Saturday's Rebel Stakes put a smile on the face of D. Wayne Lukas, with Will Take Charge edging stablemate Oxbow by a head on the wire, and the Hall of Fame trainer holds a strong Kentucky Derby hand for the first time in more than a decade.
Will Take Charge guaranteed himself a spot with the 50-point winner's share, jumping to the top of the standings with 60 points after earning another 10 for his Southwest victory earlier this year. He was impressive Saturday, quickly erasing about a three-length deficit after turning into the stretch, and has run well twice at Oaklawn going a mile and 1 1/16 miles this winter. His final prep could come in the April 13 Blue Grass at Keeneland, where he broke his maiden on the Polytrack last October, but Lukas left open the possibility of training him straight up to the main event.
Oxbow came up a little short but gained plenty of admiration in defeat. After breaking from post 10, he raced close to a wicked pace, traveling widest of all on the first turn, and moved early while losing a lot of ground on the far turn. The colt tried valiantly all the way and his BRIS Speed ratings continued to increase, registering a career-best 101 Saturday, and Oxbow is well-situated presently with 36 points. He can add to his total in the April 13 Arkansas Derby.
Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager will be offered Friday-Sunday and War Academy is a new addition following his smart allowance win at Santa Anita last Friday. The son of Giant's Causeway displayed a tremendous turn of foot in his two-turn debut, winning effortlessly for Bob Baffert, and will try to earn a Derby berth in one of the final preps. War Academy beat little on Friday, but I liked his style and the exciting colt could prove to be a major player.
The first leg in the championship portion of the new "Road to the Kentucky Derby" scoring system concludes this weekend, with Saturday's Spiral and Sunday's Sunland Derby both offering 50-20-10-5 points to the respective top four finishers.
There is plenty of intrigue surrounding the Spiral, which features the comeback of Kentucky Jockey Club winner Uncaptured against a full field of challengers on Turfway's Polytrack. Nine will square off at the New Mexico track Sunday, including a pair from Baffert (Governor Charlie and Shakin It Up) and the Todd Pletcher-trained Abraham.
Oxbow was the only horse close to the pace to be involved in the finish and was hurt by a ridiculously wide trip. He probably moved a little soon as well, but it was encouraging to see him gallop out in front immediately after the wire. The Rebel eliminated any quality concerns surrounding the improving colt and the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby trip should be right up his alley.
A son of Breeders' Cup Classic hero Awesome Again, Oxbow is out of a full sister to two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner Tiznow and possesses plenty of speed. He's the type who could set the pace in the Kentucky Derby or race close to the action before making his move. I love the progress he's making -- the Churchill Downs maiden winner takes his track with him, running big at Fair Grounds and Oaklawn this year -- and believe Oxbow will be a tough customer on Derby Day.
Lukas saddled 23-1 outsider Proud Citizen to a non-threatening second in the 2003 Derby, but it's been a long time since he's been in the spotlight heading into the race. The 77-year-old conditioner has sent out a steady string of seemingly overmatched longshots since his last success in 1999, with all starters since 2000 being at least 20-1. That's a far cry from his glory days in the late 1980s and '90s.
From 1988 to 1999, Lukas won with four of 23 starters in the Kentucky Derby, a 17 percent win rate that Pletcher would cherish (Lukas owns a record 45 Derby starts and Pletcher is second with 31), and he also recorded three thirds. One had to account for his horses every year. The scenery changed over the last decade, but the "Coach" appears to have the right horse again in Oxbow to demand serious respect.
Will Take Charge deserves credit for a career-best effort, racing in midpack before advancing into contention on the far turn, and is developing into a nice three-year-old. Whether he can carry his form outside of Oaklawn, at longer distances against steeper competition, is a legitimate concern. Out of multiple Grade 1 winner Take Charge Lady, the son of Unbridled's Song owns plenty of class on the female side of his pedigree but it is arguably slanted toward distances of nine furlongs or less.
Den's Legacy rallied up the rail to a menacing position entering the stretch drive but lacked the necessary finishing kick and wound up third, a couple of lengths back of the top two finishers. It was another three-length gap to fourth and Den's Legacy has managed to place in his fourth consecutive stakes races since switching from the turf last fall.
The Baffert charge doesn't rate as top prospect -- he doesn't look fast enough to beat top-class rivals -- but Den's Legacy is as honest as they come and looks like the type that could show up in the right spot, at the right time, to surprise everyone. That happened with Giacomo in 2005.
Super Ninety Nine and Treasury Bill both proved to be major disappointments in the Rebel.
Super Ninety Nine was favored at 6-5 following his 11 1/4-length, front-running romp over a sloppy track in the Southwest, but did not make the early lead in the Rebel and threw in the towel before the conclusion of the far turn, weakening to fifth. Despite his pedigree, he probably favors middle distances at this point in his career. Treasury Bill, the 4-1 co-third choice with entry-mate Title Contender, received the perfect set-up but never made any impact from the back of the field in his two-turn bow.
Derby Future Wager
I plan on playing both Oxbow (20-1 morning line) and War Academy (30-1) in this weekend's third pool of the Kentucky Derby wager and will add Orb to the mix as well if his odds are 10-1 or greater on Sunday afternoon.
Derby Top 10
- Verrazano -- Unbeaten Tampa Bay Derby hero is a supreme talent and his effectiveness at longer distances is the only question; will stretch out to nine furlongs in Wood Memorial
- Orb -- Fountain of Youth winner is a perfect candidate for 1 1/4 miles; stock will continue to rise with a strong showing in the Florida Derby
- Revolutionary -- Could be any kind for Pletcher but maturity issues are the main concern; will return off a freshening in Louisiana Derby
- Itsmyluckyday -- A star so far this year, registering 111 and 106 BRIS Speed ratings in two stakes wins, Plesa trainee will attempt to keep rolling in Florida Derby
- Oxbow -- Displayed plenty of fight in last two, gaining a ton of seasoning while experiencing rough trips in Risen Star and Rebel, and could peak at the right time for Lukas
- War Academy -- Brilliant Santa Anita allowance winner looks ready to make a serious impact for Baffert
- Flashback -- Never quit trying despite tiring late in first setback; San Felipe will toughen him up for next time
- Code West -- Hasn't "wowed" anyone with performances so far but believe he still has a lot more to offer; Louisiana Derby is next
- Hear the Ghost -- Improving gelding secured Kentucky Derby berth in San Felipe and could pack a strong punch in the final furlongs
- Will Take Charge -- Notched his second stakes tally this year when closing boldly to take Rebel; Blue Grass is likely next