Rebel Day has clearly become Oaklawn's second-biggest business day. For the next three weeks, at least, it will be the biggest day after an all-time record for total pari-mutuel handle was set on Saturday's 11-race card.
According to figures released Saturday night by the track, total money wagered on Oaklawn's races was $16,221,639.11, eclipsing the previous record of 16,159,771.31, set April 14, 2018 (Arkansas Derby Day). Saturday's estimated attendance of 45,500 was the ninth-largest in Rebel history and the highest since 1987. The record crowd for Rebel Day (54,119) was set in 1981.
Saturday's card featured $2,845,000 in purses (four maiden special weights races were worth $100,000), two divisions of the $750,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) for 3-year-olds, the $350,000 Azeri Stakes (G2) for older fillies and mares and the $350,000 Essex Handicap for older horses.
One division of the Rebel included unbeaten 2-year-old champion Game Winner for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. Four of the five starters in the Azeri were Grade 1 winners – Midnight Bisou, Elate, Shamrock Rose and Eskimo Kisses. Shamrock Rose won the $1 million Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs.
“Unfortunately, I was not here for American Pharoah,” General Manager Wayne Smith said, referring to the Baffert-trained 2015 Triple Crown winner who began his Horse of the Year campaign with victories in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby. “Hopefully, we just found our new American Pharoah. We actually have potentially two. I think overall from a day's perspective we were able to show the world what Oaklawn is capable of.”
Rebel Day figures have increased every year since an estimated crowd of 30,000 watched American Pharoah splash to a 6 ¼-length victory over a sloppy track. Estimated attendance climbed to 35,000 in 2016, 36,000 in 2017 and 37,500 last year. Total mutuel handle – money wagered on Oaklawn's races – has mirrored the growth in attendance. Total handle was $8,443,176.12 in 2015, $9,124,971.68 in 2016, $10,752,313.15 in 2017 and $10,771,984.46 last year to set records for March and a non-Arkansas Derby Day.
Mark Lamberth, a Batesville, Ark., Thoroughbred owner and vice chairman of the Arkansas Racing Commission, said the buzz Saturday was reminiscent of future Horse of the Year Zenyatta's appearance in the $500,000 Apple Blossom Invitational (G1) for older fillies and mares in 2010. Run on Friday, a day before the Arkansas Derby, Zenyatta was a 4 ¼-length winner before a crowd of 44,973.
“It was one of those magical days,” Lamberth said Sunday morning. “When Zenyatta pranced, I mean the crowd just swooned and, of course, she won easy. I thought yesterday was like that, from top to bottom. We had $100,000 maiden special weights, great horses and the crowd was really into it. It was a festive atmosphere. I just think it was the best day I've had at Oaklawn in a long time.”
The infield was open for the first time this season Saturday. The record crowd for Rebel Day was 54,119 in 1981. The Rebel was the last major local prep for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) April 13.
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