It has become the broken record that drones on during the otherwise unpredictable march toward the first Saturday in May, a freakish trend nearly immune to the volatility that touches almost every other path on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
In each of the last seven seasons, the occupants of the Oaklawn Park backstretch have watched a van arrive the week of the $900,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) and unload representatives from the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. And in six of those years a Baffert protege has succeeded in capturing the 1 1/16-mile test right out from under those who call the Hot Springs track their base—the exception coming in 2013, when future champion and D. Wayne Lukas-trainee Will Take Charge got his big, white face in front while Baffert's duo of Den's Legacy and Super Ninety Nine finished third and fifth.
On March 14, Sham Stakes (G3) runner-up American Anthem arrived for the purpose of making sure the Rebel remains Baffert's out-of-town playground. Four days earlier, Southwest Stakes (G3) second-place finisher Petrov signaled to trainer, co-owner, and Arkansas native Ron Moquett he was ready to represent strong for the home team.
After watching Petrov cover four furlongs in :49 at Oaklawn March 10, Moquett decided he would start the son of Flatter in the March 18 Rebel rather than training up to the Arkansas Derby (G1) in April as originally planned. While American Anthem will likely draw favoritism in the 11-horse field, based largely off his trainer's mastery and upside, Moquett is looking at Petrov's outings this year and seeing concrete signs that his confidence in a move forward is not unwarranted.
Petrov's running lines for both the Jan. 16 Smarty Jones, his seasonal debut, and Feb. 20 Southwest Stakes, look nearly identical, with the gray colt sitting just off the pacesetter and ending up a clear second-best. Though he didn't get over the hump in the 1 1/16-mile Southwest, Petrov did make a big move around the final turn to overtake Smarty Jones winner Uncontested and was digging in gamely as One Liner ran clear of him in late stretch.
"I wanted to make sure his energy level was right (coming out of the Southwest) and everything seems good, so we're moving forward," said Moquett, who races Petrov in partnership with Catherine Adams-Hutt's Rialto Racing Stable and recently sold a 25% interest in the colt to Sol Kumin. "I think he just needs to get the right kind of trip and he'll be there. We probably won't have to be as close as we usually are (this weekend), but we won't be too far off of it.
"The way he gallops out and does everything easy really impresses me. I always say, a lot of horses can go :12s but the really good ones can keep going :12s and :12s and :12s all the way around."
Bred by Sun Valley Farm and purchased by agent Steve Young for $55,000 at the 2016 Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.'s June 2-year-olds and horses of racing age sale, Petrov broke his maiden at first asking at Churchill Downs Nov. 12 for his lone win in four starts and finished second in the Dec. 2 King's Swan Stakes to close out his juvenile campaign.
The sample size on American Anthem's talent is a small one, with the son of Bodemeister having just two starts heading into Saturday's test. The fact Baffert is trusting the colt to bring him his seventh Rebel win speaks volumes in itself about what he thinks of the bay colt's ability, following his first two-turn test in the Sham.
After breaking his maiden going six furlongs at Del Mar Dec. 3, American Anthem showed exceptional mettle in the one-mile Sham Jan. 7, when he set fractions of :22.54 and :45.46 with grade 1 winner Gormley at his flank, and kept fighting back on the inside when the latter appeared poised to put him away coming into the stretch.
What American Anthem lacked in experience, he made up for in heart during a tremendous stretch drive that saw him get his head back in front for a brief moment before Gormley overtook him by a head at the wire.
"To run as well as he did first time around two turns, I thought was incredible," said Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who rode American Anthem in the Sham and will have the mount in the Rebel. "He just gives you that feeling, even by just looking at him, that he has a lot of upside to him. Even watching him breeze, that race really seemed to shoot him forward."
Added Baffert, "The reason I've had so much success (at Oaklawn) is that those horses I brought up there are all really good horses. (American Anthem) is a bigger version of Bodemeister. Actually, that's caused him to pick up a lot of added pressure. We're excited about him and he's trained really well for this race. Hopefully, he'll run well. But, we still need racing luck."
American Anthem is owned by WinStar Farm and China Horse Club and will not be the sole California invader trying to snatch 50 qualifying points toward the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) leaderboard Saturday. Royal Mo, winner of the Feb. 4 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3), brings trainer John Shirreffs back to Oaklawn for the first time since he saddled future Hall of Famer Zenyatta to victory in the 2010 Apple Blossom Invitational (G1).
Owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, Royal Mo has been on the lead in each of his two victories, but the Uncle Mo colt showed in his second start he could be effective off the pace, rallying from last in a 12-horse field to get runner-up honors in a November maiden special weight race.
Oaklawn Park, Saturday, March 18, 2017, Race 10
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Silver Bullion (KY) Ramon A. Vazquez 115 D. Wayne Lukas 30/1 2 2Uncontested (KY) Channing Hill 122 Wayne M. Catalano 10/1 3 3Sonneteer (KY) Richard E. Eramia 115 J. Keith Desormeaux 30/1 4 4Petrov (KY) Jose L. Ortiz 115 Ron Moquett 9/2 5 5Untrapped (KY) Irad Ortiz, Jr. 115 Steven M. Asmussen 8/1 6 6Malagacy (KY) Javier Castellano 115 Todd A. Pletcher 4/1 7 7American Anthem (KY) Mike E. Smith 115 Bob Baffert 2/1 8 8Silver Dust (KY) Corey J. Lanerie 115 Randy L. Morse 15/1 9 9Appalachian Gem (KY) Gary L. Stevens 115 Jack C. Van Berg 30/1 10 10Royal Mo (KY) Victor Espinoza 122 John A. Shirreffs 9/2 11 11Lookin At Lee (KY) Ricardo Santana, Jr. 117 Steven M. Asmussen 15/1
Oaklawn Park, Saturday, March 18, 2017, Race 10