A slightly lighter graded stakes schedule greets racing fans this Saturday, but the quality is certainly not lacking in the lone Kentucky Derby prep race on the docket Saturday. The G2 Rebel Stakes offers 50 points to the winner, and a total of 11 sophomores plan to line up in the starting gate at Oaklawn Park.
First up, however, is the G2 Azeri at Oaklawn. The 1 1/16-mile contest has drawn a field of seven fillies and mares, led by trainer Steve Asmussen's top local filly Terra Promessa. She is undefeated at the Arkansas track, but will have to face down a strong rival in the Todd Pletcher-trained Eskenformoney under top jockey Javier Castellano.
In Oaklawn's listed Essex Handicap, boasting a purse of $250,000, a field of eight strong older males will go to the post. The Bob Baffert-trained Mor Spirit leads the charge, but Pletcher's Madefromlucky will be happy for the class relief and should step forward here. Shotgun Kowboy regularly performs well in Arkansas, and Dalmore, when he is on top of his game, could always be dangerous for Keith Desormeaux. Also, Brad Cox's Dazzling Gem is a solid longshot choice.
Down at Gulfstream in the G2 Inside Information, eight fillies and mares will sprint seven furlongs in this $200,000 race. Top local sprinter Curlin's Approval is the heavy morning-line choice, with Dearest the most likely to provide a significant challenge.
Back at Oaklawn, the $900,000 Rebel Stakes has a morning-line 2-1 favorite in the Baffert-trained American Anthem – after all, Baffert has won the race five times in the last six years. Pletcher has shipped in a strong prospect in Malagacy, winner of both his races at Gulfstream by a combined 22 lengths, but the colt is stretching out and entering stakes company for the first time. Californian Royal Mo could pose a threat for John Shirreffs, as could locally-based Petrov, runner up in both previous Arkansas preps. Steve Asmussen's pair of Untrapped and Lookin at Lee should not be discounted, and Wayne Catalano's trainee Uncontested, diagnosed with a breathing problem when disappointing last out, could be back in his best form Saturday.
Out at Santa Anita, the G1 Santa Margarita is scheduled for nine furlongs on the main track. Champion Finest City, who won the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at seven furlongs in November, is the slight morning-line favorite for young trainer Ian Kruljac. Bob Baffert's entrant Vale Dori, however, has been very strong in every race she's entered in recent months, and will be very tough to beat.
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