(Magnum Moon winning the Rebel Stakes / Photo Courtesy of Oaklawn Park)

With only about six weeks left before the First Saturday in May, the list of “Winners” is starting to narrow. The stockpile of “Losers” is starting to grow. And, the undefined lot cast as “In-Betweeners” is starting to not matter.

In short, if you are trying to make plans and your way towards the Kentucky Derby, it is about time to start building your resume; compiling your points; and stamping your ticket. It is time to step it up and step it out. It is time.

On Saturday, there were two races called, loosely, “Derby Preps.”

One of them – the $900,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park – was legitimate. And, for a couple of the contenders that paraded to that post in search of credentials, they came away from the fray as “Winners” led by the impressive and undefeated Magnum Moon.

One the them, though – the ill-named Jeff Ruby Steaks (yeah, they actually spelled it that way because the man owns a steak house or two) at Turfway Park – was only miscalled a “Derby Prep” because Churchill Downs graciously extended some points to their in-state neighbors.

The field didn’t merit much consideration going into the race. The field shouldn’t merit any consideration coming out of the race. What made matters worse, though, was the gaudy “coat of many colors” that the race sponsor adorned to the event. Dolly Parton couldn’t even sing that thing pretty.

Here is a closer look at this week’s “Winners, Losers & In-Betweeners:”

 The Winners:

  1. Magnum Moon: Going into the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Saturday, I was a bit skeptical of this one, a glistening son of Malibu Moon. Yeah, he had won two in a row. Sure. But trainer Todd Pletcher can get any racing secretary in America to write races to fit his horse’s conditions. Anywhere, and at any time. That’s what happens when you control somewhere around 2,486,915 horses in training. The first win, on debut, was at 6-furlongs over a dirt track at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 13. He made the lead that day, and that’s about all it takes to win a race at Gulfstream Park. He aired a rather suspect field by 41/2 lengths. A month and two days later, the colt got to run a 1 mile & 70 yards event at Tampa Bay. In a robust field of 5, Magnum Moon defeated his stablemate, Hyndford, by 2 lengths in a “made-for-Todd” event. (For the record, I’d like a 5-horse field to go for one of my horses down there at Stella-land!) But, quite honestly, neither of those spectacular events warranted much respect or reason for grandeur, in my book. But Saturday? In the Rebel? Now, you got my attention, Magnum Moon. In the 11/16-mile event, rider Luis Saez allowed the handsome guy to fall just a bit off the pace, and then asked him to wait. Bide his time. Idle for a bit. And, he did. But when asked, in a bid on the far turn, Magnum Moon responded like a good thing. And, he ran on like a real good thing. At the end, Magnum Moon had defeated the heavily-favored Solomini by over 31/2 lengths. Solomini, who ran a game second to Good Magic in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall at Del Mar, was making his 2018 debut. But make no mistake. He is a quality opponent. Another head back, in third, was Combatant, who had been second in three straight races in a row – including the G3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn. Farther back were the likes to Title Ready, Graded-Stakes winner Sporting Chance, and the highly-acclaimed Zing Zang. In other words, Magnum Moon stamped himself a real legit contender on this year’s “Road to the Kentucky Derby.” Now, he will be pointed to the Arkansas Derby, most likely. But Magnum Moon’s biggest obstacle may have nothing to do with the future, but a demon from the past. Like the super-talented Justify, who may also wind up at Oaklawn for the Arkansas Derby, Magnum Moon will have to beat down the “Apollo Curse.” Since Apollo won the Kentucky Derby, oh, let’s just say 134 years ago, no horse has won the Run for the Roses without having started at least one time as a 2-year-old. That’s a lot to run against, including 19 other talented horses on the first Saturday in May. But the good news is by the look of things on Saturday, he is headed right there. Impressive.
  2. Solomini: This well-bred son of Curlin made his 2018 debut in the Rebel Stakes on Saturday. And, although he didn’t win and dominate like many – if not most – wanted and expected him to, Solomini didn’t disappoint with his effort to run second. In fact, the colt showed a high degree of maturity and class to nearly overcome several obstacles that came his way – including a faulty ride by the California-based Flavien Prat. Unlike most of his previous starts, Solomini did not break well and instead of finding himself in his customary spot either on or near the lead, he was shuffled back to third and fourth and log-jammed down on the rail. Instead of panicking, though, and bucking the restraint, Solomini settled nicely and appeared to rate better than he had in the past. But just when it looked like he might pick a free spot, Prat negotiated the colt toward the rail and a needle hole that a miniature couldn’t have fit through. Instead of getting free aim on the front- and clear-running Magnum Moon, Solomini had to steady at the quarter pole. It was a mistake that he could not recover. The colt will get one more prep before the Derby, and that decision will be coming soon. The colt proved his mettle, and that he belongs in the field of 20. The rider, on the other hand, had better grow up in a hurry. The guy rides regularly on the West Coast, where the average field is about 6 horses. There were just 10 horses in the Rebel Stakes on Saturday, and Prat found plenty of trouble. On the first Saturday in May, there will be 20.
  3. Gary Stevens: The Hall of Fame rider will get another chance to ride Bravazo, the winner of he G2 Risen Star Stakes in his last out, in this Saturday’s Louisiana Derby. Earlier this year, Stevens rode the colt to victory in an allowance at Oaklawn Park and was originally named to ride the Awesome Again colt in the Risen Star. Instead, Stevens decided to take off the mount, and stay in Hot Springs, Ark. to ride in another Stakes. Miguel Mena picked up the mount on Bravazo, and the duo teamed up to capture the Risen Star by a nostril hair over Snapper Sinclair. The ride became available again, though, when Mena was injured in a spill last week, breaking his ankle in a number of places. Now, Stevens may have his Derby horse. And, he knows what to do with one of those. He won the Derby in 1988 (with Winning Colors), 1995 (Thunder Gulch), and 1997 (Silver Charm). The first two of those Derbies, Stevens teamed up with trainer D. Wayne Lukas to capture the Run for the Roses. That’s the same guy who now trains Bravazo. Déjà vu all over again?

