The stretch battle during the Rebel Stakes.

The stretch battle during the Rebel Stakes.

Coady Photography

Rebel Rematch Expected in Arkansas Derby

Three of top four finishers in exciting Oaklawn Park test aiming for April 12 clash.

The first four finishers of the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) March 15 came out of the race none the worse in spite of the roughly-run final furlong, and three of them are definitely pointed for a return to Oaklawn Park in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I).

Hoppertunity, the half-length victor in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel, was preparing to board a plane back to Southern California the morning of March 16. A final decision on the $1 million Arkansas Derby April 12 at 1 1/8 miles will be made in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, the trainers for the next three finishers, Tapiture , Ride On Curlin , and Strong Mandate , said their charges are headed for the Hot Springs track's signature event for 3-year-olds.

Hoppertunity, who brushed with Tapiture in the drive, was doing well afterward. Trainer Bob Baffert said he won't know until closer to the race if it will be Hoppertunity or one of his stablemates returning for one of the last preps before the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) May 3.

The Rebel provided a dramatic finish to an exciting day that also featured millionaire Close Hatches making a winning 4-year-old debut in the $200,000 Azeri Stakes (gr. II) and Florida invader Golden Lad  taking the $200,000 Razorback Handicap (gr. III). The top four finishers in the Rebel were within 2 1/2 lengths at the wire. After a lengthy review of the stretch jostling, stewards allowed the order of finish to stand.

"That was a really exciting race, there were four horses coming down to the wire together with all of that pushing and shoving," said Baffert's top assistant, Jim Barnes, who traveled with Hoppertunity and handled the saddling duties. "He came back just fine, no worse for the wear. It's up to Bob if we come back with him for the Arkansas Derby."

Runner-up Tapiture, the beaten 2-1 favorite, was also doing well Sunday morning despite the bumping with Hoppertunity.

"He came back good," said trainer Steve Asmussen. "He ate up good and he's bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this morning, which was the big concern. He didn't seem to mind (not winning) and he didn't get his feelings hurt. I wish we would have won, but we still have him and that's a good thing. Coming back in the Arkansas Derby is definitely the plan. That's why we're here."

Ride On Curlin had to settle for third again after also finishing third behind Tapiture and Strong Mandate in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) Feb. 17.

"He came back great and is perfect this morning," said trainer Billy Gowan. "He likes a fight, and he got one and he ran hard. We'll just try to keep him sound and keep him moving forward for the Arkansas Derby. That's the way it looks."

Strong Mandate, the second betting choice in the Rebel, is still seeking his first win since last year's Hopeful Stakes (gr. I), but has yet to have a clean trip in any of his recent races.

"He's fine this morning and we're looking forward to the next one (Arkansas Derby)," said trainer D. Wayne Lukas. "Hopefully, we'll do better next time."

Hoppertunity, owned by Karl Watson, Mike Pegram, and Paul Weitman, earned 50 points with his Rebel Stakes victory. He is assured of a berth in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby with 55 points. Tapiture earned an additional 20 points for finishing second and now has 42 points; Ride On Curlin has 15 points and Strong Mandate has 11 points. The Arkansas Derby offers a total of 170 points for the top four finishers, with the winner receiving 100 points.