Two of the top prospects for the Kentucky Derby, Improbable and Game Winner, suffered their first-ever defeats Saturday in Arkansas, but neither will lose much support after narrow losses.
Trainer Bob Baffert sent his top two Kentucky Derby contenders to contest Saturday's Rebel Stakes, split into two $750,000 divisions to accommodate California horses who were to have contested last weekend's canceled San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.
Both were making their 3-year-old debut and neither could quite overcome the layoff and travel. But both gave it a jolly good go.
Long Range Toddy took the measure of odds-on favorite Improbable in the first division of Saturday's Rebel at Oaklawn Park, ranging up on the outside in the final sixteenth to win by a neck. Galilean ran gamely in his first start in open company to finish third, albeit 2 1/4 lengths farther in arrears. Long Range Toddy, a Take Charge Indy colt, ran 1 1/16 miles over a fast track in 1:42.49 with Jon Court up for trainer Steve Asmussen.
Long Range Toddy took full advantage of a conditioning edge and familiarity with his surroundings. He finished second in the Smarty Jones Stakes over the rack in January, then third in the Grade III Southwest in February. Improbable, by contrast, had not raced since winning the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity Dec. 8 and was forced to ship from California to Arkansas during the week when Santa Anita canceled his scheduled start there.
Asmussen was full of praise for Court's ride.
"Jon worked him the other day and his comment was that he was push button," Asmussen said. "The horse was away well and got a good spot. They went about their business and he relaxed down the backstretch. You could tell coming into the stretch he was loaded. He waited until they all lined out, didn't waste any ground and wheeled him out late like he should and got rewarded for it."
In the second $750,000 division, Omaha Beach surged to the lead on the stretch turn with the odds-on favorite, Game Winner, in hot pursuit and the other eight steadily retreating. Game Winner made steady progress through the final furlong and was gaining slowly at the end but fell the shortest of noses short of remaining undefeated. It was a long way back to long shot Market King in third. Omaha Beach, a War Front colt, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.42 with "Big Money" Mike Smith riding.
Omaha Beach, like Game Winner, was shipped in from Santa Anita. Unlike his rival, however, Omaha Beach had been busy throughout the winter, racing four times in Southern California before finally winning for the first time in his last start at Santa Anita. He also had been pointed to the Rebel all along, according to trainer Richard Mandella. Game Winner, by contrast, had been idle since winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, nailing down an Eclipse Award as the 2-year-old champion.
"Coming out of a maiden race, it's a big step up," Mandella said of Omaha Beach. "Game Winner ran really good. He hadn't run in a long time. He'll probably be tough next time. But mine just broke his maiden. He might be tougher, too."
Asked about returning for the Arkansas Derby, Mandella said, "We'll just see how things go and look at it next week."
Baffert was philosophical about the twin defeats.
"I would have liked to have won but I'm very happy with both horses, Baffert told Oaklawn publicity. "They both ran well off the layoff. Thank goodness for the Cella family (Oaklawn owners). We got to run both horses today. It was great racing."
Baffert said Improbable probably will return for the Grade I Arkansas Derby April 13 while Game Winner will have his final prep for Louisville in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby April 6.
Baffert actually had three disappointments Saturday at Oaklawn as San Vicente runner-up Dressman finished second as the odds-on favorite in a $100,000 allowance/optional claiming race. The winner, Last Judgment, is a Congrats colt trained by Todd Pletcher, who is uncharacteristically short on Derby prospects this year.
One to watch
Alwaysmining was always winning Saturday's $100,000 Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park and may have earned enough cred to get a shot at one of the final Kentucky Derby preps. If not, watch for the Kelly Rubley trainee in the Preakness.
With Daniel Centeno along for the stroll, Alwaysmining jumped to an early lead, got a breather midway through the 1 1/16 miles and then reignited, drawing off to win by 6 3/4 lengths, ridden out in 1:42.65. Joevia and Tybalt filled out the trifecta.
Alwaysmining, a Maryland-bred Stay Thirsty gelding, has won five straight races, dating back to last October. He was nominated to the Rebel and to next Sunday's Sunland Derby in New Mexico but after staying home for this, now could do the same for the Federico Tessio on April 20, traditionally a Preakness tune up. "We'll see," Rubley said. "Every time we win, we get more excited, of course." The winner of the Sunland Derby gets 50 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings, normally enough to get into the race. The Tessio is not part of that program.
Long Range Toddy and Omaha Beach each earned 37.5 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings -- the tally Churchill Downs uses to determine the makeup of the field should more than the maximum 20 be entered for the Run for the Roses. Long Range Toddy moved into the No. 3 slot behind only War of Will and Code of Honor. Game Winner's 15 points leave him No. 6, just ahead of Omaha Beach. Improbable now has 25 points, good for No. 9 on the list, and Gunmetal Gray, who earned 3.5 points for finishing fourth Saturday in the Omaha Beach division, is No. 10.
Risen Star Stakes winner War of Will heads a field of 11 entered for Saturday's $1 million Grade II TwinSpires Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. He will be in familiar company with the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers from the Risen Star all back for another try. Those are Country House, Roiland and Hog Creek Hustle. The winner here gets 100 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby -- essentially a bypass to the starting gate.
Sunday, it's the $800,000 Grade III Sunland Derby at Sunland Park in New Mexico. Fifty points to the winner of this one. A field of 10 includes another of Baffert's still-hopefuls, Mucho Gusto. The Mucho Macho Man colt was second to Improbable in the Grade I Cash Call Futurity at Los Alamos Dec. 8 and returned to win the Grade III Robert B. Lewis Feb. 2. He certainly is not out of the Kentucky Derby picture but likely needs the 50 points to get into the starting gate.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Las Setas went to an early lead in Saturday's $100,000 Beyond the Wire Stakes at Laurel Park, extended the advantage down the stretch and won by 5 lengths as the favorite. Crafty's Dream was second, 1/2 length better than Our Super Freak. Las Setas, a daughter of the German-bred sire Seville, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.82 with Jevian Toledo up. It was her third straight win, all at Laurel.
"I don't see any reason not to run right back in the race here," said Las Setas's trainer, Katy Voss, referring to the the $125,000 Weber City on April 20, a race in which a victory means an automatic berth in the Grade II Black-Eyed Susan May 17 at Pimlico Race Course.