At this week's National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association convention in Clearwater Beach, Fla., Arkansas HBPA president Bill Walmsley explained his thought process when Oaklawn Park management outlined a possible plan this month to split the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) into two divisions.
The track's plan was to offer a pair of $750,000 divisions of the Rebel. It required an additional $500,000 commitment in purses, and the track needed the horsemen's approval to move forward.
The plan aimed to address horses thrown off schedule by the closure of Santa Anita Park to address equine safety issues. The March 9 San Felipe Stakes (G2)--which was supposed to be the season's first start for champion Game Winner and grade 1 winner Improbable, both from the barn of Bob Baffert--was canceled.
Walmsley said the horsemen agreed to the split and increased purse, a decision they thought would benefit the horse racing industry overall. He said horsemen thought of a hypothetical 80-year-old owner or trainer who has a once-in-a-lifetime horse in Southern California, and suddenly plans have been thrown into disarray. They considered being in the shoes of that horseman--and how much he'd appreciate race options to stay on schedule--and approved the plan.
Oaklawn initially said the Rebel would only be split if 20 horses were entered, but when 19 entered, the track decided that number met the spirit of the plan they had envisioned. Two divisions of the 1 1/16-mile Rebel will be offered Saturday--going off as races 8 and 10 on the card (5:57 and 7:06 p.m. ET).
Each race will offer a revised schedule of Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifying points of 37.5-15-7.5-3.75 to the top four finishers. The Rebel initially had offered 50-20-10-5.
Churchill Downs had rules in place on how points would be awarded should a Road to the Derby race be split, and the Oaklawn purse increase allowed the two divisions to offer a solid points incentive. The scale should largely ensure winners of each division a spot in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1). Horses who already have earned points could be well-positioned with a placing.
Jimmy Barnes, assistant to Baffert, appreciated Oaklawn's efforts.
"It's tough in California right now," Barnes said. "Hopefully, they'll get things worked out. This time it ended up working better for us because we were going to run both in the San Felipe, so this way they run apart. Thank God for Oaklawn. They had enough horses and enough money to split the race. They came through for us. That was awesome."
Baffert has won the Rebel a record six times--in 2010 (Lookin At Lucky), 2011 (The Factor), 2012 (Secret Circle), 2014 (Hoppertunity), 2015 (American Pharoah), and 2016 (Cupid). Lookin At Lucky and American Pharoah were Eclipse Award winners at 2 and 3. American Pharoah won the Rebel and Arkansas Derby (G1) before sweeping the Triple Crown en route to Horse of the Year honors.
Beyond Baffert's two starters, the other California-based horses entered in the Rebel are Extra Hope and Omaha Beach for trainer Richard Mandella, Easy Shot for Keith Desormeaux, Galilean and Gunmetal Gray for Jerry Hollendorfer, and Parsimony for Doug O'Neill.
Many of the industry's best moments come when cooperation occurs, and while Santa Anita officials continue to find a way forward, Oaklawn and its horsemen stepped in to facilitate some options.