And then there were two.
Oaklawn Park‘s decision to offer a divided renewal of the 1 1/16-mile Rebel (G2) in the wake of a temporary cessation of racing at Santa Anita has paid off handsomely as the two current favorites for the Kentucky Derby (G1), Game Winner and Improbable, will each be on hand to entertain what figures to be a large crowd at Oaklawn Park on Saturday.
Originally worth $1 million, the Rebel’s two divisions will now carry purses of $750,000 each. With a 25 percent reduction in purse comes a similar size cut in Kentucky Derby qualifying points on offer. Instead of the original 50-20-10-5 split to the top four finishers, each division’s Derby points will now be offer a 37.5-15-7.5-3.75 breakdown.
“We never dreamed the day would come they would close down Santa Anita, but we’re getting through it,” said trainer Bob Baffert, who trains both Game Winner and Improbable. “The main thing is that the three-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.”
Another nice thing for the stable is that the two protagonists, per Oaklawn rules, were placed in separate divisions. A showdown between the two would have occurred last weekend had Santa Anita been able to run the San Felipe (G2), which had been the original destination for both colts.
There will be a difference of opinion on which division is more difficult. Undefeated juvenile champion Game Winner highlights the second, which marks his first start since taking the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) by 2 1/4 lengths at Churchill Downs in November. He had previously notched wins in the Del Mar Futurity (G1) and FrontRunner (G1), and has already accumulated 30 Derby qualifying points.
Gunmetal Gray, second in the American Pharoah and fifth in the Juvenile, has two runs under his belt this term with a win in the Sham (G3) and a second in the Robert B. Lewis (G3). Stakes winner Our Braintrust comes south after missing by a neck in the Withers (G3) in his first start since being privately acquired by owner Gary Barber and trainer Mark Casse.
Steve Asmussen has four horses in the second division, including allowance winners Laughing Fox and Jersey Agenda. The latter was a leading contender in last month’s Southwest (G3), but was bumped in the first turn by Gray Attempt and was a spent force by the stretch.
A potential second choice in the division is Omaha Beach, a nine-length maiden winner last out for Richard Mandella after posting three narrow losses in succession. The Rebel will be the first time in his career the son of War Front will not be favored in the wagering.
The anticipation for the return to action of Improbable is as strong, if not more so, than his more decorated stablemate. An odds-on winner in all three of his outings to date, he’ll be a heavy favorite once again in the first division of the Rebel.
A neck winner of his debut going six furlongs, Improbable had a much easier time taking the $100,000 Street Sense at Churchill on Breeders’ Cup weekend, and then earned his first 10 Derby qualifying points winning the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) by five lengths.
His main rival is the California-bred Galilean, who was actually penciled in for the Rebel long before the situation at Santa Anita others to be re-routed. The Jerry Hollendorfer-trained son of Uncle Mo is three-for-four and tests open company for the first time after blowout wins in the $100,000 King Glorious and $200,000 California Cup Derby against state-breds.
Mandella and Asmussen have representatives in the first division as well. The former’s Extra Hope, a distant third in the Los Alamitos Futurity, jumps back into stakes waters following an allowance win in the slop at Santa Anita. Stakes veteran Long Range Toddy, who captured the $400,000 Springboard Mile in December, has 16 Derby points now after subsequent placings in the $150,000 Smarty Jones and Southwest.
In addition to the two Rebel divisions, Oaklawn’s Saturday card features an outstanding renewal of the $350,000 Azeri (G2) featuring multiple Grade 1 winners Elate and Midnight Bisou, Alabama (G1) winner Eskimo Kisses, and Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) heroine Shamrock Rose.
The 11-race program also includes the $350,000 Essex H. for older horses, a 1 1/2-mile starter allowance, and five maidens and allowances for three-year-olds that carry a minimum purse of $100,000. First post is 1:05 p.m. (CST).