Photo: Coady Photography
On a crisp March morning at Oaklawn Park in 2007, trainer Steve Asmussen kept his watchful eyes focused on a chestnut colt under his care. Later that afternoon, the colt would continue down the road to Louisville in hopes of Asmussen's dreams of Kentucky Derby glory. The colt, named Curlin, would win that day's Rebel Stakes by 5 1/4 lengths. That victory was only the very beginning. While Curlin never won the Run for the Roses, he won some of the most important races in the world - including the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), and Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) - en route to becoming the richest North American racehorse in history.
Now, seven years later, Asmussen and Curlin stand on the verge of being immortalized, having recently been announced as finalists for the National Museum of Racing's 2014 Hall of Fame ballot. While Curlin has long since settled into his new life as a stallion at Lane's End Farm in Kentucky, even siring a 2014 Rebel Stakes starter in Ride On Curlin, Asmussen remains a staple at Oaklawn and continues to make a mark on the track's Derby trail.
Just like he did seven years ago, Asmussen will saddle a strong chestnut colt in today's Rebel. This colt, Tapiture, has much more racing experience than Curlin did when he charged into the fray in the 2007 Rebel, having raced five times already. Two of those wins are graded stakes victories, including a romp in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs as a two-year-old. A dominant winner of Oaklawn's Southwest Stakes (gr. III) last out, Tapiture is the 9/5 morning line favorite for today's Rebel.
Challenging Tapiture in today's mile and one-sixteenth contest is a grade one-winning colt that is no stranger to him, Strong Mandate. Winner of last summer's Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) as a two-year-old at Saratoga, Strong Mandate handily defeated Tapiture in a maiden special weight at the Spa when Asmussen's charge made his racing debut. Last out, however, Tapiture left Strong Mandate 4 1/4 lengths behind in the Southwest.
The third choice on the morning line is Southern California invader Kobe's Back, who enters the Rebel off a 5 1/4-length win in the San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita. The gray/roan son of Flatter has never won around two turns, but has proven to be one of the quickest colts on the Derby trail.
Seeking revenge against Tapiture and Strong Mandate is Ride On Curlin, who most recently was third in the Southwest. The colt has won only twice thus far in his seven-race career, but has an all-important win at Oaklawn, having won an allowance here in January.
Another colt looking for redemption is Hoppertunity, who was a troubled fourth in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds last out, in which he made his graded stakes debut. A win by this colt would grant Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert his fourth Rebel triumph.
Other horses in the field include Oaklawn maiden winner Street Strategy, Oaklawn allowance winner Sheltowee's Boy, and long shot Jet Cat.
The Rebel has produced four Eclipse Award Champion Three-Year-Old Males in the past ten years (Will Take Charge, Lookin at Lucky, Curlin, and Smarty Jones), as well as two Kentucky Derby winners (Smarty Jones and Sunny's Halo) since it was first held in 1961. The three-year-olds in today's running are keeping good company; could one of them add to the Rebel's impressive record?