The first in a potential series of rubber matches between Tapiture and Strong Mandate is set to occur Saturday in the Grade 2, $600,000 Rebel at Oaklawn Park, a 1 1/16-mile prep for $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 12.
While Strong Mandate, last year's Hopeful winner, got the better of the two in Tapiture's debut appearance at Saratoga last August, it was all Tapiture in last month's Southwest at Oaklawn. The Steve Asmussen-trained son of Tapit forced the pace from the start and drew off to win the 1 1/16-mile heat by 4 ¼ lengths, with Strong Mandate settling for second, six lengths ahead of returning rival Ride On Curlin.
The Southwest was the second stakes win in a row for Tapiture, who lost his first three outings at two before breaking his maiden in the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs on November 30.
Asmussen has won the Rebel three times, most notably with Horse of the Year Curlin in 2007.
Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who trained last year's winner and eventual champion Will Take Charge, will seek to join the Rebel "three-timers" club with Strong Mandate, a strapping son of Tiznow who has endured difficult trips in his last couple of starts.
On or near a very fast pace when a weakening third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile two back, Strong Mandate raced very wide down the backside in the Southwest and could not keep up late with the ground-saving Tapiture. Having broken from posts 13 and 8 in those two outings, Strong Mandate may benefit from drawing post 4 in the eight-horse Rebel.
Kobe's Back, a scintillating 5 ¼-length winner of the seven-furlong San Vicente at Santa Anita last out for trainer John Sadler, is seeking his first two-turn victory in the Rebel. The gray son of Flatter, a two-time stakes winner, did not get a clean run in his only other route appearance when he retreated after clipping heels down the backside in last December's CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park.
Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, who won three consecutive Rebels from 2010-12, is represented by Hoppertunity. A three-length maiden winner at Santa Anita over a mile two back, the Any Given Saturday colt next was a modest fourth in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds after a slow start and wide trip around the second turn.
In addition to Ride On Curlin, who made a brief lead while wide early in the Southwest, the Rebel field includes last-out maiden winner Street Strategy, allowance victor Sheltowee's Boy and Jet Cat. The latter two are not currently nominated to the Triple Crown.