by Margaret Ransom
A week ago, as racing in Southern California reached a crisis level thanks to a staggering number of horses injured and euthanized at Santa Anita, the ripple effects of the situation were being felt throughout the thoroughbred industry.
Not only was all training and racing suspended for the foreseeable future at the West Coast track, the San Felipe Stakes (GII) — a major Kentucky Derby (GI) prep race — was cancelled (or at least postponed), derailing the plans for the connections of a number of top contenders on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, including reigning Juvenile Champion Game Winner.
Without even missing a beat, though, Oaklawn Park officials stepped up and decided they would help. If necessary, they said, they would split their $1 million Rebel Stakes (GII) into two divisions and, thereby, give Derby hopefuls from California a chance to run for valuable points.
The Hot Springs track would also pony up an extra $500,000 to make each division worth $750,000 (splitting the total purse of $1.5 million between the two divisions) and award 75 percent of the original Road to the Kentucky Derby points (combined from the San Felipe and Rebel), on a 37.5, 15, 7.5 and 3.75 scale to the top-four finishers.
Originally Oaklawn’s conditions for the split required 20 horses to be entered, but, now accustomed to rolling with the unexpected, Oaklawn would again make an exception to help the horsemen. On Wednesday, with “only” 19 entered, Oaklawn Park set the fields and made their final Arkansas Derby (GI) preps the most exciting events of the Kentucky Derby trail so far this year.
And for the trainers with multiple Derby hopefuls who’d hoped to keep their top prospects separated in prep races for as long as possible, any runners from the same trainer would automatically run in separate divisions, so Hall of Famers Bob Baffert, Jerry Hollendorfer and Steve Asmussen all have at least one runner in each, maintaining their desire to keep their stars racing apart for as long as possible.
Maybe it’s the rich purse, or maybe it’s the race’s reputation as a solid Triple Crown prep (after all, American Pharoah won the Rebel before his legendary run in 2015), or maybe it’s that the reigning champion has yet to run this year, or that many of the top contenders are separated by only a handful of points, but the Rebel has fast become one of the most anticipated Kentucky Derby preps.
In addition to American Pharoah, some really good horses have taken home the Rebel trophy over the years. Since it was first contested in 1961, we’ve seen classic winners and/or champions Smarty Jones, Lookin at Lucky, Curlin, Victory Gallop, Pine Bluff, Sunny’s Halo and Temperance Hill win — just to name a few.
Hall of Famer Bob Baffert has owned the Rebel this decade, saddling the winner six times in the past nine years (Lookin at Lucky, 2010; The Factor, 2011; Secret Circle, 2012; Hoppertunity, 2014; American Pharoah, 2015; and Cupid, 2016) and Todd Pletcher has saddled the last two winners (Malagacy, 2017; and Magnum Moon, 2018), though he doesn’t have any runners in either division this year.
Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith has ridden four winners to hold the record (Rare Brick, 1986; Dalhart, 1993; Etbauer, 1999; and Hoppertunity, 1994).
The Saturday weather is expected to be beautiful and cool in Hot Springs, with partly cloudy skies and a high near 60. A dry track can be counted on all day.
Extra Hope – This Sam Siegel homebred son of Shanghai Bobby was an impressive allowance winner last out after finishing third behind Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity (GI) winner Improbable and stablemate Mucho Gusto. He will carry leading Rebel rider Mike Smith from the rail and will no doubt be part of the early pace.
Long Range Toddy – is back from a third-place finish in the Southwest Stakes (GIII) last out. He had some trouble in there, which new pilot Jon Court will hope to avoid on Saturday. Court rode Will Take Charge, who is a half to this colt’s sire, Take Charge Indy (both are out of the Dehere mare Take Charge Lady), to victory in 2013 and Asmussen has three Rebel wins (Snuck In, 2000; Windward Passage; 2002 and Curlin, 2007.)
Corruze – Jockey Stewart Elliott was aboard dual classic winner Smarty Jones for his win here in 2004 and is back on this son of Into Mischief for his graded debut. Trainer Chris Hartman has his first starter here.
Easy Shot – This California shipper hails from the barn of Keith Desormeaux, who has been known to pull off a shocker or two in big races with horses who seem to be — on paper, at least — in over their heads. Not saying this son of Trappe Shot is one, but he does have his work cut out for him off a fifth in the Sham Stakes (GIII) and third in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (GIII). Both Desormeaux and jockey Richard Eramia have yet to win a Rebel.
Proud Nation – Trainer Joe Sharp will roll the dice on this maiden son of Tapit, who was beaten 40 lengths in his last race February 18. Sharp wins a good percentage of races he saddles runners for, but has yet to win a Rebel. David Cabrera rides for the first time.
Ninth Street – One of Asmussen’s two here (he has three in the other division), this son of Street Boss was 104-1 and was a well-beaten ninth of 11 in the Southwest last out. Ricardo Santana Jr. rides in his quest to win the Rebel for the first time.
Classy John – Starts at his fifth track in his sixth start, this Dallas Stewart-trained son of Songandaprayer (who was a whopping $12,000 Equine Sales of Louisiana juvenile and has yet to finish worse than second in mostly Louisiana-bred stakes) definitely steps up here, but is consistent. David Cohen rides looking for his initial Rebel victory.
