By Gary West, special to

Last year, for the first time since 2008, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert didn’t saddle a horse in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. But he could have. In fact, he could have sent out a few horses to pursue the roses. But having won the most famous of races three times, Baffert understood the Derby’s demands and its toll. He knew the sort of horse needed if there was to be any chance for success. And, he said, since he and his owners didn’t just want to participate but rather wanted to win, they would rather pass the race if they didn’t believe they had such a horse or the horse wasn’t ready for a top effort.

After sending out Hoppertunity to win Saturday’s Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., Baffert sounded as if he believes that this year he has found just such a horse. Even more, as the trainer pointed out, Hoppertunity is progressing and maturing at precisely the right time. As a late foal – May 7, to be specific – he could be expected to make significant progress this time of year; still, his development over the last three months has been nothing short of extraordinary. In January, he finished fifth in his debut, behind stablemate Bayern. And now, three races later, Hoppertunity has become not just a graded stakes winner, but a Kentucky Derby contender as well. As Baffert said, the big colt looks like “he can run all day.”

With the 50 qualifying points he earned for winning the Rebel, Hoppertunity pushed his total to 55, behind only Samraat’s 60.  But that’s not why, or not the only reason, Hoppertunity has suddenly become a Derby contender. His Rebel effort was both outstanding and auspicious, it was one of the better performances of the season, and with it, he propelled himself into the upper echelon of the division.

To put the performance in perspective and context, Hoppertunity ran the 1 1/16 miles over the officially “wet fast” surface in 1:43.90. Two races earlier, over the same sealed track, while making her first start since finishing second in last year’s Breeder's Cup Distaff, Close Hatches completed the 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.34. Hoppertunity, in other words, ran about two lengths faster than one of the best older fillies in the country, a filly who will probably compete this year for divisional honors and who already has earned nearly $1.5 million in her career. And Hoppertunity did this in only his fourth start despite some trouble along the way.

He raced three-to-four wide in both turns, drifting out slightly in the first. As it turned out, though, being outside worked to his advantage. As the field turned into the stretch, Strong Mandate held a small advantage over Ride On Curlin, with Tapiture waiting behind them for a seam and Hoppertunity, who had been close throughout, advancing outside. As Ride On Curlin dug in determinedly in the stretch, he drifted out, bumping Strong Mandate. It immediately became apparent there would be no seam for Tapiture, still blocked behind the top pair, unless jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. created one. So he did, easing Tapiture outside and breaching the sliver between Hoppertunity, who was advancing, and Strong Mandate. And so with Ride On Curlin drifting and Tapiture breaching and then Hoppertunity pushing back, well, the result was something that looked like a conga line whose members had been splashing around too long in the grog.

In the final sixteenth of a mile, Strong Mandate had enough of the dancing, and Hoppertunity decided to lead, finishing a half-length ahead of Tapiture. Ride On Curlin was another half-length back, with Strong Mandate fourth. Any change by official fiat to that order of finish would have been debatable, and stewards’ decisions that affect the outcome should be so obvious and indisputable that they’re beyond debate. Wisely, the Oaklawn stewards did not intrude.

While it was a breakthrough performance for Hoppertunity, the Rebel was a validation for Tapiture, who previously had won the Southwest Stakes by more than four lengths. An argument could be made, in fact, that Tapiture’s effort was at least as good as the winner’s. After all, he got the worst of all the bumping and nudging, and when he wasn’t blocked he found himself in an uncomfortable slot between horses, where neither he nor Santana could do his best work. Beyond the wire, though, when the music stopped and the drama subsided, Tapiture galloped out with the winner and, if anything, appeared the stronger of the two.

At this point, Tapiture, who has 42 qualifying points, and Hoppertunity look like serious Derby horses. Tapiture will make his next start in the Arkansas Derby, with Hoppertunity possible for the Santa Anita Derby as well. As for the others, Ride On Curlin and Strong Mandate both had an opportunity to win the Rebel, but simply weren’t good enough in the final sixteenth of a mile.    

Also this past week, highly regarded Honor Code returned to competition. Having missed three weeks of training early this year, he’s behind schedule – the Fountain of Youth had been intended for his first start of the season. And then the Rebel was picked out. But instead he went into an allowance race at Gulfstream Park, where he finished second. It was a useful effort for him, something he should be able to build upon, whether his next start comes in the Wood Memorial or the Florida Derby. His trainer, Shug McGaughey, seemed satisfied with the handsome colt’s performance, but pointed out that if Honor Code is to make his way to the Kentucky Derby, then from here on nothing more can go wrong for him.

Honor Code’s return was indeed both exciting and eventful, but not in the way that some might have expected. Making only the second start of his career, Social Inclusion stole the show. He went to the lead immediately, cruised along comfortably and set a track record for 1 1/16 miles, completing the distance in 1:40.97 while running away in the stretch to win by 10 lengths.

Yes, it was a sensational performance, but before the idolaters put a statue of Social Inclusion in the Gulfstream paddock and concede him a certain blanket of roses, they might want to consider the context of the performance and the history of the Derby. First, of the five races run on the main track that day, three were won by horses that grabbed an early lead, and only one winner rallied from more than 1 1/2 lengths back. In other words, the Gulfstream surface was speed biased, as it has been, somewhat tediously, for most of the season. The surface has been so speed happy that at least four track records have been set this year.  Also, Social Inclusion got away with early fractions more suggestive of a polka than a horse race, 24.32 seconds for the opening quarter-mile and 47.52 for the half. The situation won’t be duplicated when he advances into stakes company: If he runs the opening half-mile in 47.52 in the Florida Derby, which is possible for his next start, he won’t be on an easy lead but will instead find himself behind horses for the first time in his career and no better than fourth.

As for his chances of winning the first event in the Triple Crown, to do so, he, like Hoppertunity, would have to overcome 132 years of history. Hoppertunity and Social Inclusion didn’t race as 2-year-olds; and although it’s one of those facts that get tiresomely tossed around this time of year, it’s nevertheless insurmountably true that no Derby winner since Apollo in 1882 was unraced as a juvenile. It’s going to happen, though. Each year, it seems, there are more of these late-to-get-started types that join the parade to Kentucky. Bayern, for example, is another Kentucky Derby possibility that didn’t race last year.

And with horses making fewer starts as juveniles, it’s going to happen, and probably soon, that a horse unraced at 2 wins the Kentucky Derby in maybe his fourth or fifth start. It might even happen six weeks from now.