As most bettors predicted, the Bob Baffert-trained 3-year-old Nadal won the Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn Park to keep his undefeated record alive. But once again, he prevailed by a small margin, crossing the wire by only ¾ of a length over the 82-1 Excession.
To some, that might leave questions. However, the difference between the two 3-year-olds is worlds apart.
Consider the talent Nadal needed to endure on the front, versus Excession's trip.
Rather than risk a pocket position over a sloppy track, jockey Joel Rosario asked Nadal to go to set the pace, where he met No Parole into the first turn. The two of them briefly locked heads.
But as No Parole backed down and settled into a pressing position, American Theorem decided to step on the gas pedal hard and challenge Nadal. Nadal and American Theorem met eye to eye as they separated from the field.
Basin settled inside of No Parole, and Three Technique raced outside.
Approaching the far turn, American Theorem still kept breathing down Nadal's neck as best as he could. He ran like a horse on a mission.
Nadal eventually put him away after grueling opening fractions of 22.89 and 46. But not long afterwards, Nadal had to face his third wave when Three Technique came looming outside and Silver Prospector threatened on the rail.
Nadal disposed of those two by the top of the stretch. Surprisingly, neither of them could even get on even terms with Nadal.
In the fourth wave, Nadal faced a late bid from Excession, who had lagged toward the back early as Nadal handled all those other charges. On the far turn, he saved ground and ran up the rail when Three Technique and Silver Prospector began to flatten. Silver Prospector gave Excession some room.
Excession enjoyed a dream scenario by settling several lengths off a supersonic pace led by a horse who defended the lead at different points.
After Excession tipped out and took dead aim in the stretch, though, Nadal found more. Somehow, Nadal managed to keep himself in front and win.
Most regular speed horses would lose the scenario Nadal faced. But Nadal tackled four different waves of challenges and still captured the race.
Can Nadal face different scenarios besides setting the pace on the rail? As his campaign progresses, that is one question handicappers will ask.
Regardless, his winning Rebel effort finally gave the hype behind him more substance. Forget the ¾-length margin. Nadal ran an exceptional race surviving the pace and deserves all the praise, at least for now.
Empress flashes speed to win Azeri Stakes
After a five-race losing streak, Serengeti Empress finally returned to the winner's circle in the Azeri Stakes on the Rebel undercard.
The win did not come without some drama.
Serengeti Empress secured the lead heading into the first turn and flaunted her speed once more. But a riderless Awe Emma showed some pace, too.
Serengeti Empress quickened just a bit as Awe Emma chased her wide through 23.33 and 46.49 fractions. Lady Apple settled four lengths back in third next to Mylady Curlin. Overall, 13 ¼ lengths separated the seven-horse field.
On the far turn, Awe Emma began to fade and took herself wide again without a jockey, leaving Serengeti Empress alone on the lead. Regardless, Joe Talamo did not relax. He shook the reigns and encouraged Serengeti Empress with the whip to keep going, and she responded. Mylady Curlin, Saracosa and Street Band ran far behind.
Serengeti Empress crossed the wire 6 ¼ lengths in front of Mylady Curlin, with the 49-1 Saracosa spicing up the trifecta in third. Street Band came up empty in fourth.
Street Band has been a money burner in her last few starts, as the respect bettors give this filly has not matched the record. After taking advantage of a pace collapse in the Cotillion Stakes (G1) last fall, Street Band has run eighth in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, third in the Houston Ladies Classic (G3) after hanging in the stretch and now a flat fourth in the Azeri.
In the latter two races, Street Band lost at 2-1 and 5/2. Unless her next race is loaded with speed, she looks like the kind of horse to avoid.
With the lead, Serengeti Empress is difficult to run down. But the lead does not make her completely invincible, as the Breeders' Cup Distaff and Houston Ladies Classic both proved. It depends on the circumstances. In the case of the latter race at Sam Houston, trainer Tom Amoss likely did not crank her 100 percent to start a long campaign.
Given Serengeti Empress is now in the flow of a full campaign, expect her to pick up a few more graded stakes victories on the lead.
Charlatan the next Justify?
Charlatan did not face the strongest field in his allowance optional claiming win at Santa AnitaPark. But he won on the lead by 10 ¼ lengths.
Also, Charlatan prevailed in a sparkling time. Consider that Charlatan finished one mile in 1:36.24. Only one race later in the Beholder Mile (G1), the promising 4-year-old filly Ce Ce won by 3 ¼ lengths over the more accomplished Hard Not to Love in 1:37.33.
As an inexperienced 3-year-old, Charlatan ran over a second faster than the talented Ce Ce.
Bob Baffert holds an incredible hand with both Nadal and Charlatan, both potential superstars. If the Kentucky Derby is in fact postponed, he could even let Charlatan develop further before throwing him into a 20-horse field. That's not to mention Authentic, who won last week's San Felipe (G2) looking like a force.
Charlatan possesses a ton of talent and runs like longer distances will not bother him. Right now, the hype is justified.
But who is better between Nadal and Charlatan? That will be a topic for another day.