The Rebel Stakes has been one of the most telling Kentucky Derby preps in recent years and the 2016 edition was no different. The Bob Baffert-trained Cupid invaded and conquered, going from a maiden winner to a Grade II winner in 1:43.84 — in impressive wire-to-wire fashion.
Cupid’s win was reminiscent of Danzing Candy’s victory in last weekend’s San Felipe Stakes. He sped to the front, cut out solid early fractions, was given a breather and then spurted clear in the lane. However, I was much more impressed by Cupid’s win and believe him to be superior to Danzing Candy at this point.
Both ran very similar fractions in their respective preps, but don’t forget that Cupid ran these fractions at Oaklawn Park, not Santa Anita. Oaklawn is not nearly as fast of a track as Santa Anita and has proven to be quite dull this year. Oaklawn also has tighter turns, making it especially difficult to maintain the type of early pace that Cupid set. Yet, despite being used early and negotiating the tighter turns, Cupid still was able to hold off the stout late challenge of the Southwest runner-up, Whitmore.
The final time was also an impressive 1:43.84, which was faster than final time of the Azeri Stakes (1:44.44) and the Razorback Stakes (1:44.12). Both of those races are for older horses. This is especially significant because Cupid is only three years old. At this point in his career, he is the equivalent of an 18-year-old human, while Call Pat (Azeri winner) and Upstart (Razorback winner) are the equivalent to an athlete in their mid- to late-twenties. They have a significant developmental edge, yet Cupid still ran the faster than they did.
Figure makers also thought the win was an impressive one. The Beyer Speed Figure came back at 95, which is the fifth-highest earned by any three-year-old running beyond a mile. Brisnet designated the colt a lofty 99 and Equibase gave the race a 106.
Despite the impressiveness of the race, I still am left with questions, however.
Cupid’s pedigree does anything but scream “Kentucky Derby!” It is true that Tapit can sire distance horses, but, generally, he needs a mare that has a stamina-heavy pedigree. Pretty ‘N Smart does not have that type of pedigree. Her pedigree mingles a lot of speed with some stamina influences and, until Cupid came along, none of her offspring won beyond sprint distances.
Cupid does have the ability to rate, which should allow him to stretch his speed to nine furlongs, but the Derby distance of 1 ¼ miles (10 furlongs) remains a huge question mark.
A horse that had a bit of a disappointing result in the Rebel Stakes was Suddenbreakingnews, the Southwest Stakes winner. The pace set up was there for him to capitalize, but he was given a very questionable ride.
Starting from the far outside post, one has to wonder how he ended up on the inside of both Creator and Cherry Wine. With a big, gangly colt like Suddenbreakingnews you need to keep him in the clear, not on the inside, where he can run into traffic (like a tiring Ralis), causing him to stop cold and lose momentum.
By the time jockey Luis Quinonez finally took Suddenbreakingnews to the outside, there was too much left for him to do. Creator and Cherry Wine had the jump and were in full stride, while Whitmore and Cupid had spurted away. Despite this, Suddenbreakingnews ran on gamely, improving his position from seventh to fifth.
Hopefully, Quinonez learned his lesson. Keeping Suddenbreakingnews on the outside, in the clear, had led to a record of three wins and three seconds in six starts. His inside run on Saturday resulted in a fifth-place finish — and he was beaten nearly five lengths by the winner. In his next start, I hope to see Suddenbreakingnews kept to the outside, in the clear. That is how he runs best, and like the old adage says: “Don’t fix what isn’t broken.”
My final thought comes on the very unlucky Whitmore. This horse just has a knack for running into buzzsaw after buzzsaw. He has run two winning efforts, only to come home with a silver medal in both. He is as game as they come and continues to improve… without winning. Seeing that he will likely meet both Suddenbreakingnews and Cupid again, in the Arkansas Derby, it may be wise to point him to a softer race for his final prep. That tactic nearly worked for Firing Line last year and, after this latest beat, I think it could work for Whitmore.
Overall, the Rebel was a very revealing race. In my eyes, this was the best Kentucky Derby prep of 2016, thus far. There was a lot of talent and depth in the race — so much so, that that it wouldn’t surprise me to see some of the top finishers venture away from the competition, to other tracks, for their final preps.
Moving forward, I think the Rebel will be a key race in determining the Kentucky Derby winner, once again.