As expected, one of Oaklawn’s signature races for 3-year-olds was divided into two divisions after 19 horses were entered Wednesday morning for Saturday’s Rebel Stakes at 1 1/16 miles, the final major local prep for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) April 13. The split means the Rebel, originally a $1 million race, will be worth $1.5 million overall, with each division offering $750,000 and 63.75 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby to the top four finishers (37.5, 15, 7.5 and 3.75).
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert figures to have the betting favorite in each division. Unbeaten champion Game Winner drew post five in the second division (10 entrants) and unbeaten Grade 1 winner Improbable drew post 9 in the first division (nine entrants).
Probable post time for the first division of the Rebel, the eighth of 11 races, is 4:57 p.m. (Central). Probable post time for the second division of the Rebel, which goes as race 10, is 6:06 p.m. Doors open Saturday at 11 a.m., with first post 1:05 p.m. Clear skies and highs in the upper 50s are predicted Saturday. Weather permitting, the infield will be open.
Game Winner (4 for 4) clinched an Eclipse Award for champion 2-year-old male in his last start, the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) Nov. 2 at Churchill Downs. The son of Candy Ride is owned by Gary and Mary West, who won the 1993 Arkansas Derby with 108-1 shot Rockamundo. Improbable (3 for 3) hasn’t started since the $300,000 Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) Dec. 8 at Los Alamitos.
Both horses were scheduled to make their 3-year-old debuts in the $500,000 San Felipe Stakes (G2) March 9 at Santa Anita. They were re-routed to Arkansas after Santa Anita announced March 5 it was suspending racing indefinitely because of poor weather and track conditions.
Oaklawn President Louis Cella said March 6 the track was prepared to split the Rebel to accommodate Southern California horsemen impacted by the move, The Rebel was originally scheduled to offer 85 points (50-20-10-5) to the top four finishers toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby.
Game Winner and Improbable were flown to Arkansas Wednesday from their Southern California base. The flight also carried Rebel entrants Extra Hope and Omaha Beach for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, Galilean and Gunmetal Gray for Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, Parsimony for trainer Doug O’Neill and Easy Shot for trainer Keith Desormeaux.
Hall of Fame trainer and nine-time Oaklawn champion Steve Asmussen entered six horses for the Rebel, including Springboard Mile winner Long Range Toddy (first division) for owner Willis Horton of Marshall, Ark. Long Range Toddy ran in Oaklawn’s first two Kentucky Derby points races, finishing second in the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 25 and third in the $500,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Feb. 18.
Asmussen also entered Ninth Street (first division), Laughing Fox (second division), Jersey Agenda (second division), Kaziranga (second division) and Captain Von Trapp (second division).
Oaklawn hadn’t split one of its Kentucky Derby prep races since the Southwest Stakes (G3) in 2012. The 1 1/16-mile Southwest originally carried a purse of $250,000 that year, but it was split after 21 horses were entered. Each division was worth $250,000.
Baffert swept both races, with Castaway winning the first division (11 horses) and Secret Circle the second division (10 horses).
Churchill Downs has used a points system in designated races to help determine Kentucky Derby starting eligibility since 2013. Graded stakes earnings had previously been used.
Baffert has won the Rebel a record six times – 2010 (Lookin At Lucky), 2011 (The Factor), 2012 (Secret Circle), 2014 (Hoppertunity), 2015 (American Pharoah) and 2016 (Cupid). Lookin At Lucky and American Pharoah were also Eclipse Award winners at 2. American Pharoah won the Rebel and Arkansas Derby before sweeping the Triple Crown en route to Horse of the Year honors.
In addition to the Rebel, post positions were drawn Wednesday morning for the $350,000 Azeri Stakes (G2) for older fillies and mares and the $350,000 Essex Handicap for older horses.
Six horses were entered in the 1 1/16-mile Azeri, including Grade 1 winners Midnight Bisou, Eskimo Kisses, Elate and Shamrock Rose. The Azeri is the final major local prep for the $750,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) April 14. The 1 1/16-mile Essex Handicap is the final major local prep for the $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) April 13.
