Bob Baffert continued his mastery of the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, winning the 1 1/16-mile event for the fourth time in the last five years as Hoppertunity emerged as a viable Kentucky Derby contender. The Hall of Fame trainer had to be pleased to see his inexperienced colt overcome a rough trip.
Hoppertunuity is playing catch-up, needing two starts to break his maiden after a belated career debut on January 4, and he didn't bring high expectations into the Rebel following a non-threatening fourth in his stakes bow, the February 22 Risen Star at Fair Grounds. The bay son of Any Given Saturday displayed plenty of grit after being knocked around in the stretch drive by runner-up Tapiture, refusing to yield position as he finished up gamely against a more seasoned foe.
He needs to keep improving in his final prep, most likely the Arkansas Derby on April 12, and his run style could prove advantageous. Unlike so many contenders this year, the late-blooming sophomore will be looking to overhaul the front-runners from off the pace in the Kentucky Derby.
Two scoring races will be offered this weekend, Saturday's Spiral at Turfway Park and Sunday's Sunland Derby. Both are worth a total of 85 points, including 50 to the winner.
Animal Kingdom switched from turf to Polytrack in the 2011 Spiral, scoring by 2 3/4 lengths before posting a 20-1 upset win in the Kentucky Derby. The Spiral also produced 1992 Kentucky Derby hero Lil E. Tee, who sandwiched a narrow runner-up finish in the Arkansas Derby between victories at Turfway Park and Churchill Downs.
The most distinguished alumnus from the Sunland Derby, Mine That Bird, was overlooked at 13-1 and wound up a well-beaten fourth in the 2009 edition at the New Mexico track. That somehow set him up for a 50-1 upset in the slop.
Hoppertunity raced well off the pace in two of his first three starts, but he settled closer to moderate early fractions in the Rebel (:24. :47 4/5 and 1:12 1/5). Strong Mandate showed the way on a short lead between horses from the start.
Mike Smith kept Hoppertunity at least three wide the entire way over the wet-fast track. Ride on Curlin was down on the inside turning for home, with Strong Mandate to his immediate outside and Hoppertunity third in a line.
Tapiture was stuck in a pocket behind the top three most of the way, a little rank early tossing his head on the first turn, and the 2-1 favorite desperately needed running room approaching the conclusion of the far turn.
The contact started around the eighth pole as Tapiture slammed into Hoppertunity from the inside, opening some space. But that rival didn't accelerate past and Smith was determined to maintain a straight path as Hoppertunity continued to soldier on, coming in slightly as the runners tightened up in deep stretch. All four horses exchanged bumps inside the final furlong.
Hoppertunity was going best in the final sixteenth of a mile and wound up a half-length ahead of Tapiture, whose rider claimed foul for interference. But the stewards found no fault with the winner and let the result stand.
"Mike said he just started running when he got bumped. That just made him run faster," assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes said of Hoppertunity. "He's tough. He's lightly raced. That was only his fourth race so that was exciting and I'm glad we came."
Hoppertunity notched a career-best 99 BRIS Speed rating as well as 100 Late Pace number. Given how demanding the Kentucky Derby can be with 20 horses, his ability to thrive upon contact should be viewed as a plus.
A son of Distorted Humor, who sired Derby winner Funny Cide, Any Given Saturday is perhaps best known for upsetting two-time Horse of the Year Curlin in the 2007 Haskell Invitational. He was bred for classic distances (out of an A.P. Indy mare) and Hoppertunity's female family includes a number of stamina influences as well.
Unraced two-year-olds are up against from a historical perspective -- Apollo was the last unraced two-year-old winner in 1882 -- but that trend figures to come to an end eventually with so many lightly-raced horses making the race nowadays.
Tapiture experienced a troubled trip and could show more in the Arkansas Derby, but he's out of an Olympio mare and will need to outrun his pedigree in the Kentucky Derby.
Ride on Curlin remains an outsider at this juncture, but he turned in an improved effort in third and will look to keep moving forward in his final prep.
"I tell you, I fancy him. I like him a lot," three-time Kentucky Derby winner Kent Desormeaux said of Ride on Curlin. "At the half-mile pole, I thought I could win. The only thing I didn't like was my post. I think if I had had an outside post, it would have been better."
Strong Mandate's stock dropped. He figured to improve upon a troubled second in the February 17 Southwest but didn't come close to meeting expectations, weakening to finish 2 1/2 lengths back of the winner. Despite a mouth-watering pedigree for classic distances and soft early fractions, the Tiznow colt appeared out of gas in upper stretch.
But it would be premature to give up completely on Strong Mandate. It may not work out, but D. Wayne Lukas is racing him into shape and the Grade 1 winner has at least some quality to him.
The Coach is arguably the greatest Kentucky Derby trainer of all time and Lukas orchestrated tremendous turnarounds last season from Oxbow (snapped a four-race losing skein with a 15-1 upset in the Preakness) and Will Take Charge (beaten by more than 45 combined lengths in the Triple Crown before developing into a champion). He hopes to get a lot more out of Strong Mandate now that it's crunch time.
And this is the type of year (only one prep race has produced a triple-digit Speed rating) that an underachiever could develop into a major player over the final six weeks.
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