Oaklawn Park is the model of how a race track should be run, for the horsemen and the fans. Its latest move for the good of racing came when Santa Anita's closing put the SoCal Derby hopefuls in a bind. Oaklawn stepped to the fore, announced it would split the Rebel and throw another $500,000 into the already $1 million purse to ensure Derby qualifying points remained high. The Hot Springs track and its fans have been rewarded with the two ranking Derby prospects, Game Winner and Improbable, along with four other highly touted California aspirants.

You have to love Oaklawn Park. It’s the track that does everything right, “right’ being defined as what is best for racing.

The windfall millions the Hot Springs operation reaps from Instant Racing machines is being plowed back into purses at a breathtaking pace. The third purse increase of the meeting was announced Wednesday. This is the 18th straight year Oaklawn has increased purses at least once midway through the meeting.

Maiden special weight races will regularly go for $90,000, unheard of outside Saratoga. This is on routine days. Saturday four MSW’s carry $100,000 purses.

Allowance purses have been kicked up to at least $95,000, higher than some stakes at its more heralded winter racing rivals. Saturday, an optional claimer for $62,500 horses goes for $101,000. Another for $50,000 horses hangs out $99,000.

Until it was split, the Rebel was going to be the first $1 million prep race for a subsequent $1 million Kentucky Derby prep, the Arkansas Derby.

Oaklawn has done this while disdaining computer whales, denying them direct access to its pools. You don’t often see a horse go into the gate at Oaklawn at 7-2 and go under the wire at 7-5.

In a karmic flip of the old saw “no good deed goes unpunished,” Oaklawn’s good deeds are being richly rewarded Saturday. In the wake of the catastrophic events that led to the shutdown of Santa Anita, the Rebel (how long before the PC crowd goes after this?) fell into the role of the year’s best 3-year-old Derby prep.

Actually two Derby preps. Even the split is an example of Oaklawn stepping up for the betterment of racing. When the San Felipe was cancelled, it became clear California’s Derby horses, most notably Bob Baffert’s Game Winner and Improbable, urgently needed a prep somewhere to launch their sophomore campaigns. Oaklawn immediately filled the breach. It announced it would split the Rebel and add another half-million dollars to bring the purses up to $750,000 apiece.

Oaklawn even went an extra few yards here. The original stipulation was the Rebel would be split if 20 horses entered. Only 19 did but Oaklawn split it anyway. Steve Asmussen deserves partial credit. He entered six.

The California invaders appear to have the locals at their mercy. Besides Baffert’s undefeated one-two punch, Jerry Hollendorfer has stakes winners Galilean and Gunmetal Gray and Richard Mandella, who ships only when he feels he has a big shot, has recent allowance winner Extra Hope and Omaha Beach, a colt he has been talking up for months. The California stable mates were seeded into separate divisions so they wouldn’t be running against each other.

Improbable, who drew the outside post in the nine-horse first division, has his main rival Galilean just inside him in the gate and Extra Hope down on the rail. If Baffert’s nominal second string runs to his workouts and puts on a show, he could vault over Game Winner as the horse to beat in Louisville, a status he already enjoys among some sharp handicappers.

This could be a really fast race with the main contenders preferring to be close to the pace and multiple Louisiana sprint stakes winner Classy John sure to set a rapid pace. He has blazing speed but has given no indication he can handle the 1 1/16 mile of the Rebel. Then again, trainer Dallas Stewart has a way of sneaking into the exotics with longshots in major races.

Omaha Beach and Gunmetal Gray drew into Game Winner’s 10-horse division along with four from Asmussen, the best of whom appears to be track allowance winner Captain Von Trapp, and New York shipper Our Braintrust, third in what I feel is an over-rated Withers.

It’s Game Winner’s race to lose but if he gets late or comes up short, Gunmetal Gray will be flying in the lane. I’ve been touting him since January and I still feel of the horses under the radar, he has the best chance to hit the board or better on May 4.

This is one of those cases where Oaklawn anteing up an additional half million isn’t only about the money. Kentucky Derby qualifying points are dependent upon the percentage a purse is reduced in a divided stakes. If Oaklawn had merely split the million in half, winning would have been worth only 25 points instead of the original 50.

At $750,000, the winner will earn 37 ½ points. By previous standards, this maintains the Rebel as a win and you’re in—or in this instance, two winners who will be in.

Azeri is talent laden

When it comes to established form, the two divisions of the Rebel might not be the day’s biggest races.

The Azeri, the race just before the first division of the Rebel, is loaded with accomplished stakes horses. Midnight Bisou, who won five stakes in 2018 and chased Monomoy Girl home in all but one of her other races, heads a short six-horse field. The mile and a sixteenth includes Alabama winner Eskimo Kisses (Midnight Bisou was third), multiple Grade 1 winner Elate, who took the 2017 Alabama, and Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint winner Shamrock Rose.

There might not be a more credentialed field of distaffers all year. It’s one more reason Oaklawn will be the capital of racing Saturday. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving track.