The $750,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) April 14 for older fillies and mares remains on the table for 2018 Queen’s Plate winner Wonder Gadot following a runner-up finish in her 4-year-old debut, trainer Mark Casse said Saturday afternoon.
Making her first start since the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs, Wonder Gadot was beaten 1 ¼ lengths by Go Google Yourself in a 1-mile allowance race Friday.
“I was OK with her,” Casse said. “In all honesty, I probably rushed her a little bit to that race. One, you don’t get the opportunity to get an allowance race that often, so you have to take them when they give them to you. So, you have to play the cards that are dealt. But I wanted to get a race into her before the Apple Blossom. For that reason, I thought it went well. She had a big, strong gallop out after the race.”
Wonder Gadot is a finalist for a Sovereign Award as Canada’s champion 3-year-old filly after beating males in the first two legs of the Canadian Triple Crown, including the Queen’s Plate. She also finished second in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) and Oaklawn’s $400,000 Fantasy Stakes (G3) last year.
Hello, Bye Bye
Bye Bye J is the overwhelming 1-2 program favorite for Thursday’s eighth race, an $85,000 allowance sprint for Arkansas-bred females.
Bye Bye J will be making her Oaklawn debut for trainer Ron Moquett of Hot Springs after being privately purchased by Alex and JoAnn Lieblong following a runner-up finish in the $150,000 Forward Gal Stakes (G3) Feb. 2 at Gulfstream Park.
“We bought her hoping that she would be a fun horse for the races coming up this summer and also the fact that she’s an Arkansas-bred,” Moquett said.
Moquett said Bye Bye J is eligible for the $100,000 Rainbow Miss Stakes April 20, the meet’s biggest prize for 3-year-old Arkansas-bred fillies.
A daughter of millionaire Uncaptured, Bye Bye J made her first four career starts in south Florida for trainer Ronald Spatz and owner Monarch Stables, Inc. She has won two races, including the $75,000 House Party Stakes Dec. 8 at Gulfstream Park.
“Being an Arkansas-bred, I paid attention,” Alex Lieblong said. “Ron Spatz, nice guy and he’s a good friend of David Fawkes. We had been chasing her a little bit before.”
Fawkes also trains for Alex Lieblong, who is chairman of the Arkansas Racing Commission. Bye Bye J was bred by McDowell Farm.
Through Sunday, the 27th day of the scheduled 57-day meeting six-time defending champion Ricardo Santana Jr. held a 33-32 lead over David Cohen in the race for leading jockey. Santana also topped all riders in purse earnings ($1,690,351).
Santana didn’t ride Sunday because he was serving the first day of a three-day suspension for an incident at the top of the stretch in the first race March 3. Santana is scheduled to resume riding Saturday. Cohen ($1,078,983) was the only other jockey to have reached $1 million in purse earnings at the meet through Sunday.
Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen led all trainers with 23 victories, five more than Robertino Diodoro. Asmussen is seeking his fourth consecutive local title and 10th since 2007. Asmussen was also No. 1 in purse earnings ($1,613,815).
M and M Racing (Mike and Mickala Sisk) led all owners with 26 victories. Danny Caldwell, Oaklawn’s leading owner in 2014-2017, was second with 13. M and M was also No. 1 in purse earnings ($710,667). M and M won 21 races last year at Oaklawn to capture its first career owner’s title and has also surpassed its purse earnings from the 2018 meet ($671,919).
The track was rated good for workouts Wednesday morning. … Arkansas-bred standout Hoonani Road worked 5 furlongs in 1:03.60 after the renovation break Wednesday morning for trainer Wayne Catalano, who said the gelding is pointing for the $100,000 Nodouble Breeders’ Stakes March 23. … Unbeaten Tiger Bait (2 for 2 at the meeting) is being pointed for the $100,000 Rainbow Miss Stakes for 3-year-old Arkansas-bred fillies April 20, owner Staton Flurry of Hot Springs said. … Apprentice jockey Kelsi Harr recorded her second career Oaklawn victory in Sunday’s fifth race aboard Bandit Point ($16.80). Harr is a longtime exercise rider for trainer Al Cates of Hot Springs. … Through Sunday, the 27th day of the scheduled 57-day season, 275 claims had totaled $4,298,500.