HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) Bob Baffert joked that Hoppertunity "wasn't even on the radar" for a potential Kentucky Derby run during training late last year as a 2-year-old.
The emerging colt forced his way into the Triple Crown picture - and onto his Hall of Fame trainer's radar - in impressive fashion Saturday, outdueling and outbumping Southwest Stakes winner Tapiture in the stretch to win the $600,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
It was the fourth win in the race in five years for Baffert, who won the Rebels Stakes from 2010-12.
More importantly, the victory served as a coming-out party for the son of Any Given Saturday who went off at 6-1 on Saturday before showing the late charge needed to win the 1 1/16th-mile race.
Hoppertunity won at Santa Anita on Jan. 30, but he finished fifth in a race prior to that this year and was fourth his last time out at the Fair Grounds on Feb. 22. Baffert said the colt "ate a lot of dirt" in his last race, and he learned plenty from the difficult race.
"I just let him develop on his own, and now here he is, just getting better and better," Baffert said. "He's going to improve with every race."
Ridden by Mike Smith, Hoppertunity paid $14.20, $5.80 and $4.20. Tapiture returned $3.80 and $2.60, and Ride On Curlin and paid $4.60 to show.
The victory only came after more than 10 minutes of discussing following a post-race inquiry because of late contact between Hoppertunity and Tapiture.
Ridden by Ricardo Santana, Jr., Tapiture tried to pass Strong Mandate and Ride On Curlin on the outside on the home stretch and was met by the equally hard-charging Hoppertunity and Smith. The two collided but stayed on their lines, with Hoppertunity holding on for the half-length victory.
The announcement of no changes in the order of finish was met with a collection of cheers and jeers from the Oaklawn crowd 30,873.
"We based our decision on the face that jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. on Tapiture pushed his way out from being (Strong Mandate) as the horses were straightening out into the stretch," Oaklawn Steward Larry Snyder said. "Jockey Mike Smith was just holding his position."
Oaklawn enjoyed clear weather for much of the weekend, but heavy fog - followed by even heavier rain - moved in during the hours leading up to Saturday's race.
The rain ended shortly before the Rebel Stakes, leaving wet but fast track conditions for the field of eight Kentucky Derby hopefuls.
The conditions didn't slow the field in any way, with Hoppertunity finishing in 1:43.90. Neither did the late bumping between the eventual 1-2 finishers.
Tapiture won last month's Southwest Stakes in 1:44.95 in fast conditions, but the pre-race favorite was blocked by Ride On Curlin and Strong Mandate on the inside after the final turn.
Santana Jr. pushed his colt to the outside, where he was met by Hoppertunity and Smith - neither who was about to give way.
"We both got into a little bit of bumping, but he had already forced his way out," Smith said. "So, I can't just keep giving him ground, you know what I'm saying? I just tried to hold my ground."
The winning colt earned $360,000 and 50 Kentucky Derby qualifying points, rising from only five points prior to the race to among the qualifying leaders.
Tapiture - who already had 22 points - earned 20 more and $120,000 for finishing second. Ride On Curlin earned $60,000 and 10 points for third, while Strong Mandate - the second-place finisher at the Southwest Stakes - came in fourth and earned $30,000 and five points.
Strong Mandate led for much of the race, only briefly giving up the early lead to Ride On Curlin. The pair appeared on their way for a wire-to-wire duel before Hoppertunity and Tapiture forced their way to the front from the outside.
Oaklawn's series of Kentucky Derby prep races concludes with the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 12.
Baffert wasn't ready to commit Hoppertunity to the race following Saturday's race, but the colt left little doubt his best race is likely still to come.
"We're just going to get him back (to California)," Baffert said. "He'll let me know what he's going to do."