In-Betweeners:

  1. My Boy Jack: The winner of the Southwest Stakes, in a rail-skimming move negotiated to perfection by jockey Kent Desormeaux, is the Morning Line favorite for this Saturday’s Louisiana Derby. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the son of Creative Cause, another one to have started his career in the turf ranks, drew Post Position #9 in the 10-horse field. And, that has been a difficult starting position for much of this meet at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. It does appear that this one is getting better, since he ran third to McKinzie in the Sham Stakes in the race before. It will be show time for him on Saturday.
  2. Hazit: This son of War Front may not be a “Derby Horse,” but you can completely toss out his run in the G3 Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park last Saturday. As soon as the gate popped open, the colt took one step on the loose, waxed plastic polytrack surface and nearly went to the ground – nose first. Jockey Drayden Van Dyke did a masterful job of just keeping the horse upright and staying on board, but they had lost all chance 10 feet out of the starting gate. Hazit – who finished up 12th and last in the “Ruby” — defeated Good Magic when the duo made their racing debuts at Saratoga last August. He may not be “Derby Material,” but he is definitely better than the debacle on Saturday. And, he is worth watching – and betting – with a return to an actual racetack.

Losers:

  1. Jeff Ruby Steaks: Try as they might, Turfway Park has a long way to go to ever host a legitimate prep for the Kentucky Derby again. The racetrack facility is a bit, how do we say it, dilapidated, at best, and is sorely needing to be, how do we say it, torn down and totally reconstructed. Let’s just say that the grandstand reminds me of Miles Park, in Louisville. And, it has been gone for nearly 40 years. The racetrack surface – polytrack – simply is not going to cut it. Most trainers who have a legitimate contender for any major dirt Stakes race are not going to send their horses to run over it. Period. Not even their second or third tier suspects. As a result, the track and the betting public are left with a field that resembled the one that was assembled on Saturday. The winner may turn out to be a real runner, but there is a reason he competed in a Maiden-Claiming event last October at Santa Anita, even if it was for $100,000. And, after all, he was third behind the filly Paved in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate. Trainer Doug O’Neill knows how to get a Kentucky Derby winner. He has done it twice already. But this one would be a real stretch. And, let’s be honest here, the only reason that Churchill Downs still bestows “points” for the Derby to this race is because the racetrack is in Kentucky, and it is the “neighborly” thing to do. It’s time for a “Do Over,” Turfway. Like soon.