The Kentucky Derby is now just 10 weeks away, and we’re now in the phase where horses can pretty much punch their ticket to Louisville by winning one of the upcoming qualifiers.
Last week, Angel of Empire pulled off an upset, winning the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Ground Race Course as a 13-1 shot. That win gave the Brad Cox-trained colt 50 qualifying points and vaulted the 3-year-old to the top of the qualifying standings. It was a big day for the Louisville native. He scored his 2,000th victory as a trainer in a race there earlier in the day.
This week, it’s Oaklawn Park’s turn to host a key Derby prep, and a field of 11 vie for the 50 points available to the winner of the Rebel Stakes. After having three from his stable race in New Orleans last week, Cox has two more entered in this week’s 1-1/16-mile race, and both just happen to be the top two in the morning line.
Post time for the race is set for 5:23 pm CT. The race will be shown live on FS2’s America’s Day at the Races.
Favorite Draws the Rail
Verifying looks to make it two in a row at the Hot Springs, AR, track. Last month, he pulled away to an impressive 5-1/4-length victory in a one-mile allowance claiming race. It was his second victory in four starts, but he’s yet to cross first in a stakes race. Sired by Triple Crown winner Justify, he finished second in the Champagne Stakes in New York and sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland to end his 2-year-old campaign.
Cox wasn’t thrilled exactly thrilled with Verifying drawing the inside post. However, oddsmakers still made the horse the 2-1 morning-line favorite.
Hopefully, he can move forward as well off that race,” the trainer referring to Verifying’s last start. “He certainly seems to have physically. He really seems to have developed over the last month or so. He’s doing good. Little bit of a tough post, but good horses overcome posts, and I’m hopeful and think that he’s a good horse. So, we’ll see how it goes.”
Florent Geroux will ride Verifying for the first time on Saturday.
Cox’s other entry in the Rebel is Giant Mischief. The colt sired by Into Mischief makes his 3-year-old debut as well as his first appearance in a graded stakes race. He won his first two races last year before finishing second in his last race, the December 17 Springboard Mile. A bad start caused Giant Mischief to trail the field during the first half mile, and even though he ran wide for most of the race, the colt still managed to place second.
“I thought he ran a winning race last time,” Cox said. “I’m hopeful and confident that he’ll be able to get out of the gate and get himself a good position, and he can handle the mile and a sixteenth.”
Irad Ortiz, Jr. gets the mount on Giant Mischief. It’s his first time on the horse after Geroux was his jockey in the previous two races.
Giant Mischief drew the fifth post and has morning line odds of 5-2.
Reincarnate Now Eligible for Kentucky Derby
The third choice on the morning line is Reincarnate. The colt will race for trainer Tim Yakteen for the first time since his owners transferred him out of Bob Baffert’s stable. That was necessary due to Baffert’s current suspension by Churchill Downs and the track’s requirement that horses from his barn must be moved by this Tuesday to be eligible for the Derby.
After starting his career with three straight second-place finishes, Reincarnate has won his past two starts. The last came on January 8 in the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita Park. After leading for nearly all the race, Reincarnate edged out Newgate and National Treasure, two other Baffert horses, at the finish line.
While the Sham is considered a Derby prep race, none of the Baffert horses earned points for their finish due to the trainer’s suspension. Baffert is challenging Churchill’s actions in federal court, but a judge earlier this month denied his request for an injunction that would have allowed him to enter horses in the Kentucky Derby.
Yakteen is a former Baffert assistant and took over training some of Baffert’s top horses last year so they could compete in the Derby.
At 7-2, Reincarnate will break from the sixth gate. John Velazquez gets the mount, his third time racing the colt.
Gun Pilot Stepping Up
Cox isn’t the only trainer with multiple entries in the field. Steve Asmussen has three, and his strongest contender appears to be Gun Pilot. Sired by Gun Runner, a former Horse of the Year, the colt is making his graded stakes debut. He’s also returning after winning a one-mile allowance claiming race at Oaklawn just three weeks ago.
Saturday will be Gun Pilot’s third race at Oaklawn in the past six weeks. That schedule was due to the horse having to stay in 30-day quarantine at Churchill Downs shortly after he won in his first start on November 26. Horses at the Louisville track were forced to stay there after an outbreak of equine herpesvirus was discovered there.
I think we were unfortunate for him to get stuck in quarantine at Churchill and just stay there 30 days past time to get out of there and I thought he really needed his first run here and move forward after it,” Asmussen said. “Has trained well since the allowance win, and we’re going to jump off in the deep water of the Rebel.”
Asmussen made news earlier this month when he won his 10,000th career race as a thoroughbred trainer. One honor that still eludes him is a Kentucky Derby victory. He just missed out last year when longshot Rich Strike edged Asmussen’s Epicenter at the wire.
Ricardo Santana, Jr. will ride Gun Pilot, who drew the fourth gate and has morning line odds of 8-1.
The complete field for Saturday’s race is listed below. The top five finishers will earn points toward the Derby on a 50-20-15-10-5 scale.
Three Big Races on the Derby Trail Next Week
After Angel of Empire, Forte is next among horses qualifying for the Kentucky Derby with 40 points. Instant Coffee is third with 32. Up to 20 horses will qualify for the May 6 Run for the Roses.
Next weekend features three more races offering 50 points to the winner. The Fountain of Youth Stakes will take place at Gulfstream Park near Miami. Aqueduct will host the Gotham Stakes, and Santa Anita will feature the San Felipe Stakes.
The Road to the Kentucky Derby will return to Oaklawn on April 1 for the Arkansas Derby. That is one of eight races offering 100 points to the winner.
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