By MARK HOFFMAN
For The Recorder
The road to this year’s Kentucky Derby has been a rocky trail to say the least. After a few years of logical horses winning the prep races leading to the first Saturday in May, this year logic has gone out the door.
The most clear path lately has been on the West Coast with the California-based horses. Whether it’s been California Chrome, American Pharoah or Nyquist, the way to go as favorite at post time in the Kentucky Derby was to come from the left coast at one point in your racing career. This year, with many of the top contenders falling by the wayside with various injuries or poor efforts, all eyes were focused on last weekend’s San Felipe Stakes and Bob Baffert’s runner Mastery. While he did not disappoint with his effort, soon after his victory it was disappointment that set in.
Mastery looked to take a stranglehold on the 3-year-old division with a victory Saturday afternoon. Well, he won the race in quite impressive fashion. But shortly after the wire, his jockey Mike Smith noticed something amiss with this son of Candy Ride. It was apparent that Mastery suffered some sort of injury when his jockey, dismounted him as the crossed the finish line. Much to the chagrin of his supporters and trainer Bob Baffert, Mastery had a condylar fracture to his left front leg that would require surgery and indefinite time off, thus missing the Kentucky Derby and triple crown races.
With runners like Classic Empire and McCracken coming down with issues and both El Areeb and Irish War Cry putting out poor efforts in their prep races, Mastery looked to go to the top at the finish in the San Felipe Stakes. Instead, the finish was the finish for him as a 3-year-old along with any chance of winning the Kentucky Derby. The result has muddled this year’s Kentucky Derby picture even more. After recent years of good success with the favorites for the Run for the Roses, this year it’s a wide open field at this point in March.
It is hoped that both Classic Empire, along with McCracken and Irish War Cry all bounce back in their next prep races. It’s the only shot they have to redeem themselves and once again stake their claim as the best thoroughbreds in the Class of 2017 on the first Saturday in May.
We have only one prep race this weekend and it’s at Oaklawn Park in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel Stakes (OP 10th). Baffert attempts to reload this weekend with another charge in American Anthem (#7) who in only two career starts has a first and second as the favorite. This son of Bodemeister worked in company earlier this week with an older Baffert runner, Mor Spirit, entered in the Essex Handicap two races before. After stalking the older runner, American Anthem excelled in the stretch and soon passed Mor Spirit in a sharp six-furlong workout.
With Mastery off the Derby trail with injury, American Anthem may be Baffert’s only hope for eight weeks from now. He’ll be my top pick here with Baffert going for his seventh Rebel victory in the last eight runnings.
For second, I’m using the Steve Asmussen-trained recent runner-up in the Risten Star Stakes, Untrapped (#5), who shifts from the Fairgrounds where he raced in his last two starts. For third, it was nearly 30 years ago when trainer Jack Van Berg had Alysheba nearly win the Triple Crown in 1987. Today he has longshot and recent maiden winner Appalachian Gem (#9) trying to win for the first time and will be a price to use underneath. The numbers for the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park are: 7 with 5 with 9 and 4/6/10/11 in my superfecta plays.