Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas is holding the hottest hand of 3-year-olds he's had in a while, and that talent showed March 16 when stablemates Will Take Charge and Oxbow finished 1-2 in the $600,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
I was feeling pretty good 100 yards from the wire," Lukas remarked. "The competition was so tough. The hill gets a little steeper from this point."
A head separated the two and made the difference in qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby; 28-1 shot Will Take Charge picked up 50 points to top the leaderboard with a total of 60 for owner Willis D. Horton, while 7-2 Oxbow earned 20 and increased his points total to 36 for Calumet Farm.
Den's Legacy and Texas Bling completed the top four, while Southwest Stakes winner and 6-5 Rebel favorite Super Ninety Nine faded to fifth 8 1/4 lengths behind the victor.
"No real excuses at this point," said assistant trainer Jim Barnes of Super Ninety Nine's failure to fire under Rafael Bjearano. "We had the trip we expected. He was able to sit off the pace like we wanted."
Bejarano said, "I was really comfortable in the beginning, but then my horse flattened out after that."
Jockey Jon Court was in the saddle aboard Will Take Charge, a 3-year-old son of Unbridled's Song , who is the fifth foal out of grade I winner Take Charge Lady.
"Wayne told me how well he's been doing and he had him tuned up today," Court said. "The race was executed to plan. It worked out perfectly. I was able to position him where we wanted. He was very professional today."
Will Take Charge broke strongly and settled well sixth between horses as Title Contender struck out for the early lead followed by Super Ninety Nine. Title Contender set the early pace, a quarter in :23.36 and a half in :47.19, while Super Ninety Nine followed along 1 1/2 lengths back.
After three-quarters in 1:12.39, Super Ninety Nine made his move to put away the frontrunner but flattened after the field turned for home. Oxbow, who had been fourth on the outside, followed with a steady outside run. Will Take Charge was fourth and four wide as they straightened away, his sights set squarely on his stablemate who had taken the lead for a mile in 1:38.44.
Oxbow, a son of Awesome Again who won the Lecomte Stakes by 11 1/2 lengths earlier in the season, opened a half-length lead past the furlong marker but could not hold off the winner, who blew by him in the final strides. Den's Legacy advanced along the rail to claim the show three lengths back. Final time for the 1 1/16-mile contest was 1:45.18.
Will Take Charge paid $58, $16.20, and $9.80 while Oxbow returned $7.80 and $5.60 with Den's Legacy bringing $6. The 7-9 exacta was worth $275.80. Following Texas Bling and Super Ninety Nine were Carve, Title Contender, Treasury Bill, Hardrock Eleven, Stormy Holiday, and Delhomme.
Robby Albarado had words of praise for Den's Legacy. "We had a great trip, nice rail trip," he said. "This horse ran great. You'll hear a lot more from him."
Winner of the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Jan. 21, Will Take Charge bounced in the Feb. 18 Southwest with a sixth-place finish in the slop.
"Will Take Charge is a fair-weather horse," Lukas joked. "He said he didn't feel like running in the rain last time. He had been doing well all week."
Jockey Mike Smith, second aboard Oxbow, said, "He ran awesome. He was doing things really easy. I didn't want to send him at the quarter pole because I knew it was a bit too early. But, it was the hand that was dealt to us."
The winner's rebound in the Rebel improved his record to three victories and a second from seven starts, with earnings of $545,371. He was bred in Kentucky by Eaton and was a $425,000 Keeneland September yearling sale purchase in 2011 when consigned by Hill 'n' Dale Sales Agency.
A hearty 33,963 were in attendance for the popular prep for the $1 million Arkansas Derby, which will be run April 13 at the historic oval in Hot Springs, Ark.