By Bob Baffert's lofty standards, he's been in a slump recently at Oaklawn.
Sure, the Hall of Fame trainer won Thursday's fifth race, but Morning Snow was racing for a $40,000 claiming price and taken out of that sprint victory. Baffert's wheelhouse at Oaklawn, of course, is its lucrative series of Kentucky Derby points races – $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes, $750,000 Southwest Stakes (G3), $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) and $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1).
Baffert has a combined 13 victories in those races (all since 2010), but only one coming in the last four years. The drought includes two photo-finish losses (neck and a nose) in last year's split Rebel, with Grade 1 winner Improbable and juvenile champion and previously unbeaten Game Winner, respectively.
Baffert said he hopes a horse named for tennis great Rafael Nadal will set things straight. Unbeaten Nadal is the 5-2 program favorite for Saturday's $1 million Rebel, the final major local prep for the Arkansas Derby April 11.
Nadal, a speedy son of 2010 champion older dirt male Blame, will be making his two-turn debut in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel. Nadal broke his maiden by 3 ¾ lengths Jan. 19 and won the $200,000 San Vicente Stakes (G2) by three-quarters of a length Feb. 9. Both races, 6 ½ furlongs and 7 furlongs, respectively, were at Santa Anita, Nadal's home before being flown Wednesday to Arkansas.
“He shipped really well,” said Baffert, who has won the Rebel a record six times. “He's a big, strong horse. Hope we don't get too much bad weather. Would like to see what he does on a dry track, but it's all out of my hands.”
There is an 80 percent chance of rain Saturday in Hot Springs, according to weather.com.
Nadal will also be racing without blinkers for the first time the Rebel, his two-turn debut.
But Jimmy Barnes said making this type of equipment change before a major race isn't unusual for the Hall of Fame trainer.
“It's not uncommon for us to have blinkers on a horse first time out and it's not uncommon for Bob to take them off immediately after they win,” Barnes said Thursday morning. “Everything changes in the afternoon. He probably showed us maybe a side of him that wasn't as rambunctious as he is, as far as being aggressive early in the race, and you have to go by that, adjusting your blinker on or off.”
Nadal has been a forward factor in both starts (6 ½ and 7 furlongs) and trainers typically remove blinkers to try and get horses to relax.
The projected eight-horse Rebel field from the rail out: Nadal, Joel Rosario to ride, 117 pounds, 5-2 on the morning line; Excession, Tyler Baze, 117, 30-1; Basin, Javier Castellano, 117, 3-1; Silver Prospector, Ricardo Santana Jr., 122, 7-2; No Parole, Joe Talamo, 122, 8-1; Three Technique, Luis Saez, 117, 7-2; Coach Bahe, Santo Sajur, 117, 30-1; and American Theorem, Tiago Pereira, 117, 6-1.
Nadal, a $700,000 2-year-old purchase, will remove blinkers after wearing the equipment in his first two starts.
Probable post time for the Rebel, the 10th of 11 races, is 5:23 p.m. (Central). Racing begins at 12:35 p.m. The Rebel will offer 85 points to the top four finishers (50-20-10-5) toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby.
Baffert won the Rebel in 2010 (Lookin At Lucky), 2011 (The Factor), 2012 (Secret Circle), 2014 (Hoppertunity), 2015 (American Pharoah) and 2016 (Cupid). American Pharoah, who went on to sweep the Triple Crown, is the sire of American Theorem. Overall, Baffert has won 39 percent of his Oaklawn starts (25 of 64) and has 23 stakes victories. In addition to the Rebel, he's won the Smarty Jones once, Southwest four times and Arkansas Derby twice.
“You know why I did? I sent really good horses,” Baffert said.
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen has three entrants, including Silver Prospector and Basin, in search of his fifth Rebel victory. Silver Prospector was a one-length winner of the Southwest and “has done very well” since the 1 1/16-mile race, Asmussen said.
Basin, owing to a minor leg injury, will be making his first start since winning the $350,000 Hopeful Stakes (G1) Sept. 2 at Saratoga. From the first crop of Grade 1 winner Liam's Map, Basin has had 10 published workouts since mid-January in advance of his two-turn debut, including a 5-furlong bullet (:59.20) Feb. 25 at Fair Grounds and a 6-furlong bullet (1:12) March 2 at Fair Grounds.
Basin, Asmussen said, “is training like a Grade 1 winner.”
Three Technique hasn't started since a runner-up finish in the Smarty Jones Jan. 24 for trainer Jeremiah Englehart and owner Bill Parcells, a two-time Super Bowl-winning coach and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Englehart opted to skip the Southwest and train up the Rebel.
“We're getting to game time now,” Englehart said. “I thought we had a pretty good draw. The horse has to run his race now. I'm glad that we got Luis up. He's very familiar with my barn. It gives me a lot of confidence in having the right rider in the afternoon, too.”
American Theorem hasn't started since finishing second in the $300,000 American Pharoah Stakes (G1) Sept. 27 at Santa Anita.
No Parole is unbeaten and untested in three career starts against Louisiana-bred competition for trainer Tom Amoss.
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