HOT SPRINGS — A result with concrete ramifications, the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park was a welcome respite from the volatility that comes with two days of college basketball on the weekend before the NCAA Tournament field is announced.
By the time Will Take Charge won the $600,000 on Saturday and secured a spot in the Kentucky Derby, I couldn’t remember much about Kentucky’s loss to Vanderbilt or Tennessee’s loss to Alabama in Nashville, except that both of the losers shot less than 35 percent from the field, scored less than 50, and probably played themselves out of the NCAA.
Confounding scores were also reported from Greensboro, N.C., Chicago, and New York and the NCAA picture fluctuated to reflect the results.
At Hot Springs, the Rebel was the only Derby prep race in the country and the 50 points bumps Will Take Charge to 60, plenty for one of the 20 spots in the May 4 Derby at Churchill Downs. Owner Willis D. Horton of Marshall, Ark., can make reservations for Louisville.
Meanwhile, Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork will be on pins and needles about possible travel for a team that lost to South Carolina, Mississippi State, and Indiana State during the regular season but reached the finals of the SEC Tournament.
The Rebel ran a half-hour later than scheduled, but the crowd of almost 34,000 hung around for that and a truck and boat giveaway. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, a four-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, showed ‘em how it’s done, training the winner and the runner-up, Oxbow.
Will Take Charge, who won the Smarty Jones at Oaklawn on Jan. 21 and then finished sixth, 18 lengths behind Super Ninety Nine on a sloppy racetrack in the Southwest a month ago, is certain to crash the Daily Racing Form’s Derby Watch Top 20, which is updated weekly. Prior to the Rebel, Super Ninety Nine was tied for fourth at 12-1, Delhomme and Oxbow were each 30-1, and Den’s Legacy was 50-1. Super Ninety Nine finished fifth in the Rebel and Delhomme was last in the field of 11.
For those wise enough to support Lukas at the windows, the exacta of Will Take Charge and Oxbow was worth $275.80. Den’s Legacy finished third in the Rebel, two lengths behind the winner.
Tearing up a ticket with a $1 exacta box of horses that finished fourth, sixth, and seventh, a misery-loves-company factor was in play because California-based Bob Baffert finally missed the winner’s circle in a Kentucky Derby prep race at Oaklawn. Dating back to the Southwest in 2012, Baffert had shipped five horses to Oaklawn and had won five races. His support of Oaklawn’s program is appreciated locally and recognized on the national level, but his unending success was getting old, sort of like the New York Yankees winning the World Series every year.
The Baffert-trained favorite, Super Ninety Nine, was the victim of a plan hatched by Gary and Mary West, owners of the well-regarded Treasury Bill. They also entered Title Contender with the intent of beating Super Ninety Nine to the lead and making the favorite work to get to the front. The plan worked perfectly — Super Ninety Nine had nothing left for the stretch drive — but it was the Lukas pair who took advantage and not Treasury Bill.
Oxbow finished a head behind Will Take Charge and racked up 20 points, giving him 36, which might get him a spot in the starting gate for the Derby. Lukas called Will Take Charge a “fair-weather horse” and kissed off the Southwest by saying, “He didn’t feel like running in the slop last time.”
But, the 77-year-old trainer did not go overboard about the one-two finishers. “The hill gets a little steeper from this point,” said the man who has started more than 40 horses in the Kentucky Derby.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.