Galilean – The hot California-bred this year ships in for Hollendorfer off a nice romp in the California Cup Derby a month ago. Flavien Prat stays on this $600,000 son of Uncle Mo. Though this one was always set to run here, and though he makes a leap up from state-bred company, he’s shown he’s got the talent to be competitive. Prat stays with this colt after winning his last two by a total of 13 ½ lengths.
Improbable – The lightly raced 3-5 morning line favorite brings jockey Drayden Van Dyke in after the audible was called for the San Felipe. This chestnut son of City Zip with the white face and shades of Justify (same silks, even), is lightly raced and making his sophomore debut 2 ½ months into the year, but already is a Grade 1 winner. Baffert seeks a seventh Rebel and Van Dyke is in search of his first.
Market King – Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas has won this race twice (Manastash Ridge, 1989; and Will Take Charge, 2013) and sends out this longshot son of Into Mischief. Hall of Famer John Velazquez hasn’t ever won a Rebel, despite all of his career stakes wins, and will be hard-pressed to do so with this colt coming in of an allowance win.
Laughing Fox – One of Asmussen’s four in here, this $375,000 son of Union Rags is coming off two wins at this distance in maiden and allowance company. Ricardo Santana rides and the colt likes to sit well off the pace, which will benefit him in this division, which predicted to have a lot of early speed. Ricardo Santana Jr. will get his second shot to win his first Rebel.
Parsimony – Trainer Doug O’Neill, who has won the Kentucky Derby twice, sends out this maiden for owner Paul Reddam. He did tackle two turns on the turf last out, but was beaten by much weaker. O’Neill brings his go-to rider, Mario Gutierrez, to pilot this $400,000 son of Dominus and both are hoping for their first trip to the Rebel winner’s circle. He wears blinkers for the first time here.
Jersey Agenda – Asmussen’s second of three here, this runner had a very eventful trip to finish eighth in the Southwest last out, and is back looking for a cleaner trip. Eclipse Award-winner Jose Ortiz will be aboard for the first time and has never won the Rebel and this $250,000 son of Jersey Town will be up near the early pace.
Game Winner – The undefeated juvenile champion is another rerouted from the San Felipe and makes his sophomore debut a week later than expected, but didn’t miss a training beat and made this race. Baffert keeps regular rider Joel Rosario, who hasn’t ridden a Rebel winner yet, and he drew a nice middle post, which should help him get into a tactical spot behind the pace early. He is 4-5 on the morning line but will probably go off lower.
Omaha Beach – Trainer Richard Mandella, though a Hall Famer, doesn’t like to travel much, but had no choice when the San Felipe was called off. He’s never had many starters in this race, but does use Mike Smith after Flavien Prat chose to go with Gunmetal Gray. This son of War Front took a while to break his maiden, but that’s not to say he was running poorly — a third and three seconds — before unleashing a nine-length victory six weeks ago lands him here.
Our Braintrust – had a nice third for his new connections, owner Gary Barber and Mark Casse, in the Withers Stakes (GIII) at Aqueduct last out. This Maryland-bred son of Freud is coming off a career-best effort and fits well here.
Gunmetal Gray – Hollendorfer’s other runner will have Prat aboard as previously mentioned and, when he rides for Hollendorfer, they’ve been hitting at a near-60 percent clip over the past 60 days. The connections of this Sham Stakes (GIII) winner are no doubt hoping to get back on a winning track after a second in the Bob Lewis last out and this $225,000 West Point Thoroughbreds-owned son of Exchange Rate has been working well for weeks.
Kaziranga – Asmussen’s third, it’s hard to imagine this son of Candy Ride will be much of a factor in this field, though stranger things have happened. Richard Eramia rides this maiden winner in his graded debut.
Captain Von Trapp – Asmussen’s fourth making his stakes debut off of two straight wins, though he does step up in company. Ramon Vazquez returns off the two wins aboard this son of Trappe Shot seeking a first career Rebel win.
California native and lifelong horsewoman Margaret Ransom is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. She got her start in racing working in the publicity departments at Calder Race Course and Hialeah Park, as well as in the racing office at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. She then spent six years in Lexington, KY, at BRISnet.com, where she helped create and develop the company’s popular newsletters: Handicapper’s Edge and Bloodstock Journal.After returning to California, she served six years as the Southern California news correspondent for BloodHorse, assisted in the publicity department at Santa Anita Park and was a contributor to many other racing publications, including HorsePlayer Magazine and Trainer Magazine. She then spent seven years at HRTV and HRTV.com in various roles as researcher, programming assistant, producer and social media and marketing manager.
She has also walked hots and groomed runners, worked the elite sales in Kentucky for top-class consignors and volunteers for several racehorse retirement organizations, including CARMA.In 2016, Margaret was the recipient of the prestigious Stanley Bergstein Writing Award, sponsored by Team Valor, and was an Eclipse Award honorable mention for her story, “The Shocking Untold Story of Maria Borell,” which appeared on USRacing.com. The article and subsequent stories helped save 43 abandoned and neglected Thoroughbreds in Kentucky and also helped create a new animal welfare law in Kentucky known as the “Borell Law.”Margaret’s very first Breeders’ Cup was at Hollywood Park in 1984 and she has attended more than half of the Breeders’ Cups since. She counts Holy Bull and Arrogate as her favorite horses of all time.She lives in Robinson, Texas, with her longtime beau, Tony. She is the executive director of the 501(c)(3) non-profit horse rescue, The Bridge Sanctuary.