Logic says it's going to take a cornucopia of circumstances to keep American Pharoah from turning his season debut in Saturday's Grade II, $750,000 Rebel Stakes into a display of dominance.
He could hate the potential wet track at Oaklawn Park. He could be rusty having not run since September because of the foot and suspensory injury that kept him out of the Breeders' Cup. Yet his back class should still be enough to carry the reigning juvenile male champion to victory over the six challengers trying to derail him in the 11⁄16-mile race.
Trainer Ken McPeek has beaten more than one horse that looked a surefire bet on paper, however. And he won't be all that stunned if The Truth Or Else becomes his latest example.
For those looking to try to beat American Pharoah in the Rebel, The Truth Or Else would be a natural pick. The son of Yes It's True has a couple items in his favor that American Pharoah doesn't in that he has run over a sloppy Oaklawn track, finishing second to Far Right in the Grade III Southwest Stakes on Feb. 22.
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That runner-up effort was notable given that the chestnut colt was making his first start since finishing sixth in the Grade II Remsen last Nov. 29. His lone win in eight starts came in a maiden race going 1 mile at Belmont Park on Sept. 12, but he did run third in both the Grade I Champagne and Grade II Nashua last year.
McPeek knows a thing about springing upsets, saddling Sarava to win the 2002 Belmont Stakes at odds of 70-1 and Golden Ticket to a dead-heat victory in the 2012 Travers Stakes at odds of 33-1.
The Truth Or Else won't be near such a long shot Saturday. But with American Pharoah looking like the lone speed in the race, he is going to need all the intangibles to go his way to become McPeek's latest giant killer.
"I can't worry about what I can't control. I just have to worry about if we are good enough," McPeek said. "We think we have a nice colt. I think he improves 5 lengths just off (the Southwest)."
The Derby Dozen
1. Dortmund: Not many superlatives left to use on him at this point. We knew the son of Big Brown could win in a dogfight but the way he toyed with his competition in taking the Grade II San Felipe Stakes last Saturday showed yet another side to this monster colt. Trainer Bob Baffert said post-race that the worst thing one could do with this horse is take him back behind a wall of horses. His big body may not be able to handle starting and stopping in a Kentucky Derby traffic jam. But if he keeps improving, which he should, he will be superior enough to make his own luck.
2. American Pharoah: With rain soaking the area Friday and overcast conditions forecast for Saturday, American Pharoah will probably be facing an off track for the first time in what will be his fourth career start and first outing since winning the Grade I FrontRunner Stakes last Sept. 27. If he runs half as well as he has trained leading up to his debut, his backers won't be disappointed.
3. Carpe Diem: Add the son of Giant's Causeway to the list of good 2-year-olds who have carried form over into their sophomore year. Carpe Diem was drawing off with such authority during his 5-length win in the Tampa Bay Derby that WinStar Farm President Elliott Walden was yelling for jockey John Velazquez to "slow down" so as not to use up the colt. A start in the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland is probably slated for his final prep, a track where he won the Grade I Breeders' Futurity with ease last fall.
4. Upstart: Worked 6 furlongs in 1:13.40 at Palm Meadows Training Center on Friday as he prepares for a start in the Grade I Florida Derby on March 28. Trainer Rick Violette Jr. said he didn't have the son of Flatter fully cranked for his run in the Fountain of Youth, where he finished 23/4 lengths in front but was disqualified to second. It looks like he will face largely the same bunch in the Florida Derby, and the timing of that race will give him five weeks to regroup for the big dance on May 2.
5. Firing Line: Dortmund's success keeps flattering this son of Line of David by association as he was beaten only a head by the former in both the Los Alamitos Futurity and Robert B. Lewis Stakes. Worked 5 furlongs in 1:00.80 at Santa Anita on March 8 in preparation for an expected run in the Sunland Derby.
6. Far From Over: Love his pedigree, by Blame out of an A.P. Indy mare, in terms of his classic potential, and he showed so much talent in winning the Withers the way he did after his stumble at the start. But having only three starts going into the biggest race of his life makes it hard to go full throttle onto his bandwagon.
7. El Kabeir: You can say he didn't beat much in winning the Grade III Gotham Stakes last Saturday, but he showed a new dimension by rallying from far off the pace to win handily by 23/4 lengths. "My instructions to (jockey) C.C. Lopez were to go wire to wire but ... to (trainer) John Terranova's credit, they've been training this horse to sit behind horses," said Justin Zayat, racing manager for owner Zayat Stables. "He always had that natural speed. ... but that was a wow move."
8. Itsaknockout: Returned to the worktab for the first time since being elevated to victory in the Fountain of Youth, breezing 4 furlongs in 49.97 seconds at Palm Beach Downs on March 7. He'll get his chance to prove he doesn't need the help of the stewards when he faces Upstart again in the Florida Derby.
9. International Star: Has not worked since his win in the Grade II Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 21, but owner Ken Ramsey said trainer Mike Maker is likely to work the son of Fusaichi Pegasus this weekend. "He's been galloping him, putting a lot of stamina into him," Ramsey said. "He's doing super, couldn't be doing any better." A start in the Louisiana Derby on March 28 remains the plan.
10. Far Right: He's one of those horses who you know is always going to run hard and make you earn it if you beat him. He has been worse than third just once in eight career starts. Will get a real test in the Arkansas Derby on April 11 as American Pharoah will probably run back in that spot assuming his Rebel outing goes as expected.
11. Prospect Park: The son of Tapit garnered a good deal of hype after winning a 1-mile allowance race at Santa Anita on Jan. 30, and he backed up that talk when he finished second to Dortmund in the San Felipe, his first test in graded stakes company. It took the dark bay colt some time to put things together, breaking his maiden in his fourth try last December. Every race has been an improvement and he's certainly kept good company out West.
12. Mr. Z: Yes, he's still eligible for non-winners of two lifetime. He's back in the main dozen because a.) Dortmund keeps flattering everything that has gotten close to him and b.) he keeps running well enough to make you think that the moment you give up on him, he'll jump up in one of these big spots. "He's this far from beating all of them," trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. "He is (going to win one of these big races) and it's probably going to be on May 2." A Louisiana Derby start is up next.
THE NEXT DOZEN
Texas Red, Bolo, Ocho Ocho Ocho, Frosted, War Story, Royal Son, Metaboss, The Truth Or Else, Frammento, Ami's Flatter, Keen Ice, Gorgeous Bird.