By Dick Downey
After a tense stewards' inquiry, the order of finish in the Rebel Stakes was declared unchanged, and Hoppertunity's number stayed on top after a late surge in the stretch.
On a track rated wet-fast, Hoppertunity was always close to the lead. Strong Mandate set the pace into the stretch with fractions of :24.06, :47.96 and 1:12.24. Ride on Curlin was right there with him going up the backstretch and into the second turn. Hoppertunity was behind them on the outside while Tapiture sat on the rail stalking.
Once heads turned for home, the race to the wire was wild, and although there was some bumping, the stewards decided it did not affect the order of finish.
Hoppertunity, ridden by Mike Smith, prevailed by a half-length over Tapiture, who also surged late, while Ride on Curlin stayed on for third, another half-length back. Strong Mandate backed up just a bit to fourth, beaten 2 1/2 lengths. The 1 1/16-mile race was timed in 1:43.90.
The rest of the field was far back. Sheltowee's Boy was fifth, beaten 9 3/4 lengths, followed by Street Strategy, Kobe's Back and Jet Cat. Kobe's Back was the biggest disappointment in the race; he was the 3-1 third choice of the public.
Kentucky Derby points were of course on the line, and 50 of them went to Hoppertunity (total now 55), 20 to Tapiture (42), 10 to Ride on Curlin (15), and 5 to Strong Mandate.(11). Hoppertunity now stands second on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard, while Tapiture is seventh, Ride On Curlin 14th and Strong Mandate 20th.
Hoppertunity recorded his first stakes victory. Most recently, he finished fourth in the Risen Star stakes after getting into the race late. The Rebel was only the fourth career start for the Bob Baffert trainee based at Santa Anita. He was unraced in 2013.
Sent off by bettors at 7-1, Hoppertunity returned $14.20 to win, $5.80 to place and $4.20 to show.
By Any Given Saturday out of Refugee, by Unaccounted For, Hoppertunity brought a final bid of $300,000 at the Keeneland September 2012 Yearling sale. He's owned by Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman and was bred in Kentucky by Betz/D.J. Stable/Kidder/J. Betz/Robenalt. Hoppertunity is a late foal, arriving in the world on May 7, 2011.
Jimmy Barnes, assistant to Bob Baffert: "That was exciting. Wow. I saw what happened in the race live, and I was saying to myself, that kid (Santana, Jr. on Tapiture) is trying to push us out of the way to get by. We had enough horse that he wasn't getting by. Mike said he just started running when he got bumped. That just made him run faster. He's tough. He's lightly raced. That was only his fourth race, so that was exciting and I'm glad we came. Whether we come back for the Arkansas Derby is up to Bob."
Mike Smith: "There was some bumping going on, but I was just holding my ground. He'd already pushed me out to get out, which is fine, because he was looking for racing room, and I totally understand that. But I wasn't just going to give him ground. I gotta hold my ground at some point. And that's all I did. I held my ground, and we bumped. It caused me to lay in and that caused me to tip. If anything I'd say 60-40, 60 on the inside 40 on the out.”
Mike Pegram, winning co-owner: "Bob is in charge and he knows what to do. I'm just having fun being a passenger. He looks like he'll go a mile-and-a-quarter and I wouldn't trade places with nobody. He's a nice horse, and he proved it today. What you really want to see is a horse that will fight, and he showed it when he got bumped in there and held his ground. He responded. He's a fighter. His next race will be a derby if he comes out good out of here."
Steve Asmussen, trainer of Tapiture: “He ran well. It was a pretty roughly run race by some fast horses.”
Kent Desormeaux, aboard Ride On Curlin: “I tell you, I fancy him. I like him a lot. At the half-mile pole, I thought I could win. The only thing I didn’t like was my post. 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.”
D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Strong Mandate: "We haven't been able to get a clean trip yet. We got roughed up more than was indicated. I don't yet what's next for him. We haven't even gotten him cooled out yet. The Arkansas Derby is a month away."
Association Steward Larry Snyder: “We based our decision on the fact that Jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. on Tapiture pushed his way out from behind the four horse (Strong Mandate) as the horses were straightening out into the stretch. Jockey Mike Smith was just holding his position.”