HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — The maturation of Hoppertunity is a work in progress. That much was evident by both his demeanor in the paddock before Saturday's Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park and the scant résumé he brought against seven rivals in the 54th edition of the 11⁄16-mile test.
But as Hoppertunity was getting knocked around during the stretch run, his progression hit the accelerator.
Hoppertunity literally got smacked into shape Saturday as the Bob Baffert-trainee survived a rough-and-tumble stretch drive and subsequent inquiry to win the $600,000 Rebel Stakes by half a length over Tapiture before a crowd of 30,873.
Unraced as a juvenile and having made just three prior starts, Hoppertunity needed experience most of all at this stage on the Kentucky Derby trail, assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes said.
As Hoppertunity launched his bid four-wide in midstretch, he needed to stand his ground as Tapiture to his inside appeared to come over into him as that one tried to bull his way out from behind Strong Mandate.
Another bout of bumping occurred a handful of strides later when Ride On Curlin along the inside looked to come out into Strong Mandate, causing a chain reaction that again affected Hoppertunity on the outside of the four-horse melee.
With Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith at the helm, Hoppertunity gathered himself and was able to surge past Tapiture in the final dozen strides. Several minutes later following a stewards inquiry and claim of foul by Tapiture's jockey Ricardo Santana Jr., his first graded stakes score and status as a Kentucky Derby contender was official.
"I was just holding my ground," Smith said. "He'd (Santana) already pushed me out to get out, which is fine because he was looking for racing room. But I gotta hold my ground at some point. And that's all I did. I held my ground and we bumped. It caused me to lay in and that caused me to tip."
Added Oaklawn association steward Larry Snyder, "We based our decision on the fact that Jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. on Tapiture pushed his way out from behind (Strong Mandate) as the horses were straightening out into the stretch. Mike Smith was just holding his position."
For all the initial angst that stretch run caused, co-owner Mike Pegram was beaming as he stood in the rain digesting what his colt had just shown him.
Hoppertunity, the son of Any Given Saturday, didn't make his career debut until Jan. 4 and, after breaking his maiden second time out, he came from well back to finish a decent fourth in the Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on Feb. 22.
The bay colt didn't have to eat nearly as much dirt this time as he sat a stalking trip in third while Ride On Curlin prompted Strong Mandate through an opening half in 47.97 seconds. Where Hoppertunity's half-sister, multiple Grade I winner Executiveprivilege, was known for her early brilliance, little brother gave a lesson in how to grind out a victory.
"When he came in the paddock today you could still see he's real immature but he's got a lot of heart and that's what you need," said Pegram, who also campaigned Executiveprivilege along with partners Karl Watson and Paul Weitman. "He's a different type than (Executiveprivilege) but it's working for him. He proved it today. What you want to see is a horse who will fight, and he showed it when he got bumped in here."
Tapiture, winner of the Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn in February, showed good mettle in his own right to hold for second as Hoppertunity hit the wire in 1:43.90 over a wet-fast, sealed track.
"It was a pretty roughly run race by some fast horses," said Steve Asmussen, trainer of Tapiture.
Ride On Curlin was third with Grade I winner Strong Mandate fourth.
Hoppertunity extended Baffert's streak of Oaklawn dominance as he has now saddled the winners of four of the last five editions of the Rebel.
His latest prospect may have to overcome the burden of being unraced at 2 should he make it to the Kentucky Derby, but Baffert was validated for the time he has given Hoppertunity to find his inner warrior.
"It took awhile for him to come around. Now here he is getting better and better, he's going to improve off this with every race," said Baffert when reached in California. "I'm going to get him back here (to California) and we'll be back there with something. He'll let me know what to do."
■ Earlier on the Rebel Stakes undercard, multiple Grade I winner Close Hatches impressed in her season debut by winning the Grade II, $200,000 Azeri Stakes by 11/4 lengths over Magic Union.
Close Hatches was making her first start since finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Distaff last November and looked very much like she planned to remain one of the elite members of the division in 2014. Under Joel Rosario, the 4-year-old daughter of First Defence rolled through a half in :47.43 on the front en route to earning her seventh victory in 10 career starts.
Graded stakes winner Don't Tell Sophia rallied off tepid fractions and a wide trip to get third while Grade I winner On Fire Baby was fourth in what was her first start since November.
■ The Grade III Razorback Handicap saw Todd Pletcher-trainee Golden Lad range up on the far turn to overtake pacesetter Right to Vote and then draw off for a 63/4-length victory in his graded stakes debut.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.