Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has won the Rebel Stakes a record six times, all since 2010. Baffert will have a chance to add to that total with unbeaten champion Game Winner and unbeaten Improbable ticketed for Saturday's $1 million Grade 2 race at Oaklawn, the final major local prep for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) April 13.
Baffert gave both horses the green light for the 1 1/16-mile Rebel after workouts Sunday morning at Los Alamitos in suburban Los Angeles. Improbable covered 5 furlongs in :59.40. Game Winner went the same distance in :59.80.
“We're coming,” Baffert said. “They worked well. Everything's good. There's no changing between now and then.”
Game Winner (4 for 4) clinched an Eclipse Award for champion 2-year-old male in his last start, the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) Nov. 2 at Churchill Downs. The son of Candy Ride is owned by Gary and Mary West, who won the 1993 Arkansas Derby with 108-1 shot Rockamundo. Improbable (3 for 3) hasn't started since the $300,000 Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) Dec. 8 at Los Alamitos.
Both horses were scheduled to make their 3-year-old debuts in Saturday's $500,000 San Felipe Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita. They are being re-routed to Arkansas after Santa Anita announced last Tuesday it was suspending racing indefinitely because of poor weather and track conditions.
To accommodate Southern California horsemen impacted by the move, Oaklawn President Louis Cella announced Wednesday the track was prepared to split the Rebel, which is scheduled to offer 85 points (50-20-10-5) to the top four finishers toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby.
If the Rebel is split, each division will carry a purse of $750,000 and each division will offer 63.75 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby. Oaklawn officials said Sunday morning that they were confident the Rebel would be split.
“We knew the Rebel was always there, but at first we were thinking not to ship,” Baffert said. “We could come back. We hate to ship twice. It changes things a little bit, but right now we're going through a little crisis here in Southern California. We never dreamed the day would come they would close down Santa Anita, but we're getting through it. The main thing is that the 3-year-olds, they worked well. They're coming up there. I think it's very nice of them to want to split that race. That's the key thing.”
Baffert also won the Rebel in 2010 (Lookin At Lucky), 2011 (The Factor), 2012 (Secret Circle), 2014 (Hoppertunity), 2015 (American Pharoah) and 2016 (Cupid). Lookin At Lucky and American Pharoah were also Eclipse Award winners at 2. American Pharoah won the Rebel and Arkansas Derby before sweeping the Triple Crown en route to Horse of the Year honors.
Game Winner and Improbable are to be flown Wednesday to Arkansas. The flight is also scheduled to carry several other horses for the Rebel, including Extra Hope and Omaha Beach for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, Galilean and Gunmetal Gray for Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and Easy Shot for trainer Keith Desormeaux.
Hall of Fame trainer and nine-time Oaklawn champion Steve Asmussen has several Rebel probables, including Springboard Mile winner Long Range Toddy for owner Willis Horton of Marshall, Ark.
Long Range Toddy ran in Oaklawn's first two Kentucky Derby points races, finishing second in the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 25 and third in the $500,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Feb. 18. Long Range Toddy worked a half-mile over a fast track in :53 Sunday morning under Jon Court.
The Rebel, $350,000 Azeri Stakes (G2) for older fillies and mares and $350,000 Essex Handicap for older horses will highlight a blockbuster Saturday program.
Shamrock Rose, winner of the $1 million Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs, completed major preparations for the Azeri with a half-mile workout just after the track opened Sunday morning under David Cohen. Breezing in darkness, Shamrock Rose went in :50.40 and galloped out 5 furlongs in 1:04.
“She's great,” said assistant trainer Allen Hardy, who oversees trainer Mark Casse's Oaklawn division. “It was just an easy work for her.”
Other probables for the 1 1/16-mile Azeri are Grade 1 winners Elate, Eskimo Kisses and Midnight Bisou and multiple stakes winner Tapa Tapa Tapa.
Post positions for the three races will be drawn Wednesday. Weather permitting, the infield will be open for the first time Saturday.
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