Rebel Stakes Preview

If you want to watch some other sporting event besides college basketball without taking the time to watch and NBA or NHL game, then on Saturday night check out horse racing’s Rebel Stakes. The $500,000 race is the biggest prize we’ve seen thus far on The Road To The Triple Crown, and with only one clear favorite in a 12-horse field there’s a chance to look at longshot when the race at Arkansas’ Oaklawn Park goes off at 6:45 PM ET (TVG & HR-TV on your sports channel listing). TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the favorite, the three most likely challengers and a couple of long, longshots.

Secret Circle is priced at 9-5 as of late Friday afternoon and is a top-heavy favorite to win his second big race here in Arkansas. The horse, trained by California mastermind Bob Baffert and ridden by Rafael Bejarano, one of the top jockeys in the West, won the Southwest Stakes at this venue back in February. Secret Circle also won a Breeders’ Cup race for juveniles (the term used for two-year old horses a year away from competing for the Triple Crown—kind of like an All-Star game for AAA players in baseball), and in two stakes races at SoCal’s competitive Santa Anita meet took him a first and a second. There’s a good reason everyone is expecting Baffert to be in the winner’s circle.

The top three challengers are currently listed at either 5-1 or 6-1, and they are Sabercat, Adirondack King and Naijaar. We’ll start with Sabercat, who’s won his last three races at New Jersey’s Monmouth Park and Louisiana’s Delta Downs, including two stakes races. However those tracks, especially Delta Downs, don’t have nearly the caliber of horses as will be in the starting gate on Saturday. On the plus side, Sabercat is trained by Steve Asmussen, who’s won national championships for wins several times in his career and trained Rachel Alexandra, who in 2009 became the first filly in 76 years to win the Preakness Stakes.

Adirondack King ran third in the Southwest Stakes here, won a stakes race in Philadelphia—a relatively small track in spite of its big market—and took third in a Tampa Bay stakes race. But surely the most interesting of the challengers is Naijaar, ridden by Calvin Borel. Casual horse racing fans know Borel is the one who won three Kentucky Derbies in four years, including an epic run with 50-1 longshot Mine That Bird in 2009. What’s noteworthy here is that Borel was long familiar to racing fans here at Oaklawn, which is as close to his home track as a jockey can have. It’s at Oaklawn that Borel mastered the lag back, move to the rail and shoot up the inside that electrified national audiences at Churchill Downs. This would be a fun bet at 6-1, but be aware that as money comes in, the odds change. And unlike football or basketball, the bettor does *not* get the line they bet it, but the line that exists when the book closes. It’s a raw deal, and I’m willing to bet that the Oaklawn crowd and those at off-track betting facilities will put enough money on Naijaar and Borel to bet the line down. If it goes at 5-1 or higher, I’d bet it, otherwise I’d leave it alone and not bother to challenge Secret Circle.

The ultra-longshots aren’t real promising here, although with eight other horse in the field there’s at least raw volume. The ones that caught my eye are Optimizer, trained by legendary D. Wayne Lukas, and Atigun, trained by Ken McPeek, who’s put together a nice record mostly in New York. They have opposite resumes. Optimizer has run in two stakes races, but fared poorly. Atigun has run in off-Broadway races, and gotten a couple wins, although even more so-so performances make him a question mark. I wouldn’t actually step in on either horse.

But it promises to be an exciting couple minutes to watch and perhaps Secret Circle will work his way onto the list of early Derby favorites.