LOUISVILLE — The contact came more than once in the stretch of the Grade II Rebel Stakes. And each time his bay body absorbed a hit, the inexperienced colt with no 2-year-old race foundation responded by smacking back at those trying to deny him victory.
History would seem to decree that Hoppertunity is going to get hit with a reality that has been in existence for 132 years this Saturday. Not since Apollo in 1882 has a horse who did not race as a 2-year-old win the Kentucky Derby, a list of futility that includes future champions such as Forego (1973) and Curlin (2007).
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Such a long-standing trend makes it impossible not to focus on what Rebel Stakes winner Hoppertunity has working against him. But for co-owner Mike Pegram and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, all they see are the same intangibles that have brought them past success on the first Saturday in May.
Of all the factors needed to win the 11/4-mile Kentucky Derby, having a horse brave enough to handle the 20-horse cavalry charge is near the top of the list. Sweet as his disposition is in the barn, Hoppertunity has let his inner beast fly in his five career starts — most noticeably when he and fellow Derby contender Tapiture traded bumps in the stretch of the Rebel Stakes. Hoppertunity pinned his ears and ended up prevailing by half a length.
Though he did not make a start at 2 — Baffert had him entered in a race last year but scratched him out of it — Pegram feels Hoppertunity is doing the most important thing for a Derby contender: peaking.
"That race in Arkansas is what made him. That was the first time he came back and showed what he really had and there was some adversity," said Pegram, who owned 1998 Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet. "This time of year you just hope they grow up. And April is when horses start maturing and hopefully we're catching the peak at the right time.
"He's just a well grounded horse, that's what you need. You need a warrior to win the Derby."
Baffert, who has saddled three Kentucky Derby winners, nearly broke the Apollo curse himself in 2012 when Bodemeister, who had also not run at 2, led into the stretch of the classic before being caught by I'll Have Another.
Where Bodemeister had speed and brilliance, Hoppertunity is a grinder type. When he ran fourth in the Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, he ate a ton of dirt rating in 10th before making a respectable rally in the lane.
In the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 5, Hoppertunity was no threat to likely Kentucky Derby favorite California Chrome, finishing 51/4 lengths behind. But Hoppertunity was 31/2 lengths in front of third-place finisher Candy Boy after wheeling back three weeks after his Rebel outing.
"Back in the summer, he was just not on the radar then all of the sudden, he started coming around and he's just flourishing around here," Baffert said. "He's a pretty laid-back horse but he's a very brave horse. Like at Santa Anita when the dirt hits a lot of those horses, they don't run into it but he took it really well and ran into it which is very rare for a young horse.
"He's pretty tough and I think he has enough seasoning now he can handle it."
Enduring as the Apollo streak has been, the current climate in racing may make it ripe for imminent demise. The Kentucky Derby points system first implemented last year strongly de-emphasizes 2-year-old form and offers its heftiest points for those major prep races in the five weeks leading to the 10-furlong test.
"(The points system) is like what have you done lately so with a lot of the horses now, you just wait and let them develop a little bit later," Baffert said. "Two-year-old form really doesn't help you too much when it comes to points so you have to really get in as a 3-year-old."
If California Chrome stays as dominant as he has been in winning four straight starts by a combined 241/4 lengths, Pegram says he and everyone else's entrants are running for place money anyhow.
Should the seasoned foes falter along the way however, this could be the year Apollo gets some company.
"One thing about (Hoppertunity) is the mile and a quarter is not a problem," Baffert said. "He may not be as quick or as fast as a horse as California Chrome, but distance-wise he'll be able to handle it. Racing luck is going to play a big part but if he's in a position, in the stretch, if turning for home he's right there ... he'll be a big factor in the end."