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Hoppertunity headed back to California, for now
Rebel Stakes winner Hoppertunity was doing well Sunday morning and preparing to board a plane back to Southern California where a final decision will be made in the coming weeks about the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby April 12. Trainer Bob Baffert said he won't know until closer to the race if it will be Hoppertunity or one of his stablemates returning to Oaklawn for one of the last preps before the Kentucky Derby on May 3.
The Rebel Stakes was a dramatic finish to an exciting day that also featured millionaire Close Hatches making a winning four-year-old debut in the Azeri Stakes and Florida invader Golden Lad taking the Razorback Handicap. The top four finishers in the Rebel were within two lengths of each other after a roughly run last eighth of a mile that caused the stewards to post the inquiry sign. After a lengthy review of the race, they did not change the order of finish.
"That was a really exciting race, there were four horses coming down to the wire together with all of that pushing and shoving," said Baffert's top assistant Jim Barnes, who traveled with Hoppertunity and handled the saddling duties. "He came back just fine, no worse for the wear. It's up to Bob if we come back with him for the Arkansas Derby."
Runner-up Tapiture, the beaten 2-1 favorite, was also doing well Sunday morning despite the bumping with Hoppertunity.
"He came back good," trainer Steve Asmussen said. "He ate up good and he's bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this morning, which was the big concern. He didn't seem to mind (not winning) and he didn't get his feelings hurt. I wish we would have won, but we still have him and that's a good thing. Coming back in the Arkansas Derby is definitely the plan. That's why we're here."
For the second straight race, Ride On Curlin had to settle for third after also finishing third behind Tapiture and Strong Mandate in the Southwest Stakes on February 17.
"He came back great and is perfect this morning," trainer Billy Gowan said. "He likes a fight, and he got one and he ran hard. We'll just try to keep him sound and keep him moving forward for the Arkansas Derby. That's the way it looks."
Strong Mandate, the second betting choice in the Rebel, is still seeking his first win since last year's Hopeful Stakes, but has yet to have a clean trip in any of his recent races.
"He's fine this morning and we're looking forward to the next one (Arkansas Derby)," said Lukas. "Hopefully, we'll do better next time."
Hoppertunity earned 50 points with his Rebel Stakes victory to bring his total to 55 points based Churchill Downs' criteria for making the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field and is now ranked second among all three-year-olds on the Derby trail. Tapiture earned an additional 20 points for finishing second and is now ranked seventh with 42 points, Ride On Curlin is 14th with 15 points and Strong Mandate sits in 20th-place with 11 points. There will a total of 170 points available for the top four finishers of the Arkansas Derby with the winner receiving 100 points.