Hoppertunity might not know much about racing yet, but his pure talent was enough to get the job done in the $600,000 Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn Park March 15 (VIDEO).
Closing hard down the stretch in pursuit of pacemaker Strong Mandate with Southwest Stakes (gr. III) winner Tapiture close behind, the 3-year-old son of Any Given Saturday held his position under Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith as Tapiture and jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. bumped into his left side. Ride On Curlin also came out from his spot on the inside, bumping Strong Mandate a few strides from the line.
The incident, before an announced crowd of 30,873, resulted in a stewards' inquiry and claim of foul from Santana. But in the end Hoppertunity's half-length victory was preserved over 2-1 favorite Tapiture, Winchell Thoroughbreds' homebred son of Tapit trained by Steve Asmussen.
"He ran well," Asmussen said. "It was a pretty roughly run race by some fast horses."
"We based our decision on the fact that Ricardo Santana Jr. pushed his way out from behind (Strong Mandate) as the horses were straightening out in the stretch," Oaklawn steward Larry Snyder reported. "We felt Mike Smith was just holding his position. The rider of the 4 horse (Joel Rosario on Strong Mandate) never had to stop riding."
"He pushed me out to get out," Smith said of Santana. "He was looking for racing room, and I totally understand that, but I wasn't going to keep giving him ground, I've got to hold my ground at some point, and that's what I did. I held my ground and we bumped. Hoppertunity didn't even start running 'till they bumped him. He just took off then."
Unraced last year and making just his fourth start for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, the bay colt announced his presence on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) before a crowd of 30,873 off a fourth in the Feb. 22 Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots.
His win in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel gave him 55 points on the Derby leaderboard (he had 5 from the Risen Star), where he now ranks second behind undefeated Gotham Stakes (gr. III) winner Samraat. It was his first stakes score and second overall win for Mike Pegram, Karl Watson, and Paul Weitman, the trio that owned 2010 Rebel winner Lookin At Lucky and 2012 Rebel victor Secret Circle.
"I think we've got a pretty good swimming instructor," Pegram said of Baffert throwing Hoppertunity into the deep end off his Jan. 30 maiden win and the fourth in the Risen Star. "I think he could train Michael Phelps."
Baffert, who won his fourth Rebel in the past five years, said Hoppertunity came out of the Risen Star well. A solid five-furlong move in 1:00 1/5 at Santa Anita Park March 11 helped him decide on the Arkansas trip. A May 7 foal, Hoppertunity was fifth in his Jan. 4 debut at Santa Anita, a seven-furlong race won by impressive stablemate Bayern, before going on to break his maiden by three lengths going a mile.
"We were hoping for a perfomance like that; (1 1/16 miles) might be a little short for him, but he really bounced back well after that last race at Fair Grounds," Baffert said. "I think he got a lot of experience as big a field as it was (14 horses), he was way back and ate a lot of dirt that day. He didn't give up and he showed a lot of determination in that race. In California we have short fields and we don't have that kind of seasoning.
"He's a horse that back in November wasn't even on the radar, and I've just let him develop on his own. He came out of that race really well and I waited to the last minute to decide what to do, like I always do. After he worked I called Mike (Pegram) and said 'We're going to get on the plane, get ready.' He was glad to go and I was glad he was there."
Hoppertunity was mid-pack at the start of the Rebel at odds of 6-1 in a field of eight. Smith kept him well within striking distance in third off a pace set by Strong Mandate. The Southwest Stakes (gr. III) runner-up ran opening fractions of :24.06, :47.97, and 1:12.24 with Ride On Curlin forwardly placed and dueling inside.
Four wide into the lane, Hoppertunity brushed with Tapiture, who had been alternating fifth and fourth in the second flight along the inside under restraint. Santana, looking for room with three sixteenths to go, was in tight late and out-kicked for the finish line.
Hoppertunity, carrying 117 pounds, returned $14.20, $5.80, and $4.20, while 122-pound topweight Tapiture paid $3.80 and $4.20. Ride On Curlin held for third and paid $4.60.
"I like him a lot," said Hall of Fame rider Kent Desormeaux, who got the mount on Ride On Curlin for trainer Billy Gowan. "At the half-mile pole, I thought I could win. The only thing I didn't like was my post (2). 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 9-year-old, he's so cool."
Strong Mandate, Sheltowee's Boy, Street Strategy, Kobe's Back, and Jet Cat completed the order of finish. Final time was 1:43.90 on a wet/fast sealed track.
Baffert said the $1 million Arkansas Derby (gr. I) April 12 could be a target for Hoppertunity, but in typical fashion he will make that decision closer to raceday.
"I'm going to get him back here (to California) and we'll be back there with something, but I don't know (if it will be him)," Baffert said. "I can't think that far ahead. He'll let me know what to do."
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas also said he did not know what the future would hold for Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) winner Strong Mandate.
"We haven't been able to get a clean trip yet," he said of the colt's 3-year-old season. "We got roughed up more than was indicated. I don't yet know what's next for him. We haven't even gotten him cooled out yet."
Bred in Kentucky by Betz, D.J. Stable, Kidder, Betz, and Robenalt out of the Unaccounted For mare Refugee, Hoppertunity is a half brother to recently retired multiple grade I winner Executiveprivilege. He was purchased by Baffert at the 2012 Keeneland September yearling sale for $300,000 when consigned by Betz Thoroughbreds. His record now stands at two wins from four starts, with $410,720 in earnings.
"He's totally different than his sister," Baffert said. "She had brilliance, she was fast and a really great mare, and I rarely chase families, but he looked like a two-turn type of horse and I've had luck with that sire, so it just worked out. He looks to me like he's my kind of horse and I loved his looks. It took a while for him to come around; we took our time with him. Now here he is getting better and better; he's going to improve off this with every race."
"You can see he's a little immature, but you can still see he's got a lot of heart and that's what you need," Pegram said. "I'm just happy to have one like this at this time of year. They're hard to get."