Although the Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn Park dates back to 1961, its significance on the Road to the Kentucky Derby has increased by leaps and bounds since the turn of the century
Held annually in the middle of March, the Rebel awards Kentucky Derby qualification points to the top four finishers in a 50-20-10-5 basis, essentially guaranteeing the winner a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate on the first Saturday in May.
Originally known as the Rebel Handicap, the Rebel first rose to prominence in 1980, when the victorious Temperence Hill went on to win the Belmont Stakes (G1) and earn champion 3-year-old male honors. Three years later, Sunny’s Halo parlayed a Rebel triumph into victory in the Kentucky Derby, which surely contributed to the race achieving Grade 3 status in 1990.
The Rebel was lengthened from 1 mile and 70 yards to its current distance of 1 1⁄16 miles in 1984, and the race continued to crank out high-profile runners through the 1990s and 2000s. A small sampling includes 1992 Preakness (G1) winner Pine Bluff, 1998 Belmont Stakes winner Victory Gallop, and beloved 2004 Kentucky Derby/Preakness hero Smarty Jones.
Beginning in 2004, the Rebel underwent a series of lucrative purse increases, climbing quickly from $125,000 to $1 million by 2020. The jump in prize money, coupled with a boost to Grade 2 status in 2008, prompted more and more talented horse to utilize the Rebel as a springboard toward the spring classics.
Indeed, the roster of Rebel winners during this timeframe reads like a “who’s who” of champions and classic winners. Lawyer Ron (2006), Curlin (2007), Lookin At Lucky (2010), Will Take Charge (2013), and American Pharoah (2015) all claimed top honors in the Rebel, and American Pharoah achieved special renown with his subsequent successes in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes, becoming the first horse in 37 years to sweep the Triple Crown.
American Pharoah’s Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has been the dominant conditioner of Rebel winners, sending seven horses to the winner’s circle between 2010 and 2020. Yet the longstanding stakes record belongs to Vanlandingham, a Shug McGaughey trainee who clocked 1:41.00 in 1984. Vanlandingham later won three Grade 1 races on his way to champion older male honors of 1985.
All told, the Rebel produced 23 Kentucky Derby starters during the 2010s, averaging 2.3 per year. The race is—and will surely remain—one of the most important stops on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
By J. Keeler Johnson