American Pharoah, the reigning Eclipse Award-winning 2-year old male, and Untapable, last year’s unanimous choice as the 3-year-old champion filly, will kick off their much anticipated 2015 campaigns at Oaklawn Park Saturday when the historic track presents three graded stakes races on an expanded 11-race program being billed as “Racing Festival of the South Preview Day.”
American Pharoah will go postward as the favorite in the $750,000 Rebel Stakes (G2), which will be run as race 10 on the 11-race card. Untapable, a Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC homebred to be saddled by six-time leading Oaklawn trainer Steve Asmussen, heads up a field of six spectacular fillies and mares in the $300,000 Azeri Stakes (G2), which will be carded as the seventh race. Joining the Azeri and the Rebel on blockbuster card will be the $250,000 Razorback Handicap (G3) for 4-year-olds and up. The Razorback will go as the eighth race and all three stakes events are scheduled for 1 1/16-miles.
First race post time will be at 1:00 p.m. Central Daylight Time.
Untapable posted a perfect six-for-six record against her own gender last year, including a runaway score in the Kentucky Oaks (G1). The only blemish on her resume’ came at the hands of Eclipse finalist Bayern (third in last year’s Arkansas Derby and eventual Breeders’ Cup Classic winner) and male opponents in the Haskell Invitational (G1) at Monmouth Park in July.
“She is doing extremely well and this race will be a good starting point to her four-year-old campaign,” said Asmussen, who sent the filly out for a one-mile gallop over a muddy track on Wednesday morning.
The strapping daughter of Tapit put an exclamation point on her 2014 season with a popular 1 ¼-length victory against older fillies and mares in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in late October. She will be ridden in the Azeri by John Velazquez, who replaces the now retired Rosie Napravnik. Velazquez, who was aboard the filly when she dominated the field in the Mother Goose Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park last year, will break as the likely overwhelming favorite from the rail in post 1.
Primary opposition to Untapable will likely come from two local favorites. Collectively, Sugar Shock and Mufajaah have won eight of their eleven combined starts at Oaklawn and each has accounted for a graded stakes score. Sugar Shock won the Fantasy (G3) last year as a 3-year-old and in her one start this year, she proved victorious in the American Beauty Stakes. Channing Hill once again rides for trainer Doug Anderson.
Mufajaah has won both of her Oaklawn starts this year. The Dan Peitz charge rallied from far back to win the Pippin in mid-January and most recently, she once again charged from far back to capture the Bayakoa (G3). Emmanuel Esquivel will once again handle the riding chores.
Gold Medal Dancer, a six-time winner trained by Donnie K. Von Hemel who will be ridden by Luis Quinonez and Flashy American, second in the Bayakoa for trainer Kenny McPeek under Chris Landeros, complete the field for the Azeri, which is the last prep race for the $600,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) here April 10.
The Rebel offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points (50-20-10-5 for a first through fourth place finish) and dual Grade 1 winner American Pharoah currently sits in 17th place for one of the 20 starting slots with 10 points. The son of Pioneer of the Nile will be partnered with regular rider Victor Espinoza. The colt won his last two races easily and in front-running style, but Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who also sends out Midnight Hawk in the Razorback, said that may not be the case when he makes his first start outside of Southern California.
“I’ll leave it up to Victor,” said Baffert, who has won the Rebel four times since 2010. “He knows the horse. He’s a fast horse, but he puts him in a place where he’s comfortable. He’s not a speed freak and he’s not rank. He still needs to break well and get around there. A lot is expected of this horse, but he hasn’t run in a while, although we feel confident he’s going to run well.”
The Truth or Else, second in the $300,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) here last out; Madefromlucky, a son of 2010 Rebel winner Lookin At Lucky trained by Todd Pletcher; locally based Tizwonderfulcreek; Bold Conquest, a son of 2007 Rebel winner Curlin trained by Asmussen; Midwest Thoroughbreds’ Paid Admission, and Harry T. Rosenblum’s Sakima complete the field.
The Razorback, Oaklawn’s final prep race for the $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) to be run on Arkansas Derby Day, also marks the 2015 debut of Tapiture, who captured the Southwest before finishing second in the Rebel last year. Like stablemate Untapable, he is sired by Tapit and is a Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC homebred. Tapiture will break under Ricardo Santana, Jr. Oaklawn’s defending two-time leading rider, from post 1 in the field of seven.
“He is coming into the race extremely well and I feel good about where he is. Saturday is a big day for him, Untapable, and Bold Conquest and there is a high level of anticipation for all of them,” said Asmussen.
The rest of the field, in post position, is: Golden Ticket, who also has been idle since his eighth place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, Grade 3 winner Midnight Hawk, third place Essex Handicap finisher I Got It All, the Todd Pletcher-trained Race Day, Fifth Season Stakes winner Carve, and local favorite and 2014 Preakness runner-up Ride on Curlin.