When handicappers turn their attention to the second division of Saturday’s $750,000 Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn Park, most are going to concede that #5 Game Winner is the horse to beat and will, in all likelihood, prevail as expected.
The stoutly-bred son of Candy Ride is 4-for-4 with three Grade 1 wins under his belt, including a hard-fought triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), in which he overcame a very wide trip and a bumping match down the homestretch to win going away by 2 ¼ lengths. It speaks of Game Winner’s quality that he was able to overcome such a wide trip and still beat a high-class field with a career-best 103 BRIS speed figure.
Not surprisingly, Game Winner was subsequently voted the champion two-year-old male of 2018, and if he brings his A-game to the Rebel, he should keep his unbeaten record intact and add another Rebel title to trainer Bob Baffert’s record of six Rebel wins since 2010.
Still, I get the feeling that victory isn’t assured for Game Winner. Unlike stablemate Improbable, who runs in the first division of the Rebel, Game Winner took his time building up to serious workouts this winter. That’s not really surprising since Game Winner has always been more workmanlike than flashy; unlike Baffert’s recent front-running stars American Pharoah and Justify, Game Winner is more of a grinder on par with two-time Eclipse champion Lookin at Lucky, who was all-out to win the 2010 Rebel Stakes by a head. With the Kentucky Derby being the ultimate goal, I don’t think there’s any reason for Baffert to have Game Winner in absolute tip-top shape for the Rebel.
That could potentially be a problem since Game Winner will be facing some quality rivals on Saturday. Even something less than Game Winner’s best should be sufficient to beat most of these runners, but #6 Omaha Beach could be an exception. Never mind that this son of War Front required five starts to break his maiden—the first three were on turf against some very good horses, and he’s shown improvement since switching to dirt. On February 2, he finally broke through with a powerful nine-length score going seven furlongs at Santa Anita, earning a 96 BRIS speed figure.
Perhaps the biggest factor in Omaha Beach’s favor is that he has more early speed than Game Winner, and in a race that’s generally lacking in clear-cut speed horses, that could give Omaha Beach a tactical advantage. Whether it’s enough to trigger an upset is another question entirely, but if the unexpected does occur, the payoffs could be impressive.
I’ll cover for the possibility of Game Winner coming up short by boxing him with Omaha Beach for the first two spots in the trifecta; I’ll also use Omaha Beach in any multi-race wagers:
$4 trifecta: 5 with 6 with 2,3,7,8,10 ($20)
$2 trifecta: 6 with 5 with 2,3,7,8,10 ($10)