Photo: Terri Cage
Oaklawn Park is often nicknamed “the Saratoga of the South.” A
trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas is enough reason to understand this
moniker. Throughout the town, paintings and photographs of racehorses are to be
found on various signs and advertisements. Many businesses hold racing-related
names, such as the Best Western Winners Circle Inn across the street from
Oaklawn’s grandstand, and just by driving down Central Avenue, you can catch a
glimpse of Thoroughbreds galloping around the turn and into the stretch. Hot Springs is a racing town.
Home to one of the most popular series of Kentucky Derby (gr. I) prep races,
Oaklawn boasts its own graded stakes-triple: the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) in
February, the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) in March, and the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) in
April. In recent years, this three-race sequence has produced some of the most
talented horses in the nation. The Rebel Stakes alone has produced six Eclipse
Award winners, including one Horse of the Year and four Champion
Three-Year-Olds, in the past ten years.
Last year, Rebel winner Will Take Charge
went on to be named the Eclipse Champion Three-Year-Old, while Rebel
runner-up Oxbow moved forward to win
the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). The winner of the 2010 edition, Lookin at Lucky,
would also go on to win the Preakness Stakes and was later named that year’s
Champion Three-Year-Old. In 2007, Curlin
made his stakes debut in the Rebel, winning the race by 5 ¼ lengths before
finding much success in the Triple Crown, winning the Preakness, finishing
third in the Kentucky Derby, and running second in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).
The winner of the Rebel in 2006, Lawyer Ron, only managed to finish twelfth in the Derby, but became the Eclipse
Champion Older Male in 2007. In 2005, Afleet Alex was a disappointing sixth in the Rebel, but went on to win the
Preakness and Belmont to become that year’s Eclipse Champion Three-Year-Old
Male. 2004 produced one of the Rebel’s most successful horses; that year’s
winner, Smarty Jones, would win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before
finishing second in the Belmont to miss becoming a Triple Crown winner.
While the Rebel is chiefly considered a Kentucky Derby prep, the race has
produced only two Derby winners: Smarty Jones and Sunny's Halo. Both of these horses won the Rebel; no horse that has lost the Rebel has won the Kentucky Derby.
principal Triple Crown success lies with the Preakness. Four Preakness winners –
Pine Bluff, Smarty Jones, Curlin, and Lookin at Lucky – have also won the
Rebel. Horses who ran in the Rebel but lost have also found victory in the
Preakness, including Preakness winners Oxbow and Afleet Alex.
for the final leg of the Triple Crown, two Rebel winners – Temperence Hill and
Victory Gallop – have won the Belmont. Also, as aforementioned, Afleet Alex
lost the Rebel but would become a Belmont winner.
Few trainers have found more success in the Rebel Stakes than Hall of Fame
conditioner Bob Baffert, who has won
four of the past five runnings of the race. This year, Baffert sent
Hoppertunity, a lightly raced colt who survived a rough stretch run and an
inquiry to win the Rebel. Fifth in his debut in early January at Santa Anita,
Hoppertunity broke his maiden by three lengths at that same track before
finishing a troubled fourth in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds. He was sent off as the fourth choice in the Rebel, where he faced the likes of Southwest Stakes winner Tapiture and Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) winner and Southwest runner-up Strong Mandate. Bumping
and squeezing ran rampant in the Rebel's late stretch between the top four – Hoppertunity, Tapiture, Ride On Curlin, and Strong
Mandate – but Hoppertunity persevered through this to capture the race by a
Prior to Hoppertunity, Baffert’s last Rebel win came with Secret Circle in 2012. This colt, who won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint
(gr. I) in 2013, never competed in the Triple Crown. Baffert also won in 2011
with The Factor, another colt that
would never run in a Triple Crown race but became a grade one-winning sprinter.
But Baffert’s 2010 Rebel winner, Lookin at Lucky, added to the Rebel’s list of winners that would go on to win the Preakness and be named an Eclipse
Champion Three-Year-Old Male.
History is racing against Hoppertunity in his pursuit of the Kentucky Derby, as
no horse has won the Run for the Roses without racing as a two-year-old since
Apollo in 1882. But the Rebel’s record of Triple Crown race winners offers hope
for the colt, as well as for the horses that finished behind him in Saturday’s roughly
run Rebel. Although it is not guaranteed, history indicates that a future
classic winner or Eclipse Award champion emerged from Oaklawn this weekend. Now
we must wait to see which colt could become that special horse.