The road to the Kentucky Derby ran through Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., on Saturday with the 56th running of the $900,000 Rebel Stakes, one of 16 races in the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, which offers 50 qualifying points to the winner.
This second-biggest race day at Oaklawn included the $350,000 Azeri for fillies and mares 4 years old and older and the $350,000 Razorback Handicap for older males.
My friends involved in the annual girls’ getaway weekend we’ve named the Sisterhood of the Arkansas Derby were able to add a bonus girls’ trip to our schedules to become the Sisterhood of the Rebel Revelry. We planned our weekend and outfits with gusto. While hats are not as prominent at Oaklawn for this Triple Crown prep race as they are for the Arkansas Derby, our group decided to increase the number of chapeaux present.
THE SISTERHOOD WITH LUCKY THE HORSE
The Rebel Stakes coincided with the first Saturday of Spring Break for all Arkansas public schools so Hot Springs and Oaklawn were bustling, and there was not a vacant hotel room in the Spa City. The estimated attendance at the track on Saturday was 35,000.
KIDS ENJOYING THEIR SPRING BREAK
Each year, weather permitting, Oaklawn opens the infield for the last five Saturdays of racing, a stretch that begins with the Rebel and ends with the Arkansas Derby. Fans were thrilled to be in the park-within-a park once again, and it was a gorgeous, slightly cool spring day.
Announcer Pete Aiello, who is in his first season at Oaklawn Park, was ready to call the biggest race of his career at the track.
Eclipse Award winner Untapable was the favorite in the Azeri. The mare won the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn last April, and fans looked for her to return to her winning ways. But she was upset by Call Pat, the 5-1 second pick, ridden by Joe Rocco Jr. and trained by Brad Cox.
CALL PAT IN THE POST PARADE
In the Razorback, jockey Joe Bravo, who came to Oaklawn for the day, guided favorite Upstart to victory in his seasonal debut over a formidable field that included Far Right and Carve.
BRAVO AFTER HIS WIN
Anticipation was high for the Rebel. Oaklawn raised the purse for this race the fourth time in the past five years. With $900,000 and graduates like Smarty Jones, Curlin and American Pharoah in recent years, Oaklawn regulars would love to see the American Graded Stakes Committee upgrade the Rebel to Grade 1.
The Rebel was the second Kentucky prep race so far at Oaklawn with a field of 14 (the first was the Southwest). Half of the talented horses were gray, including four who were sired by Tapit: Creator, Cupid, Madtap and Gray Sky.
I loved six of the 14 horses and had trouble placing my bets. The connections of the Smarty Jones Stakes winner Discreetness included a local favorite pairing of trainer William “Jinks” Fires and his son-in-law jockey Jon Court. Creator, a stunning gray, was ridden by three-time Oaklawn top Jockey Ricardo Santana Jr., who currently has 29 more wins than second-place Corey Nakatani. Eyes were on Suddenbreakingnews, who in his last start came from last to win the Southwest Stakes and had finished first or second in each of his six career starts. The Thoroughbred Racing Dudes—two of my favorite handicappers—and I took a serious look at Whitmore prior to the race. The field was talented.
THE THOROUGHBRED RACING DUDES
When the gates opened, Cupid, a lightly-raced Bob Baffert trainee ridden by Martin Garcia and owned by Michael Tabor, Susan Magnier and Derrick Smith took the lead and never lost it. His finishing time of 1:43:84 on the fast track was faster than the day’s other two stakes races at the same 1 1/6 mile distance. In his stakes debut, Cupid beat challenger Whitmore by 1 ¼ lengths. Creator finished third and Cherry Wine came in fourth. This victory was Baffert’s sixth win in the past seven Rebels, adding to his lead of most victories in the race. He was represented at Oaklawn by assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes.
Racing fans will witness several of these contenders rematch in the Grade 1, $1-million Arkansas Derby on April 16, the final day of the meet at Oaklawn. The Arkansas Derby is the last major prep race for the Kentucky Derby at the track, offering the winner 100 points, second place 40 points, third place 20 points and fourth place 10 points.