Horses from the barn of dual Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert always feel right at home in Arkansas at Oaklawn Park.
The Hall-of Fame conditioner is known for a dry wit, a bright shock of white hair and, of course, scooping up cash by winning big races. His home base is Southern California, but his Kentucky Derby-caliber steeds have continually made their mark at the historic Hot Springs oval, especially in races such as the 59th Rebel Stakes.
On the Road to Arkansas
Both of Baffert’s two top Derby horses, Game Winner and Improbable, are leaving Southern California for Oaklawn after 21 fatal injuries at Santa Anita, their home stomping grounds, led officials to cancel the Derby prep San Felipe Stakes earlier this month and suspend racing until March 22 as the main racing surface underwent renovation.
The two Baffert stablemates both posted strong workouts Sunday at Los Alamitos, a mostly Quarter Horse track about an hour’s drive from Santa Anita. Now, along with several additional locally based Derby hopefuls, they are heading for the land of Razorbacks.
Saturday’s Rebel, to accommodate the California shippers, is split into two divisions for the first time in the race’s rich history — each to be contested at 1 1/16 miles for $750,000.
Game Winner and Improbable, are expected to be the bettors’ choice in each division of the 2019 Rebel. The winner will be awarded 37.5 points as part of the schedule that rewards the leading point getters with priority status to make the gate for the US’s most prestigious race, the first Saturday in May – this year May 4. The race is limited to 20 starters.
No Stranger to Oaklawn Success
Three Rebel winners, Sunny’s Halo (1983), Smarty Jones (2004) and Baffert’s first Triple Crown hero American Pharoah (2015) have all gone on to Churchill Downs in Louisville to wear the garland of roses synonymous with the Kentucky Derby victor. Baffert achieved Triple Crown glory for the second time last year with Justify.
Game Winner is the Eclipse Award-winning two-year-old champion, a perfect four for four on the racetrack. Improbable is also undefeated, winning three of three starts. But, neither has raced in 2019. Race fans easily recall that eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah began his stellar 3-year-old season in the 2015 Rebel, crushing his six opponents by 6 ¼ lengths.
Game Winner is currently 5th on the Kentucky Derby points leaderboard and Improbable ranks 17th. Both may be in need of strong races to maintain position on the Derby-points leaderboard.
Leading East Coast horseman Todd Pletcher has won the Rebel the last two years, but is not represented in either division of this year’s race.
Baffert students are usually dominating the Rebel, winning it six of seven years before Pletcher’s wins in 2017 and 2018.
That string of excellence includes:
- 2010 – Lookin at Lucky
- 2011 – The Factor
- 2012 – Secret Circle
- 2014 – Hoppertunity
- 2015 – American Pharoah
- 2016 – Cupid
Stacking Up the Competition
Don’t look for winner of the Southwest Stakes, the local prep for this race, on Saturday. Super Steed is now off the Kentucky Derby trail after sustaining a minor injury after winning that race, exploding the tote board at 60/1 odds. Both Baffert horses will be heavy favorites. But, who might challenge them is providing the handicapping puzzle.
Improbable will break from post nine facing eight others in the first division carded as race eight on the eleven-race program. Post time is 5:57 ET. For the full field and riders click here.
Game Winner breaks from post five in the second division scheduled at 7:06 ET. He faces a field of ten including a four-horse fusillade from trainer Steve Asmussen. For the full field and riders click here.