The day included a few cashed tickets.
Rebel Stakes day is one of the most important race cards at Oaklawn Park. Last year, Oaklawn added the Azeri and Razorback Handicap to the Rebel undercard, creating a Racing Festival of the South preview day. These races draw champions and strong competitors and I've anticipated this day for some time.
Upon arrival, my first stop was to visit Mark the Magician, a handicapper who dispenses his wizardry while sitting on the bar at Crosswalk, which is located across the street from the track’s main entrance. Mark and his picks are featured on The Buzz 103.7, an immensely popular sports radio station in central Arkansas. We discussed betting a tap-tap-tap pick 3 in races 7-9: Untapable, Tapiture and Hottap.
Bagpipers were on hand to greet the 30,000 people who came for the Rebel. The Salvation Army was also at its regular post, and I was not alone in hoping that a few dollars in the red bucket provides good karma for race day success.
I paused by the horse and jockey statue painted to match the saddle cloth and silks of the most recent Arkansas Derby winner and wondered if one of today’s contenders would be represented on this statue next.
Racing began, and my friend Terri and I were elated to hit the exacta in the first. It paid $192.40. I love this game.
A rainy week did not allow the infield to open as planned. Intermittent rain continued throughout Saturday’s card. Initially, the track was rated good, but it was downgraded to sloppy later in the day. However, the weather did not stop the festive atmosphere on the track’s apron.
Sharm, trained by D. Wayne Lukas and owned by Zayat Stables, finished third in the fourth race. Entrepreneur Ahmed Zayat formed Zayat Stables years ago. He was born in Cairo, Egypt, and moved to the United States at age 18. Sharm’s stablemate, last year's 2-year-old champion American Pharoah, was making his 2015 debut in the Rebel. Zayat was at Oaklawn Park for the first time, and his sons Justin and Benjamin were with him. “There’s a lot of energy here,” Ahmed said. Justin agreed. “We love it here,” he said.
Oaklawn has a very social atmosphere. One objective of my party was celebrating a friend’s birthday. This group came for a bachelorette weekend.
Of course, no visit to Oaklawn would be complete without a corned beef sandwich. The Oaklawn corned beef ranks highly in the list of favorite race track foods of North America. I prefer the Reuben, the corned beef’s dressed up cousin. It is perfectly paired with an Oaklawn margarita.
In the Grade 2, $300,000 Azeri Stakes, Untapable, the champion 3-year-old female, was the 1-9 favorite. She is trained by Steve Asmussen and was ridden by John Velazquez. The last time she raced, she won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff with Rosie Napravnik and her expected child on board but this time longshot Gold Medal Dancer upset Untapable, winning by half a length.
The next race was the Grade 3, $250,000 Razorback Handicap. The competitive field included Tapiture, Ride On Curlin, Carve, Golden Ticket and Midnight Hawk. Race Day, trained by Todd Pletcher with Velazquez up, came away with the victory.
The feature race was the Grade 2, $750,000 Rebel Stakes. It is one of 16 races in the Kentucky Derby Championship Series. It offers 85 qualifying points, with 50 going to the winner. American Pharoah, the biggest star of the day, was the 2-5 favorite, but he still had formidable competition: Madefromlucky (whose sire Lookin At Lucky won the 2010 Rebel), The Truth or Else (who finished second in the Southwest) and Bold Conquest (who is by Curlin, the victor of the 2007 Rebel, a two-time Horse of the Year and a Hall of Famer).
American Pharoah proved to be much the best. He handled shipping, a long layoff, a misplaced right front shoe and a sloppy track with ease. Victor Espinoza guided last year’s champion to victory in the 6 ¼ length win. This win was trainer Bob Baffert’s fifth of the past six Rebel Stakes.
Baffert and Zayat said that American Pharoah’s next start on the road to the Kentucky Derby will probably be the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, which offers the winner 100 points. Before the Rebel, American Pharoah was the individual favorite in the Kentucky Derby future wager pool 3.
American Pharoah is by Zayat’s Pioneerof the Nile, who finished second in the 2009 Kentucky Derby. The names American Pharoah and Pioneerof the Nile are salutes to his Egyptian heritage.
Overall, it was a great day at Oaklawn and racing fans have four more weeks to enjoy the season. It culminates in The Racing Festival of the South, a week that offers nine stakes races. Highlights of the week include the Grade 1, $600,000 Apple Blossom Handicap, the Grade 2, $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap and the Grade 1, $1-million Arkansas Derby.