HOT SPRINGS — Unashamedly hoping for the house horse, the $500,000 Rebel Stakes was a disappointment.
Pulling for Cyber Secret was handicapping from the heart and had nothing to do with personal investments in Oaklawn Park’s final major prep race for the Arkansas Derby and beyond.
Support for the colt was about rewarding 75-year-old Charles J. Cella for his dedication to thoroughbred racing in general and to Oaklawn in particular with his first Kentucky Derby horse.
Trainer Bob Baffert’s support of Oaklawn’s 3-year-old program is appreciated, but the M.O. of the most recognizable trainer in the country is wearying — he ships a horse from the West Coast, wins the race, and hightails it back to California with the loot.
On Saturday, his favored Secret Circle earned $300,000. A non-threatening fifth, Cyber Secret might not have done enough to continue on the Derby trail although trainer Lynn Whiting said an equipment adjustment might help.
Cella deserves a horse that will entitle him to buy an owner’s box at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
The Oaklawn president made national headlines in 2003 when he announced a $5 million bonus for any horse that won the Rebel, the Arkansas Derby, and the Kentucky Derby. Such a sweep seemed unlikely, but Smarty Jones produced another round of buzz when he got it done the following spring.
Two years ago, Cella offered a $5 million purse if the Apple Blossom attracted then-unbeaten Zenyatta and 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra.
Only Zenyatta showed, but the point is that Cella puts his money where his mouth is for the good of the sport.
This year, when there was overflow interest in the $250,000 Southwest, Cella said yes to running two divisions with equal purses.
At the Oaklawn helm for more than 40 years, Cella’s commitment to the family-owned racetrack is the reason the track has survived. Flourishing in the 1980s, Oaklawn began a downhill spiral in the early 1990s when casinos opened in Mississippi and Louisiana.
Oaklawn’s purse structure began to backslide because it was based on a set percentage of money wagered.
The business-wise decision would have been to reduce purses.
Instead, Cella put more into purses than the track was required to do under the contract, a move that would have been impossible if the track had been a publicly traded company.
By the late 1990s, he had overpaid purses by about $4 million with no reasonable expectation of a turnaround.
If he had not done that, Instant Racing and the electronic games of skill would never have had an opportunity to take root and provide the money to supplement what is now a superb purse structure.
Thought to be a sprinter because of his victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint last November, Secret Circle had no trouble handling the 1 1/16-mile Rebel despite spotting his 11 opponents from 3 to 7 pounds. The next logical step would be the 1 1/8-mile $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 14, but he already has the graded earnings to be in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby.
Optimizer, who had won only a maiden race on the grass, closed from the clouds to finish less than a length behind Secret Circle. The $100,000 in graded earnings puts Optimizer on the cusp for the Derby and his trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, does not need much encouragement to take a shot. Behind them, there was little reason for optimism.
Jim Barnes, Baffert’s assistant, said his boss would make the call about Secret Circle’s next start. But, he added, “I’ll be getting my room for the Arkansas Derby …”