Hoppertunity not only got the best of three other rivals in a close finish in Saturday's Grade 2, $600,000 Rebel at Oaklawn Park, the bay colt also survived a stewards inquiry and jockey objection for interference in the stretch run to earn his first stakes victory.
Hoppertunity handed trainer Bob Baffert his fourth Rebel score from the past five runnings, following in the hoofsteps of Lookin at Lucky (2010), The Factor (2011) and Secret Circle (2012). Will Take Charge kept Baffert from going five straight when taking last year's Rebel, but the trainer got a bit of revenge when saddling Game On Dude to defeat his D. Wayne Lukas-conditioned challenger last Saturday in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap.
This Saturday was all about Hoppertunity, though, as the Any Given Saturday colt bided his time in third while Strong Mandate led through opening fractions of :24, :47 4/5 and 1:12 1/5. That Lukas pupil attempted to give his Hall of Fame trainer a second straight Rebel win by wiring the field, but soon found Ride on Curlin sneaking through to his inside. He was joined by Hoppertunity on the outside and Tapiture chose that moment to join the fray.
Tapiture pushed his way in between Hoppertunity and Strong Mandate. Hoppertunity, under left-handed encouragement from jockey Mike Smith, came in and bumped Tapiture, who in turn shoved into Strong Mandate. At the same time Ride on Curlin on the inside drifted out into Strong Mandate, giving the Tiznow colt a double whammy.
Soon after Strong Mandate fell back but Hoppertunity was still going strong on the outside, proving best by a half-length over Tapiture. Third-place finisher Ride on Curlin had another half-length to spare on Strong Mandate back in fourth.
Even as the field was pulling up, the inquiry sign began flashing on Oaklawn's toteboard. An objection notice was soon added as Ricardo Santana Jr. on Tapiture lodged his protest against the winner. After debating for several minutes, the stewards finally decided to allow the results to stand.
"That was exciting. Wow!" assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes exclaimed. "I saw what happened in the race live and I was saying to myself, that kid (Santana on Tapiture) is trying to push us out of the way to get by. We had enough horse that he wasn't getting by.
"Mike (Smith) said he just started running when he got bumped. That just made him run faster. He's tough. He's lightly raced. That was only his fourth race so that was exciting and I'm glad we came. Whether we come back for the Arkansas Derby is up to Bob."
Despite Baffert's prior record in the Rebel, Hoppertunity was sent off the 6-1 fourth choice in the eight-horse field and paid $14.20 for the win. He finished up 1 1/16 miles over the sealed, wet-fast dirt in 1:43 4/5. Tapiture, the 2-1 favorite, came next followed by Ride on Curlin, Strong Mandate, Sheltowee's Boy, Street Strategy, Kobe's Back and Jet Cat.
"He ran well. It was a pretty roughly run race by some fast horses," remarked Tapiture's trainer, Steve Asmussen.
"I tell you, I fancy him. I like him a lot," stated Ride on Curlin's rider, Kent Desormeaux. "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. I was kind of committed from where I was. But, he was comfortable. He's like riding a nine-year-old he's so cool."
"We haven't been able to get a clean trip yet," Lukas declared about Strong Mandate. "We got roughed up more than was indicated. I don't yet what's next for him. We haven't even gotten him cooled out yet. The Arkansas Derby is a month away."
Hoppertunity was making just his fourth career start in the Rebel and improved his career line to 4-2-0-0, $410,720, with the win. The bay finished fifth sprinting in his racing debut at Santa Anita on January 4, then stretched out to a mile to break his maiden 26 days later at that Arcadia, California, venue. Baffert shipped Hoppertunity to Fair Grounds for his stakes debut in the Grade 2 Risen Star in late February, and the sophomore colt rallied well from the rear of that 14-strong field to fourth on the wire.
Campaigned by Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman, Hoppertunity was purchased by Baffert acting as agent for $300,000 from the 2012 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.
If Baffert follows the same plan as previous Rebel winners The Factor and Secret Circle, Hoppertunity is now headed for the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 12, where he could add to the 50 points he earned Saturday toward a starting berth in the May 3 Kentucky Derby.
"Bob is in charge and he knows what to do. I'm just having fun being a passenger," Pegram said. "He looks like he'll go a mile-and-a-quarter and I wouldn't trade places with nobody. He's a nice horse and he proved it today. What you really want to see is a horse that will fight, and he showed it when he got bumped in there and held his ground. He responded. He's a fighter. We will run is some Derby. His next race will be a Derby if he comes out good out of here."
Bred in Kentucky by Betz/D.J. Stable/Kidder/J. Betz/Robenalt, Hoppertunity is out of the Grade 2-placed Unaccounted For mare Refugee, making him a half-brother to two-time Grade 1 heroine Executiveprivilege and multiple stakes-placed Profit.
His third dam is Hall of Famer Davona Dale, who would go on to produce 1989 Belmont Stakes third Le Voyageur, stakes-placed winners Macau and Davona Gold, and the dam of Grade 2 victor Just a Cat. Davona Dale's stakes-winning half-sister Aly's Adita would herself foal 2006 Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap hero Seek Gold.
This female line also includes Grade/Group 1 stars Agincourt, Flying Snowdrop and Sparkling Gem; 1984 Preakness Stakes-winning sire Gate Dancer; and Hall of Fame great Citation, who was honored as Horse of the Year in 1948 for, among other things, sweeping the Triple Crown.