Timberlake’s Rebel victory imperfect, but trouble-free

Timberlake's 3-year-old debut Saturday may not have been brilliant but got the job done and came without apparent setbacks.

The 66th Rebel Stakes, though with a $1.25-million purse is the richest Kentucky Derby prep to date, represents a means to an end and not an end in itself. Oaklawn, which provides other services but still prides itself on horse racing, offers an even bigger purse, $1.5 million, for yet another route to the 150th Kentucky Derby May 4 at Churchill Downs.

Co-owner Elliott Walden said he would discuss with trainer Brad Cox whether to enter the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby March 30. Walden won the 1998 race as trainer of Victory Gallop, a late-running son of stone closer Cryoticlearance, who later spoiled Real Quiet's Triple Crown bid in the Belmont Stakes.

Walden said he was "really pleased with how he's matured. He was always a little keen last year. He had a good spot. He settled today, which is nice to see."

Off since Nov. 4, when fourth to champion Fierceness in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, the Into Mischief colt won by two lengths. With 50 points for winning the Grade 2 race, Timberlake (66) leads the Kentucky Derby points standings compiled by Churchill Downs. The Kentucky Derby would be a defining win for Timberlake, whose Grade 1 Champagne victory set him apart from 11 Rebel opponents.

Cristian Torres, landing a choice mount on a day that many top jockeys raced overseas on the Saudi Cup program, endeared himself further to Cox, who put the Oaklawn leader on winner Catching Freedom in the track's $300,000 Smarty Jones Jan. 1. Timberlake won around two turns for the first time, two lengths clear of Common Defense under the wire after a strong move on the final turn.

Timberlake finished the fast-rated mile and sixteenth in 1:44, closing strongly over a surface that rewarded front-end speed earlier in the day. The $618,760 winner's purse made Timberlake a racing millionaire, his only poor race coming in the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga in August. Walden is the racing manager for Kenny Troutt's WinStar Farm; Todd Manganaro and Ignacio Patino comprise co-owner Siena Farm.

"Beautiful trip. I got the position that I wanted. I wanted him to be nice and relaxed. He did it all. He's a classy horse," said Torres, coming off a 100-win season at the track and leading the standings again. "I'm just grateful that I could get it done for Brad and WinStar. It's a dream come true to win these kinds of races for these kinds of people."

Cox notched his first Rebel victory, joining Hall of Famers Bob Baffert, Wayne Lukas and Steve Asmussen as the only trainers to capture all four of Oaklawn's Kentucky Derby qualifying races.

"I thought he ran a big race. He was a little wide around the far turn. Looked like he may have been getting a touch tired late, but overall it was a great run off the layoff," Cox said. "Cristian did a great job of getting him in a good position. He was able to get him to relax and finish up well. We'll bring him back to the Fair Grounds (New Orleans) this week, train him and talk with Elliott Walden and Mr. Troutt and make a decision (on next start)."

Trainer Ken McPeek took the net two spots in the Rebel, with Northern Flame third. He is saving Grade 2 Southwest star Mystik Dan for the Arkansas Derby, thinking the three-week turnaround from the Feb. 3 race asked too much of the eight-length winner.

The Arkansas Derby, at nine furlongs, is a sixteenth longer than Oaklawn's other Kentucky Derby points races and worth 100 points to the winner.

McPeek termed the Rebel "two fantastic runs by two really nice horses." Of Timberlake, the Fort Chaffee-born trainer called the race winner "really impressive. You've definitely got to put him in your top tier.

"But my colts, look, they're going to make their presence felt the rest of the year. Where they go from here, we'll see. For sure (both are on the Derby trail). I think that there's so many nice races out there that you've just got to pick the right ones and kind of see.

"Just off the top of my head, maybe Common Defense goes to Turfway and runs in the Spiral. We'll talk about Northern Flame and see how far he wants to go and everything. He's a lovely horse in his own right."

Lukas vowed to "draw a hole" in Just Steel's seventh-place finish after two stakes seconds by the Justify colt at the meeting.

"You can't overcome the 11 hole (Just Steel's post position), 11, 12 (in route races). You're damned if you do, damned if you don't," Lukas said. "You almost have to break hard and get up there. You're bound to be wide. I was sick to my stomach when they drew."

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