Trainer Steve Asmussen, newly-named as a finalist for the 2014 class in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, was at Oaklawn Park on Friday morning to supervise final preparations for his charges competing in Saturday's three graded stakes, but it's $600,000 Rebel contender Tapiture who is generating the buzz.
The impressive winner of the $300,000 Southwest Stakes by 4 1/4 lengths is the 9-5 morning line favorite in the field of seven sophomores with Kentucky Derby dreams, even though he is top-weighted at 122 pounds and will be giving as many as seven pounds to his rivals in the 1 1/16-mile test, which serves as a prep for the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 12.
"Right now with the three-year-olds, you just need to keep getting better and stay in the game," Asmussen said. "Some of them aren't who they used to be and some of them are better than they were. That's what makes the three-year-old picture so interesting. He's a very nice horse and he's very talented. I'm a little concerned with the weight that he gives quality horses tomorrow, but he's doing well."
Tapiture, who ended his juvenile campaign with a 4 1/4-length win in the $150,000 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs in November, will break from post 3 under Ricardo Santana Jr.
"The post is perfect," Asmussen said. "Ricardo fits the horse well. He's ridden him in all but his first out and they've had success together."
At this stop on the Triple Crown trail, it is essential to keep racking up enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. The Rebel offers 50-20-10-5 to the top four finishers and Tapiture currently has 22 points to put him in ninth place for one of 20 Derby berths.
"We all have to think about the points," Asmussen said. "When you've got a horse of this caliber you just want to keep them around. There are a lot of good spots for them."
D. Wayne Lukas has won more Triple Crown races (14) than anyone else, so the Hall of Fame trainer has a pretty good eye when it comes to sizing up the competition among top quality three-year-olds. Might there be a horse he considers a threat to Strong Mandate in the Rebel?
"Every one of them," he said Friday. "It's a real deep field. I think this is one of the better prep races and there are some real nice horses in here. Some of them are probably not on everybody's list like Street Strategy; that's a nice horse. I think it's a very, very competitive race."
While Street Strategy, 8-1 in the early line in the field of eight, makes just his third start after breaking his maiden at second asking on January 30 and is flying under the radar, Strong Mandate is the 2-1 second choice and has attracted a lot of attention since winning the Hopeful at Saratoga in August.
Strong Mandate disappointed as the even-money favorite last time out in the Southwest. Now the colt, who was seventh in the Champagne and third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last year, seeks his first win since the Hopeful while breaking from post 4 under Joel Rosario.
"We're just looking for a good trip," Lukas said. "We've had three pretty rough trips so we want a clean trip, just a chance to see what we've got. We're interested in a good experience after he's been knocked around a couple of times. Not having 12 in the field this time (as in the Southwest) will help a lot. This is the first time in his career that he drew well. Even as a two-year-old he had all the outside posts."
Under the Kentucky Derby qualifying points system implemented last year, Strong Mandate has to keep climbing the ladder if he's going to be among the 20 starters in the gate. The son of Tiznow is on the outside looking in from 29th place with six points.
"All of them (the prep races offering points) are important now," Lukas said. "I didn't like the system at first but I think it's probably okay. I thought it compromised the body of work of a horse completely. Under the old system, I wouldn't have to worry about anything because we'd already have enough money."
Southern California-based trainer John Sadler is not quite the frequent visitor to Oaklawn as fellow California trainer Bob Baffert, but when he does send a horse, they should be respected. He won the 2010 Arkansas Derby with 17-1 longshot Line of David. He returns to Hot Springs Saturday to saddle Kobe's Back, recent winner of the San Vicente at Santa Anita, in the Rebel.
"The colt is coming in off a big win where he ran very, very impressively," Sadler said. "There's been an awful lot of talk about him out here in California, but we decided to send him there and I like his chances."
Kobe's Back, who was named for NBA All-Star Kobe Bryant because owner Lee Searing is a big Los Angeles Lakers fan, won that seven-furlong test on February 16 in powerful fashion by 5 1/4 lengths. In his previous effort, he faltered badly to be 10th while winding up his two-year-old season in the Cash Call Futurity at 1 1/16 mile over the Cushion Track at Hollywood Park.
"In that race he got away from the gate slowly and then he stumbled badly," Sadler explained. "Then he clipped heels so badly at the half-mile pole, he was almost pulled up. You can take that race and just put a line through it as far as I'm concerned."
Kobe's Back, who also won the Willard Proctor Memorial last summer, has trained brilliantly up to the Rebel, and on March 7 turned in a bullet six furlong-work of 1:11, handily, at Santa Anita.
"That was a great work. It was scary-good," Sadler said. "Obviously he can handle the dirt. We think he can handle the (1 1/16 miles) too."
Kobe's Back is the third choice in the early line at 7-2 and he breaks from the far outside under new rider Jose Lezcano in the field of eight three-year-olds.
"There are some very good horses in there, but I also like our chances," Sadler said. "Steve's (Asmussen) horse ran impressively in his last over that track and deservedly should be the favorite. But, I'll say it again. 'We like our chances.' We've got to get some (Kentucky) Derby (qualifying) points. That's the idea and what we're coming for."