Excitement Builds for Rebel Stakes Day Saturday at Oaklawn

Events / Travel
Horses break out of the starting gate on Rebel Stakes day in 2018 at Oaklawn Park. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Rebel Stakes day — the second-biggest day of racing at Oaklawn Park — is Saturday. Only Arkansas Derby day offers higher purses and bigger races at the Hot Springs, Ark. track.

The $1 million, Grade 2 Rebel, a Kentucky Derby prep offering 50-20-10-5 qualifying points to the top four finishers, anchors the five-stakes card, which also includes the Grade 2 Azeri Stakes for fillies and mares 4-year-olds and older.

In 2019, the Rebel set attendance and handle records when 45,500 fans (a best for this day) helped wager the then all-time Oaklawn record of $16.2 million. Last year, the race fell on the first weekend that COVID-19 led to empty grandstands (a few weeks later, a sports-hungry public wagered off-track handle of $41 million on Arkansas Derby day).

This season, Oaklawn is allowing limited attendance. The popular infield, a park within a park, opened last Saturday and will open the remaining Saturdays of the meet, weather permitting. Hot Springs, a racing town, is ready to return.

The 2004 edition of the race stands out in its rich 61-year history. Oaklawn was celebrating its 100th anniversary, and President Charles Cella marked the occasion by offering the Oaklawn Centennial Bonus of $5 million — which at the time was the largest bonus in North American horse racing history — to any horse who won the Rebel, the Arkansas Derby, and the Kentucky Derby.

This feat had only been accomplished by Sunny’s Halo in 1983. Smarty Jones captured the Rebel by 3 1/4 lengths and the hearts of Arkansans and went on to win the Arkansas Derby, the Kentucky Derby, and the Preakness Stakes before finishing a devastating second to longshot Birdstone in the Belmont Stakes.

American Pharoah statue (Coady Photography)

In 2015, American Pharoah became the third horse to sweep the Rebel, the Arkansas Derby, and the Kentucky Derby. The Rebel was his 3-year-old debut, and he aced it, winning by 6 1/4 lengths on a sloppy track. The race prepared him for Preakness conditions, where he won by seven lengths in a torrential downpour. American Pharoah went on to be the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years and the first to add a Breeders’ Cup Classic to his resume. A bronze statue of American Pharoah is now the focal point of the entrance to Oaklawn’s grandstand.

Top 2021 contenders looking to be included in Rebel history include Caddo River, who won the Smarty Jones stakes by 10 1/4 lengths. He is trained by newly-named Eclipse Award winner Brad Cox and owned Arkansan John Ed Anthony’s Shortleaf Stables, who has won the Rebel five times. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who has seven wins in the race, will send undefeated Concert Tour; and Keepmeinmind, conditioned by 2020 Oaklawn leading trainer Robertino Diodoro, makes his 3-year-old debut after breaking his maiden in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes Nov. 28 at Churchill Downs.

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