Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman's Secret Circle continued his mastery of Oaklawn Park's road to the Kentucky Derby, driving to a three-quarter length victory as the even-money favorite in Saturday's Grade 2, $500,000 Rebel Stakes. Just as he had done in the second division of the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes on February 20, the Bob Baffert trainee had to work to overhaul Scatman down the stretch. Secret Circle finally forged to the front, then held off the late lunge of 27-1 shot Optimizer to stake his claim as the horse to beat in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on April 14.
"It looks like he will (keep going)," assistant trainer Jim Barnes said of Secret Circle, who was stepping up to 1 1/16 miles for the first time.
"Bob will decide all that (regarding future plans), but we did what we had to today. He got the mile and a sixteenth and showed he could rate a bit. I'll be getting my room for the Arkansas Derby tomorrow."
Secret Circle became Baffert's third straight Rebel winner, emulating Lookin at Lucky (2010) and The Factor (2011).
Breaking alertly beneath Rafael Bejarano, Secret Circle settled into an outside stalking spot just off the pace in fourth, a touch further back than his pace-prompting trip in the Southwest. Up front, Unbridled's Note showed the way through an opening quarter in :23 2/5, and was joined by Scatman when reaching the half in :47.
As Scatman took sole possession of the lead at the six-furlong mark in 1:11 2/5, Secret Circle was being asked to improve his position. He responded and advanced between horses, but entering the stretch, Scatman appeared to be getting away from him.
Secret Circle dug down gamely, despite drifting out under left-handed urging, and wore down Scatman. The only closer to emerge as a threat was Optimizer, who suddenly rallied into contention inside the final sixteenth. Secret Circle found enough to survive the late scare, completing 1 1/16 miles in 1:44 2/5 on the fast track and returning $4, $3.20 and $2.80.
"I'm glad they made the decision to bring him back here," Bejarano said. "It was the right decision. He was really ready today. The key was getting him to relax. He has lots of talent."
Optimizer's near-miss thrilled trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
"We are real proud," Lukas said. "We didn't get beat by much, only about a half-length. They only get longer and tougher from here. That's the way it goes."
"I had to come four wide in the final drive," said Jon Court, Optimizer's rider. "Two more jumps, and I think I would have gotten there. I won three races today, and I think I would have traded them for this one. I'm not complaining because this horse is really nice."
Scatman held third, 1 1/2 lengths behind Optimizer.
"I'm disappointed," trainer Mike Lauer said of Scatman. "I thought we were right there at the eighth-pole, but he just didn't finish. I don't know. He started relaxing a little bit in the stretch, and (jockey) Luis (Quinonez) said he did the same thing in his last race. We hope that's something we can work on."
Jake Mo grabbed fourth, followed by Cyber Secret, Najjaar, Adirondack King, 4-1 second choice Sabercat, Pee H Dee, Reckless Jerry, Atigun and a tailed-off Unbridled's Note. Ring It Up, who formed part of an entry with Pee H Dee, was scratched after spiking a fever.
Trainer Lynn Whiting wasn't pleased with how Cyber Secret raced en route to finishing fifth.
"He was just pulling (jockey) Robby (Albarado) right out of the pad," Whiting said. "We are going to have to go back and make an adjustment, maybe take off the blinkers or something. He was chasing from the three-quarter pole, and he can't win doing that."
Trainer Danny Peitz indicated that sixth-placer Najjaar, who made up a ton of ground from last, could still advance to the Arkansas Derby.
"He was going backwards at the start," Peitz said. "He made a nice run, but I wish he would have broke with the rest of them, so we'd know if he could have been closer. If he comes out of this good, we'll look at the Arkansas Derby."
Secret Circle improved his stellar record to 6-5-1-0, $818,990. The son of Eddington ran exclusively in sprints at two, dominating in his Del Mar debut and romping in the Jack Goodman Stakes at Santa Anita before holding on in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint.
Stretching out to two turns in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes on January 7 at Santa Anita, he argued a fast pace and was just nabbed by the highly-regarded Out of Bounds. Baffert decided to give him another two-turn chance at Oaklawn, and the Southern California shipper duly won his Southwest division, in a final time that was a full second faster than the first division.
Bred by Willmott Stables in Kentucky, Secret Circle was led out unsold after bringing a bid of just $17,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. The bay made great strides by the time he was offered at OBS last March, where he was sold for $165,000. Secret Circle is out of multiple stakes victress Ragtime Hope, a Dixieland Band mare who is herself a half-sister to Grade 3 heroine Really Polish. Notable family members include Grade 1-winning millionaire Clever Trevor.