones winner, didn't have clear running room either at the decisive juncture and checked in sixth.
Though the Southwest didn't pan out well for Caleb's Posse, trainer Donnie Von Hemel's other promising colt, Alternation, impressed in an allowance on the same Presidents' Day program. The Pin Oak Stable homebred swept to a convincing 3 1/4-length score over Dreaminofthewin at this same 1 1/16-mile trip, and in the process, fueled speculation about how he might have done in the Southwest. The patient strategy could pay off in the end for Alternation, who brings a three-race winning streak into his stakes debut.
Trainer Tony Dutrow has taken a similarly cautious approach with J W Blue. A last-to-first allowance winner at this track and distance on January 29, he opted to skip the Southwest. J W Blue enters the Rebel off a 49-day freshening, but must overcome being marooned in the far outside post.
Two Rebel entrants have already been scratched: Glint (Sharp Humor), who would have been wheeling back on just 14 days' rest following his third in the March 5 Mountain Valley S., and Smarty Jones runner-up Dreaminofthewin.
J W Blue and Bluegrass Jam were coupled as a two-horse mutuel field because 13 horses were originally entered, and Oaklawn's infield toteboard only has space for 12 betting interests.
J W Blue and Bluegrass Jam will be coupled as a two-horse mutuel field because Oaklawn's infield toteboard only has space for 12 betting interests.