As expected, one of Oaklawn's signature races for 3-year-olds was divided into two divisions after 19 horses were entered Wednesday morning for Saturday's Rebel Stakes at 1 1/16 miles, the final major local prep for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) April 13. 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).
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert figures to have the betting favorite in each division. Unbeaten champion Game Winner drew post five in the second division (10 entrants) and unbeaten Grade 1 winner Improbable drew post 9 in the first division (nine entrants).
Probable post time for the first division of the Rebel, the eighth of 11 races, is 4:57 p.m. (Central). Probable post time for the second division of the Rebel, which goes as race 10, is 6:06 p.m. Doors open Saturday at 11 a.m., with first post 1:05 p.m. Clear skies and highs in the upper 50s are predicted Saturday. Weather permitting, the infield will be open.
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 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.
Oaklawn President Louis Cella said March 6 the track was prepared to split the Rebel to accommodate Southern California horsemen impacted by the move, The Rebel was originally scheduled to offer 85 points (50-20-10-5) to the top four finishers toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby.
Game Winner and Improbable were flown to Arkansas Wednesday from their Southern California base. The flight also carried Rebel entrants Extra Hope and Omaha Beach for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, Galilean and Gunmetal Gray for Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, Parsimony for trainer Doug O'Neill and Easy Shot for trainer Keith Desormeaux.
Hall of Fame trainer and nine-time Oaklawn champion Steve Asmussen entered six horses for the Rebel, including Springboard Mile winner Long Range Toddy (first division) 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.
Asmussen also entered Ninth Street (first division), Laughing Fox (second division), Jersey Agenda (second division), Kaziranga (second division) and Captain Von Trapp (second division).
Oaklawn hadn't split one of its Kentucky Derby prep races since the Southwest Stakes (G3) in 2012. The 1 1/16-mile Southwest originally carried a purse of $250,000 that year, but it was split after 21 horses were entered. Each division was worth $250,000.
Baffert swept both races, with Castaway winning the first division (11 horses) and Secret Circle the second division (10 horses).
Churchill Downs has used a points system in designated races to help determine Kentucky Derby starting eligibility since 2013. Graded stakes earnings had previously been used.
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). 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.
In addition to the Rebel, post positions were drawn Wednesday morning for the $350,000 Azeri Stakes (G2) for older fillies and mares and the $350,000 Essex Handicap for older horses.
Six horses were entered in the 1 1/16-mile Azeri, including Grade 1 winners Midnight Bisou, Eskimo Kisses, Elate and Shamrock Rose. The Azeri is the final major local prep for the $750,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) April 14. The 1 1/16-mile Essex Handicap is the final major local prep for the $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) April 13.
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