Saturday will mark the 53rd running of Oaklawn Park’s Rebel Stakes. A solid field of 11 is set to do battle, and most will be looking to have their Kentucky Derby passport stamped. While many would seem long shots to make much noise in any leg of the Triple Crown, there is strong precedent to say that someone running in tomorrow’s feature will make their presence known a little later this spring. Let’s take a peek at the excellent history of Rebel winners to have gone on to win the Derby, Preakness, or Belmont.
After a nondescript first few decades, The Rebel first gained national prominence through the exploits of the 1980 victor, Temperence Hill. An unknown maiden when he arrived in Arkansas for Loblolly Stable and trainer, Joe Cantey, the eventual three-year-old champ would win four races at Oaklawn Park within a 45-day stretch. But it was in the Rebel Stakes that Temperence Hill would gain his first stakes victory. Let go at 16-1, he came from well back to win going away in a season that would also see him account for the Arkansas Derby, Belmont, Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Super Derby.
Three years later a cool breeze from the North hit Hot Springs. Sunny’s Halo was a star and a champion in Canada as a juvenile, but due to habitual ankle problems, the colt did not begin his sophomore season until the Rebel. No matter, the talented son of Halo toyed with the 11-horse field, and then added the Arkansas Derby, and Kentucky Derby to become the talk of the nation. During that spring, it was revealed that a strong training program in the pool had got him ready for his success. Further ankle problems, though, would limit his career trajectory, save for a romping win in the 1983 Super Derby.
In 1992, it was another Loblolly runner to find big success at Oaklawn Park. Pine Bluff, a son of top sire, Danzig, came to Arkansas already with a solid reputation, and did nothing to diminish it with a 2nd in the Southwest, before winning the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby. In the Arkansas Derby, he edged Lil E. Tee, who would go on to win the Kentucky Derby, but it was the Rebel winner, Pine Bluff, who snared a seven digit bonus for the best overall finish in each leg of the Triple Crown. A Preakness victory was the meat of a sandwich that included a 5th place finish in the Derby, and a 3rd in the Belmont.
Cue the villain music. No … he wasn’t a villain; rather he was one of the best winners of the Rebel Stakes in the history of the race. Victory Gallop arrived in Hot Springs lightly raced. By the time he left, he was a Rebel and Arkansas Derby winner primed for a big run at the 1998 roses. His late rally fell short to Real Quiet in Louisville, as it did with another second in Baltimore, but in New York, his stretch run proved irresistible. His Belmont victory dashed the Triple Crown dreams of Real Quiet supporters, but for Victory Gallop, it was the biggest of seven career stakes wins for the excellent Canadian bred.
Who could ever forget the amazing run of Smarty Jones? Not me. Did you know that the 2004 Rebel Stakes was the only race in which Smarty Jones did not go off favored? It was also the race that legitimized the talent from Philadelphia. The 3 ¼ length romp, over the well regarded Purge, led to wins in the Arkansas Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness, before finally suffering his first and only career loss in the Belmont, when he lost his sizable lead late to Birdstone. He may have been a near miss in the Triple Crown, but Smarty Jones went a long way in making Arkansas as popular a place to prepare for the Kentucky Derby as anywhere.
In 2007, Curlin took the racing world by storm. Unraced going into February of his three-year-old year, the son of Smart Strike made a splash by winning his debut by nearly 13 lengths at Gulfstream Park. With little time to fool around, Curlin’s second lifetime start came in the Rebel Stakes. Demonstrating what a talent he was, Curlin turned his stakes and two-turn debut into a coming out celebration. The 5 ¼ romp in the Rebel proceeded an even bigger romp in the Arkansas Derby. Three strong runs in the Triple Crown, including a gutsy win in the Preakness, followed, and the rest, as they say, was history for the soon to be Hall of Famer.
Lucky? Maybe not, but good? Absolutely. In 2010, the Rebel attracted the previous year’s juvenile champion, and Lookin at Lucky would not disappoint. Checked rather harshly on the backstretch, the Bob Baffert charge became the second son of Smart Strike to win the Rebel by making a thrilling stretch drive to nip Noble’s Promise on the wire. Often plagued by less than favorable trips, Lookin at Lucky would wiped out later that spring in the Kentucky Derby, but came right back to score in the Preakness. He was unfortunately retired after his three-year-old season, but not before becoming the first horse in 31 years to become the two-year-old and three-year-old champion.
Other Rebel winners of note include the speedy runner-up of the 1981 Preakness, Bold Ego, champion older horses, Vanlandingham, and Lawyer Ron, as well as the 1987 Kentucky Derby favorite, Demons Begone.