Kentucky Derby and Horse Racing at The Downey Profile®
Local Connections Seek Higher Ground in Rebel
Derby Road Ready to Narrow
Solomini may be the star of the show before the gates open in Saturday's Rebel Stakes, but horses based at Oaklawn Park could make a lot of noise before all is said and done.
Before Sporting Chance made his 3-year-old debut in the Southwest Stakes on Feb. 19, his trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, asked an observer to handicap the race, and after hearing the response, Lukas said, “Box six." My Boy Jack, much more accomplished on turf up to that point, rode a sloppy track on the rail to a 4 1/2-length upset at odds of nearly 9-1.
Before training hours today, Lukas was asked to handicap the Rebel,
“I think you can narrow it down a little bit here without my handicapping, which is terrible,” Lukas said. “It’s a nice prep, it really is. Very competitive.”
The Southwest was Sporting Chance's two-turn debut and first start since winning the Hopeful Stakes on Sept. 4 at Saratoga. Fully recovered from surgery to remove a knee chip, he finished third, beaten seven lengths.
Lukas says he believes Sporting Chance will be much fitter for the Rebel after running in the Southwest and recording three subsequent works, including a stamina-building mile move in 1:41.40 on March 5.
“I feel real good where we’re headed,” Lukas said. “So far, we haven’t had to adjust any place. We’ve actually done everything I would like to do. Whether I’ve got him where I want … you’ve got always keep in mind it’s March. It’s very easy to peak early with a 3-year-old.”
Sporting Chance is scheduled to break from post 7 under John Velazquez, who will be riding the colt for the first time. Sporting Chance races for Lukas’ longtime clients, Robert Baker and William Mack.
John Oxley and Breeze Easy’s undefeated Curlin’s Honor will make his first start in stakes company and first beyond six furlongs in the Rebel.
The son of 2007 Rebel and Arkansas Derby winner and Hall of Famer Curlin was scheduled to ship today from Fair Grounds where he won an allowance race on Feb. 25. In his only other start, Curlin’s Honor won a Keeneland maiden race on Oct. 7.
“There are not a whole lot of options for horses that have won two races, so you have to go in a stakes,” trainer Mark Casse said Wednesday from the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. auction in Florida. “Timing wise and distance wise, the Rebel is the best choice. And you never give up hope that this could be ‘the one.’ If he is to have any shot at the Kentucky Derby, he needs to run in this spot.”
Curlin’s Honor will be ridden for the first time by Florent Geroux, the nation’s leading jockey in purse earnings this year.
“We’ve had a lot of luck with Florent and we are extremely happy to have him,” Casse said.
The trainer first became interested in Curlin’s Honor at the 2017 Fasig-Tipton July yearling sale in Lexington, Ky. He was the underbidder when the colt sold for $475,000.
“Mr. Oxley was out of the country that day so I was flying solo,” Casse said. “Had I been able to get in touch with him, we might have bid a little more.”
Casse watched Curlin’s Honor train throughout that winter in Florida and liked what he saw. When the chestnut resurfaced at the Fasig-Tipton sale of two-year-olds in Timonium, Maryland in May, Oxley and owner Breeze Easy were the winning bidders at $1.5-million, a record for that auction.
Casse said the team opted to point to an autumn debut to allow Curlin’s Honor to overcome sore shins and to mature further. He noted that offspring of Curlin often require extra time to develop. Curlin himself did not make his first start until he was three and won the Rebel in just his second career race.
A Higher Power?
The promising Higher Power is scheduled to resurface in the Rebel for owner/breeder Josephine Abercrombie's Pin Oak Stable and trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel.
It will mark the stakes debut for the lightly raced Higher Power, a half-brother to millionaire and 2012 Oaklawn Handicap winner Alternation. The colt, a winner of races from three starts, is unbeaten in two starts around two turns after winning a one-mile first-level allowance/optional claimer Jan. 13 in his 3-year-old debut.
Higher Power was under consideration for the Southwest Stakes on Feb. 19 before missing several days of training with a minor illness, Von Hemel said.
Von Hemel said the scenario leading up to the Rebel is similar to last fall, when Higher Power broke his maiden going a mile on Nov. 8 at Remington Park, but it was too quick to run back in a first-level allowance race.
Von Hemel then opted to skip the Springboard Mile on Dec. 17 and pointed for the Oaklawn meeting.
“We didn’t want to come out of a maiden race into there,” Von Hemel said today. “We had to basically train from that race up to his race here, with a lot of missed days in January (due to weather). We missed about a week of training when he was sick, but that was a little further back in time. Really the last five weeks leading into this race, we’ve had to dodge a few rainstorms, but we’ve gotten in the work we wanted to get into him. I feel like we’re ready to go.”
Higher Power, a son of Medaglia d’Oro, will be reunited with jockey Richard Eramia for the Rebel and is scheduled to break from post 5.
Alternation, who was campaigned by Pin Oak and Von Hemel, won two allowance races at the 2011 Oaklawn meet before he was scheduled to make his fifth career start in the Rebel. Alternation, however, became fractious in the gate and was scratched. The son of Distorted Humor ran fifth in the Arkansas Derby in his next start.
Cox Confident in High North
After a pair gutsy performances in his last two starts, Shortleaf Stable’s High North will be trying for his initial stakes victory in the Rebel.
The colt is exiting a fifth-place effort in the Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 17 at Fair Grounds. In his previous start, he was fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on Nov. 25.
“In the Kentucky Jockey Club, he had a lot of trouble, and he showed a lot of fight to be fourth,” said Brad Cox, Oaklawn’s second leading trainer. “It was a good effort and something we could build on. We gave him a little freshening and then tried him in the Risen Star. He had a really good trip but came up maybe just a little bit short and was not quite where he needed to be regarding fitness.”
High North has been with Cox’s Fair Grounds division and arrived at Oaklawn Park on Tuesday. He breezed a half mile in :48.60 last Sunday and the same distance in :48.40 a week earlier.
“He had two great works at Fair Grounds and I am expecting him to move forward off the Risen Star,” the trainer said.
The colt will be ridden for the first time by Gary Stevens.
“Gary is a good rider and will put him in a good spot, but it is up to the horse,” Cox said.
Shortleaf Stable is owned by Hot Springs resident John Ed Anthony who has won the Rebel numerous times when campaigning under his Loblolly Stable banner. His notable Rebel winners include subsequent Arkansas Derby winners Temperence Hill, Pine Bluff and Demons Begone. Anthony purchased High North for $230,000 at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale in Lexington.
Edited Oaklawn Park release