Following the trail blazed by Smarty Jones, three contenders for the Kentucky Derby clash today in the $250,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
The Rebel is one of the most highly anticipated races in years at the Hot Springs, Ark., track. That's because Afleet Alex, Greater Good and Rockport Harbor, after training all winter at Oaklawn, finally meet in a significant Kentucky Derby prep race on a critical weekend for Derby aspirants around the country.
The top five finishers in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile as well as 12 of the 25 leading contenders in the Daily Racing Form's "Derby Watch" race today in Arkansas, California, Florida and New York. "Derby Watch" ranks Afleet Alex No. 1, Rockport Harbor tied for No. 3 and Greater Good tied for No. 17.
The Rebel was a footnote on the Triple Crown trail until Smarty Jones won it last year on his way to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The Rebel was the first of three races Smarty Jones won to snare the $5 million bonus offered by Oaklawn Park in celebration of its 100th season. The Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby were the others.
Oaklawn offered no bonus this year, but three of the most accomplished 2-year-olds of 2004 settled at this out-of-the-way track to prepare for the Triple Crown season. One, Rockport Harbor, is trained by John Servis, who conditioned Smarty Jones.
Servis said he brought Smarty Jones to Oaklawn because it was the easiest route to the Kentucky Derby. He said he returned with Rockport Harbor because of the spacing and distance of the races, the mild weather and the friendliness of the people.
"This may be just about the best place to train a horse," said Servis, based the rest of the year at Philadelphia Park. "It's kind of like Saratoga. Horses just seem to blossom here. It's a tough place not to like."
Rockport Harbor is one of three top Derby contenders still undefeated. High Limit and Bellamy Road are the others.
A striking son of Unbridled's Song, Rockport Harbor won four races last year, including the Nashua and Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct. However, in the Remsen, in which he out-battled Galloping Grocer in a thrilling head-to-head duel, Rockport Harbor suffered a deep gash in his right hind foot. Another horse stepped on him early in the race.
The injury has been slow to heal and forced Rockport Harbor to miss Oaklawn's Southwest Stakes last month. Last weekend, after Rocky, as Servis calls him, favored the foot after a morning workout, Servis said he might even miss the Rebel. In recent days, however, Servis said the foot has improved sufficiently for Rockport Harbor to race, but the colt won't be close to 100 percent for his 3-year-old debut.
"With Smarty, everything went perfectly from his first race," Servis said. "This horse has had a couple of setbacks. Hopefully he'll come around in time."
Despite Rockport Harbor's flawless record, the Rebel favorite will likely be Afleet Alex. He's raced once already this year, winning the Mountain Valley Stakes two weeks ago at Oaklawn. Last year, he won four of six races, including two major stakes at Saratoga, the Sanford and the Hopeful. He finished second in the Champagne Stakes and Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Still, he has yet to win a race longer than seven furlongs. The two-turn Rebel is 1 1/16 miles. His trainer, Tim Ritchey, based most of the year at Delaware Park, said he has no doubt that Afleet Alex can handle not only the Rebel's distance but also the Kentucky Derby's 1 1/4 miles.
Afleet Alex finished a distant second to Declan's Moon in voting last year for the Eclipse Award as outstanding 2-year-old. Ritchey said he believes Afleet Alex, a son of Northern Afleet, was and is the better horse. Declan's Moon, the undefeated Maryland-bred, will miss the Triple Crown races after injuring his left front knee. He is to undergo surgery this weekend for removal of a bone chip.
Greater Good is the third-stringer at Oaklawn, but his trainer, veteran Bob Holthus, said that's fine with him; he prefers the quiet approach. A son of Intidab with an electrifying late flourish, Greater Good has quietly assembled a first-rate record: four wins in six races, three of them coming in stakes of at least one mile.
Today's critical tests
The first five finishers in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and 12 of the leading Kentucky Derby contenders will race.
Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park:
Afleet Alex, runner-up in the BC Juvenile; Rockport Harbor and Greater Good.
San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park:
Wilko, winner of the BC Juvenile; Consolidator, fourth in the BC Juvenile; Roman Ruler, fifth in the BC Juvenile; Giacomo; Don't Get Mad and Golden Shine.
Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs:
Sun King, third in the BC Juvenile.
Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct:
Galloping Grocer and Naughty New Yorker.