The twists and turns of this year's Road to the Kentucky Derby swing through Arkansas this weekend as a planeload of California-based horses joins the locals for two divisions of Oaklawn Park's Rebel Stakes.
Saturday's Grade II feature at the Hot Springs oval originally was worth $1 million. In light of Santa Anita's cancellation of last weekend's San Felipe, Oaklawn split the Rebel into two $750,000 divisiions and drew 19 entries. Among them are two of the top Kentucky Derby contenders, Game Winner and Improbable, both trained by Bob Baffert.
"We never dreamed the day would come they would close down Santa Anita, but we're getting through it," Baffert said as he prepared to ship reigning juvenile champ Game Winner and Improbable to Arkansas. "The main thing is that the 3-year-olds, they're doing well. I think it's very nice of them to want to split that race. That's the key thing."
The upside for Baffert is that Game Winner and Improbable, both undefeated, can remain that way come Sunday morning since they were drawn into separate divisions of the race. Game winner was installed as the 4-5 favorite in his division; Improbable as the 3-5 pick in his.
The original offer from Oaklawn was to split the race only if it got 20 or more horses but General Manager Wayne Smith the decision to bifurcate anyway was the right thing for both horsemen and fans.
"Knowing that some horsemen have very few options this late in the Triple Crown prep season, we felt the right thing to do was to follow through with the plan to split the Rebel," Smith said. "We also wanted to do it for the fans. We wouldn't even be in this position without the overwhelming support they've given us since the start of the season."
Game Winner, who captured the Breeders' Cup Juvenile en route to his champion season, gets a belated start as a 3-year-old in the second division of the Rebel. He is among four California refugees in the 10-horse field and two of the other three -- Omaha Beach and Gunmetal Gray -- have the credentials to compete, too. Our Braintrust invades from New York after finishing a close third in the Grade III Withers. Among the locals, Laughing Fox is one to watch if he can continue his steady improvement for trainer Steve Asmussen.
Improbable is among four displaced Californians in the nine-horse first division. He has not raced since winning the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity Dec. 8. Like Game Winner, he has something to prove off the layoff. Also in from the West Coast is Galilean, an Uncle Mo colt who has three wins and a second from four starts -- all against fellow California-breds. Long Range Toddy, an unlucky third in the Grade III Southwest over the course, seems best positioned to defend the home court.
Baffert-trained horses have won the Rebel six times: Lookin At Lucky in 2010, The Factor in 2011, Secret Circle in 2012, Hoppertunity in 2014, American Pharoah in 2015 and Cupid in 2016. Of those, only Lookin At Lucky and American Pharoah went on to the Kentucky Derby with the former finishing sixth and the latter starting his Triple Crown run.
Baffert has not been invincible in the race. He sent out Solomini to a runner-up finish behind Magnum Moon in 2018; American Anthem to finish 10th, beating only one horse, in 2017; and in 2013, Den's Legacy to finish third and Super Ninety Nine to report fifth.
The only other weekend race with potential Triple Crown implications is Saturday's $100,000 Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park. And that's more likely to turn up Preakness candidates than Derby contenders. Seven are set, among them the first- and third-place finishers from the local Miracle Wood Stakes -- Always Mining and Tybalt.
Saturday's $100,000 Beyond the Wire Stakes at Laurel Park could be eyed as a spot for Black-Eyed Susan hopefuls more than for Kentucky Oaks candidates. Eight fillies signed on for the race.