March 20, 2014
There were better than 30,000 on hand at Oaklawn on Saturday, a crowd virtually any other track would have enjoyed hosting, but they really had to wait to race 10 on the eleven-race program to see a race that was worth the price of admission and this year’s Rebel was all of that.
When the field turned into the homestretch, or when the real racing began, there was Strong Mandate backing up and Ride On Curlin and Hoppertunity inheriting the front end and Tapiture guided between that twosome for a three-way drive to the wire. An observer might have thought that Ricardo Santana could have ducked to the inside with Tapiture and had an opening when Kent Desormeaux allowed his mount to drift some off the rail. After all, hadn’t Tapiture ridden the rail to win the Southwest? But it wasn’t in the cards this time and the three talented colts got to competing to the wire. There was obviously some contact as they dug in and it gave the stewards something to work through once the race was over and the expected foul claims came forward.
In the final analysis, it was jockey Mike Smith aboard Hoppertunity who outfinished his rivals to get the win. Trained by Bob Baffert, Hoppertunity was the least regarded of the four getting the most play, but, in retrospect and considering the success rate of Baffert representatives in the Rebel, especially with three of the past four winners going into the race, it is remarkable that this runner had comparatively little respect. The most highly-respected member of the invading crew into the race was Kobe’s Back, trained by John Sadler, who, as opposed to Baffert, was on hand for the race. Sadler couldn’t help his own cause, however, when Kobe’s Back started slowly from the outside post. Going long from the outside, it’s pretty tough to win when the start doesn’t go well and Kobe’s Back never did get into contention.
But the stretch run will remain in the minds of the many on hand. Oaklawn fans like nothing better than a hard-fought competition and they got their fill. All of the top three will surely make it back for the Arkansas Derby on April 12 and an even larger crowd will anticipate the mile-and-an-eighth thriller which will send the local representatives into Triple Crown competition, starting with the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May.
My sympathies to Tapiture, my personal choice in the race. It wasn’t in the cards for him to win on Saturday, but the talented colt will have some more great days during his career and they could easily start on April 12. The chestnut son of Tapit has more than just a little talent and should rank with the best come Triple Crown time.
We saw a couple of other great efforts. In the Apple Blossom prep, known as the Azeri, the heavily-favored Close Hatches went wire-to-wire to win, while the local favorite, Don’t Tell Sophia, raced over the wet-fast surface with a bar shoe, something that I almost never see on a winner. Don’t Tell Sophia has the talent to threaten a Close Hatches, but not as long as the track is “off” and she has to compete with a bar shoe.
In the Razorback Handicap jockey Jose Lezcano chased the pace of the local star, Right to Vote, then send his mount, Golden Lad to the front, from where he seemed to simply widen to victory. Another invader, Majestic City, finished full of run to catch Taptowne for the place, but no threat to the Todd Pletcher-trained winner. One might expect him to be the favorite for the Oaklawn Handicap, however there are a couple of outstanding runners named Will Take Charge and Mucho Macho Man, both anticipated for honors in that race, also on April 12. The Oaklawn Handicap has been won, unlike the Rebel, by locally-trained horses each of the last three years and Will Take Charge will be the best-known local runner in the field on that afternoon, barring injury.
For Arkansas racing fans, who left in a light rain shower, typical of the unusual weather of the winter of 2013-14, the appetite for more great racing has been whetted. While the year has been a disappointment for fans of the beloved Razorback sports teams, the racing fans have no such distress. This final month of live racing will stand front and center as it has in many other years in the past.
Not to be overlooked is the nomination for trainer Steve Asmussen for the National Racing Hall of Fame. Jockey Calvin Borel is the most recent local star to join the famed Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York, and Asmussen should, by rights, follow Borel into that spot this summer. Not only has Steve been the leading trainer at Oaklawn on five occasions, but he led the country in wins in 2013 and is another of the great workers who is gaining honors in this sport. There is no question in this corner that he is one of the hardest-working, hands-on trainers in America and has employed some great help, which allows him to maintain horses in more than one spot. My vote is going to Steve as quickly as I can make it, much as it went to Calvin last year.
These are sure good times to be at Oaklawn, but that’s nothing new. We’ve been saying that for decades and it still rings true. Once upon a time Charles Cella opted that he’d “have the best darned track in America.” That quote might not be exact, but the idea remains intact. It’s here and it’s now.