by John Piesen
It was six years ago that a 3-year-old colt named Afleet Alex looked to be sure a thing in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
But, as we know, there are no sure things in this game, Afleet Alex dragged home dead-last in the Rebel, producing mass misery among the masses, notably at the Mad Bomber's digs.
Alex's handlers blamed a virus, and Alex went on to finish an unlucky third to Giacomo in the Derby, then win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes to wrap up the 3-year-old championship.
Fast forward to the Rebel of 2011, and Afleet Alex is still very much in the headlines. You see Alex is the sire in good standing of two of the main Rebel contenders -- Elite Alex and Sway Away.
The Rebel, a 300K Grade 2 at 1 1/16 miles, is the only major prep race this weekend on the Derby Trail -- and will boast the deepest field of any Derby prep to date.
The author will have selections up and running on the Season of Piesen and the John Piesen Hot Line (888 612 2283) as well as picks at Gulfstream and Aqueduct, where they are running the Cicada Stakes. But it's the Rebel we want to focus on...and the main reason is Sway Away.
I had Sway Away third last week in my Derby Top Ten (behind Uncle Mo and Dialed In), but it was not without trepidation since 1) he had no published workouts since running second in the San Vicente on March 4 at Santa Anita, and he was way down the list of Derby earners with $75,100.
Sway Away alleviated fear one when he worked seven-eighths in a bullet 1:23 last Friday at Santa Anita. Now he's got to get going in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby to alleviate fear two.
One good thing is that Garrett Gomez is keeping the mount on Sway Away...although he just signed on aboard To Honor and Serve in the Florida Derby as a backup.
Gogo is going to have to use all his skill (see Blame in the the 2010 BC Classic) to get Sway Away through and around a 13-horse field in the Rebel. If he does so, I will feel remarkably confident about the 18-1 that I took on him in the Derby Pool #2.
To say the least, I was extremely impressed by Sway Away in the San Vicente. Making his first start in eight lengths, he closed like a runaway freight as the 5-2 second choice to fall three-quarters short of The Factor, who is regarded as the fastest 3-year-old in the land.
If the numbers float your boat, The Factor and Sway Away received 103 and 101 Beyer numbers in the San Vicente, compared to an 89 for Uncle Mo in the one-mile Timely Writer Stakes last Saturday at Gulfstream Park.
Sway Away was flowin into Hot Springs Airport on Wednesday from southern California. On the same flight were The Factor, the likely favorite and pace-setter in the Rebel; champion filly Blind Luck, who will be favored in the Azeri Stakes on Saturday, and Smiling Tiger, who'll be the chalk in the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap on April 16.
The Factor is trained by Bob Baffert, who won the Rebel last year with champion Lookin at Lucky, and is a .400 hitter through the years at Oaklawn with his left coast shippers. Martin Garcia, who rode LAL, has the repeat call on The Factor.
The key to the Rebel is: does The Factor, unbeaten in three starts, get loose on the lead, or does he get pushed by J P's Gusto, who last year won three graded on the front.
Last time, in the Southwest, JP was rated off the pace by new jockey Dominguez, got stopped cold in the lane, and settled for a much-the-best second, beating several members of the Rebel field.
Watching Dominguez on a regular basis in New York, my best guess is that RD will let The Factor go, and good luck catching him.
J P's Gusto, incidentally, is the best horse ever trained by Joe Petalino, who was Jack Van Berg's top assistant a quarter-century back in the Alysheba days. Toss in the fact that Kelly O'Hara, who was Alysheba's exercise rider, is now Mrs. Petalino.
As for Dominguez, his Saturday winning streak bombed last Saturday when he got beat on four straight favorites in stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, including Brethren in the Tampa Bay Derby. Look for RD to ride Brethren back in the Arkansas Derby. That is if he doesn't ride J P's Gusto.
This brings us to Elite Alex, a 17-hands giant of a horse, who closed six-wide for third in the Southwest. This son of Afleet Alex has the same owner and trainer of his sire (Chuck Zacney and Tim Ritchey), and the same off-the-pace running style.
Only the rider is different. Instead of Jeremy Rose, it is Calvin Borel, who merely was aboard three of the last four Kentucky Derby winners.
"This horse is fit," says Ritchey, who still has a way with words. "Now it's up to him to go out and prove that the hype is justified."
But, like Sway Away, Elite Alex is short on Derby dough. He's banked merely 55K to date.
The Rebel is so tough that Archarcharch, the horse who won the Southwest, will be double-digits under Smilin' Jon Court, the son-in-law of trainer Jinks Fires.
Then there's Alternation, Dreamofthewin (who's battling a quarter-crack), Glint, J W Blue, Picko's Pride, Bluegrass Jam, and Caleb's Posse, who had the worst trip of all in the Southwest.
I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Derby winner comes out of the Rebel, Uncle Mo or no Uncle Mo.
I'm not so sure that Joyful Victory, who won the Honeybee by eight lengths last Saturday (it could have been 80 if Mike Smith asked her) isn't better than the boys.
But there's no chance that owner Porter and trainer Jones would think of running her in the Derby, in the wake of the Eight Belles tragedy in 2008, and will settle for the Kentucky Oaks.
Jockey Saez, who had been working Joyful Victory up to the Honeybee, was devastated when he was replaced by Smith for the Honeybee...and, at the quarter-pole, we knew why.
If possible, JV was even more impressive than Eight Belles was in winning the same race three years back.
Porter also replaced Saez with Smith on Winslow Homer for the Razorback. But in this case Winslow Homer didn't run a lick as the favorite (down from 6-1 morning-line).
The winner was It Happened Again, who, for two years, raced for Larry Jones before getting claimed by old friend Maggi Moss, the same Maggi Moss who is the the defense attorney for John Velasquez in the ongoing Life At Ten scandal.
The Razorback was the biggest career win for Ms. Moss, who should be the cover girl for racing.
It Happened Again was named such by breeder Gov. Brereton Jones because when the colt was foaled -- the year after his Proud Spell won the Kentucky Oaks and Alabama, and 3-year-old filly championship -- he turned to Larry Jones, and said "it happened again."
Jones won't have a runner in the Rebel, but he sure will have one in the Azeri in Havre de Grace, who will be the second choice to arch-rival Blind Luck. Wouldn't be surprised if history repeats, and they come down the OP stretch face-to-face -- kind of like like Round Pond and Happy Ticket years back.
Here's the updated Derby Top Ten.
1. Uncle Mo The greatest since Slew?
2. Sway Away The Rebel will tell us more.
3. Dialed In Florida Derby the acid test.
4. Flashpoint Next Big Brown for Dutrow?
5. Soldat Part of strong Fla. Derby
6. Stay Thirsty Toddster's second in command.
7. The Factor Take catching in the Rebel.
8. Mucho Macho Man The owners are a class act.
9. Gourmet Dinner Hasn't run a bad one yet.
10. Brethren Heading for Hot Springs.
Thanks for tuning in. Good luck this weekend, check out the JP Hot Line, and see you back here next Thursday for a look at the Florida Derby.
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