The last person any race fan expects to see contracting “seconditis” is Hall-of-Fame trainer Bob Baffert. But that’s just what happened to both his leading Kentucky Derby contenders, Improbable (2/5 on the odds board) and Game Winner (the public’s 1/2 favorite) Saturday at Oaklawn Park.

Omaha Beach wins by a nose
Omaha Beach, on the inside, slugs it out with Game Winner at Oaklawn Park to win by a nose. (Image: Coady Photography)

The Baffert duo, re-routed from Southern California to Arkansas for split divisions of the Rebel Stakes, each tasted defeat for the first time. Game Winner, the two-year-old champion and a perfect four for four on the racetrack, lost by a nose to Omaha Beach. Improbable, three for three in competition, racing four wide around both turns, succumbed to Long Range Toddy by a neck.

It was the first 2019 start for both Baffert trainees.

Game Winner to Santa Anita, Improbable to Arkansas

Baffert says we’ll see Game Winner next in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6. Improbable is being pointed for the Arkansas Derby a week later, also at Oaklawn. Both are 1 1/8mile races for a purse of $1 million. The Kentucky Derby is contested a 1 1/4 mile.

After the races that saw both gain valuable Kentucky Derby points, Baffert said he was just pleased to see both in a real race since the suspension of racing at their home track, Santa Anita. The historic Southern California plant is set to resume pari-mutuel activity on March 29.

Both Game Winner and Improbable were sent to Hot Springs when the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita was postponed then cancelled in the aftermath of a series of equine fatalities, largely being blamed on an unsafe racing surface.

Long Range Toddy — $18.80-$4.20-$2.60 — is trained by another Hall of Famer, Steve Asmussen. With veteran rider Jon Court cleverly working out a ground-saving journey, horse and rider swooped by Improbable for the winners’ share of the $750,000 purse and the 37.5 Kentucky Derby points going along with it. Improbable, under jockey Drayden Van Dyke, was kept wide throughout, charging to the lead at the top of the stretch, only to be worn down by the winner. For the complete chart of the race click here.

Richard Mandella, a compatriot of Baffert’s in Southern California and in racing’s Hall of Fame, is the trainer of Omaha Beach, another refugee from that region’s racing upheaval. Jockey Mike Smith, known as “Big Money Mike” for his propensity to win important, high value races, was in the irons astride Omaha Beach for the first time. Smith moving to the lead at the half of the 1 1/16 mile-event, saw a sustained challenge from Game Winner gradually advancing from the top of the stretch onwards only to lose by a nose.  It was Omaha Beach’s second 2019 start. For the complete chart of the race click here.

War of Will Still Leading Pack

Both Rebel division winners and both runner-ups occupy four of the top ten spots in the Derby points standings. Click here for the complete, updated standings.

The Kentucky Derby is restricted to 20 starters. The top point getters retain first priority to enter the Churchill Downs starting gate in Louisville the first Saturday in May – this year May 4.

The Derby points kingpin right now is War of Will for trainer Mark Casse. He’ll be seen next in Saturday’s $1 million Louisiana Derby. If he can repel 10 rivals in the New Orleans’ Fair Grounds signature race, he’ll sweep all three local preps, already impressively winning the Lecomte and Risen Star Stakes.

War of Will is a heavily favored 6/5 on the morning line.