Unbeaten champion Game Winner got his first feel of the Oaklawn racing surface Thursday morning, galloping after the renovation break in advance of his scheduled 3-year-old debut in the second division of Saturday's $750,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) at 1 1/16 miles.
Game Winner (4 for 4) and unbeaten stablemate Improbable (3 for 3) arrived Wednesday morning following a flight that originated earlier in the day in Southern California. Improbable galloped before the renovation break Thursday morning. Both horses are under the care of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert's top assistant, Jimmy Barnes.
“I'd say we galloped just a little over a mile, probably a mile,” Barnes said. “We just went straight on, once around, and pulled up. Very good. Looked awesome on the track. Couldn't be happier. They went over the surface very nice. Usually our ship-ins, our first day, that's what we do. We just take it easy. Just let them get a look of things.”
Game Winner was installed the 4-5 program favorite for the second division (10 entrants). Improbable is the 3-5 program favorite for the Rebel's first division (nine entrants). Game Winner 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 the $500,000 San Felipe Stakes (G2) March 9 at Santa Anita. They were re-routed to Arkansas after Santa Anita announced March 5 it was suspending racing indefinitely because of poor weather and track conditions. Splitting the Rebel helped horsemen affected by the San Felipe's ultimate cancellation.
“It's tough in California right now,” Barnes said. “Hopefully, they'll get things worked out. This time it ended up working better for us because we were going to run both in the San Felipe, so this way they run apart. Thank God for Oaklawn. They had enough horses and enough money to split the race. They came through for us. That was awesome.”
The split means the Rebel, originally a $1 million race, will be worth $1.5 million overall, with each division offering $750,000 and 63.75 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby to the top four finishers (37.5, 15, 7.5 and 3.75).
Baffert has won the Rebel a record six times – 2010 (Lookin At Lucky), 2011 (The Factor), 2012 (Secret Circle), 2014 (Hoppertunity), 2015 (American Pharoah) and 2016 (Cupid). Like Game Winner, 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.
The Rebel is the final major local prep for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) April 13.
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