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story.lead_photo.caption The Sentinel-Record/Richard Rasmussen QUICK TRIP: Groom Eduardo Luna leads Improbable off the van at Oaklawn Park Wednesday. The Bob Baffert-trained colt is scheduled to run in the first leg of Saturday's Rebel Stakes, which was split into two divisions to help provide an opportunity for horses to earn points for the Kentucky Derby after the closing of Santa Anita indefinitely last week.

Before the history-making main course, Oaklawn Park is offering four "hundred-grand" races during the salad portion of its Rebel Saturday card.

Besides splitting the richest Rebel Stakes into two divisions, each worth $750,000, Oaklawn has a second Grade II stake, the Azeri, and a second $350,000 event, the Essex Handicap. Counting the finale, nine of the 11 races Saturday are valued at $100,000 or more.

Four races Saturday for maidens, or non-winners, are $100,000 each, and an entry-level allowance is $101,000. Anyone seeking perspective should note that the 1972 Arkansas Derby became the track's first $100,000 race.

Except for race 2, a $47,000 starter allowance, five non-stakes races on the card include $58,500 or more each from the track's electronic games of skill purse fund. Total value for the 11 races is $2,795,000, a March record at Oaklawn.

Second-year track president Louis Cella, announcing the third purse increase of the meeting Wednesday, called splitting the Rebel "an extremely proud moment in Oaklawn's history."

Cella shared a conversation with a nationally prominent horse owner who, he said, recently commented that Oaklawn may have the best racing-gaming model in America.

"It would be hard to argue against that," Cella said. "We pioneered this model beginning in 2000, and have further developed it every year since. In fact, just a few years ago we were running open maidens for $40,000 and proud of it. Now they are at $90,000.

"And, who ever thought we'd be in the position to split the Rebel into two divisions."

The 59th running of the Rebel was bumped by $100,000 to $1 million for 2019, making the Arkansas Derby prep equal value to the April 13 main event. Responding to a crisis in California, Santa Anita closing indefinitely last week because of impending poor weather and track conditions, Oaklawn agreed to split the Rebel into two divisions if enough horses entered.

Nineteen 3-year-olds, one less than the original benchmark, were entered Wednesday with a flight carrying several top horses from California arriving in Hot Springs.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, a six-time Rebel winner, has the likely favorite in each division with unbeaten Improbable in the first leg (race 8, 4:57 p.m.) and unbeaten champion Game Winner in the second (race 10, 6:06 p.m.). The two Baffert colts make 3-year-old debuts a week after their head-to-head meeting in the Grade 2 San Felipe at Santa Anita was canceled.

Hall of Fame trainers Richard Mandella (Extra Hope, Omaha Beach) and Jerry Hollendorfer (Galilean, Gunmetal Grey) are represented in both races. Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen has six Rebel starters with Long Range Toddy and Ninth Street in the first division and Laughing Fox, Jersey Agenda, Kaziranga and Captain Von Trapp in the second.

Although not entering the Rebel, which he has won the last two years, trainer Todd Pletcher has two horses on the card, 3-year-old Last Judgment included. Other prominent trainers entering 3-year-olds include Hall of Famers Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito, other Oaklawn regulars including Brad Cox, Jinks Fires, Ron Moquett and Mac Robertson plus nationally prominent Doug O'Neill, Mark Casse, Ken McPeek and Dallas Stewart.

With six-time local champion Ricardo Santana Jr. heading the local contingent, jockeys coming include Hall of Famers Mike Smith and John Velazquez plus nationally prominent Joel Rosario, Jose Ortiz, Flavien Prat and Drayden Van Dyke, the latter an Eclipse Award-winning graduate of Lake Hamilton High School.

The Grade 2 Azeri (race 7, 4:21 p.m.) pits Grade 1 winners Midnight Bisou, Eskimo Kisses and Elate in a six-horse prep for the Grade 1 $750,000 Apple Blossom Handicap April 14. Sonneteer, last year's Fifth Season winner at Oaklawn and second in the 2017 Rebel, is among nine older horses in the Essex, a prelude to the Grade 2 $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap April 13.

First post Saturday is 1:05 p.m. Sunny skies and a high of 57 degrees is expected, a far cry from the steady rain that greeted the California visitors on Wednesday of Rebel week at Oaklawn.

Sports on 03/14/2019

Print Headline: Oaklawn raises purses for richest Rebel Saturday

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