Trainer Bob Baffert went into Saturday’s two divisions of the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas with the top two favorites to win the Kentucky Derby. He left the races with a couple of second-place finishes and the Derby race up in the air.
Both Improbable and Game Winner were undefeated and prohibitive favorites in this Kentucky Derby prep, which was split into two divisions to allow California horses a chance to pick up Kentucky Derby points.
Santa Anita has been closed since March 5 and the traditional West Coast prep, the San Felipe Stakes, was canceled.
In the first of the two $750,000 1 1/16-mile stakes races, Improbable bided his time near the back although he was racing wide. When jockey Drayden Van Dyke asked him on the far turn he easily moved to the front and had a length lead entering the stretch. But coming from mid-pack was Long Range Toddy for trainer Steve Asmussen. Improbable couldn’t extend his lead and was caught, losing by a neck. Long Range Toddy paid $18.80, $4.20 and $2.60.
Santa Anita-based horses, Improbable, Galilean (trained by Jerry Hollendorfer), Extra Hope (Richard Mandella) and Easy Shot (Keith Desormeaux) ran second through fifth in the seven-horse field.
“I think we got away a little bit slow,” Hollendorfer said. “I don’t know what happened in the middle of the race. Trying to figure that out.”
Game Winner’s performance in the second division will be remembered as better as he almost caught front-running Omaha Beach, losing by a nose.
Joel Rosario seemed to move the Eclipse Award winner at the right time leaving the backstretch, but Omaha Beach, trained by Mandella and ridden by Mike Smith, ran tough in what proved to be a memorable stretch duel.
“Coming out of a maiden race, it's a big step up,” Mandella said. “Game Winner ran really good. He hadn't run in a long time. He'll probably be tough next time, but mine just broke his maiden. He might be tougher too.”