Cupid and jockey Martin Garcia win the Rebel Stakes horse race at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., Saturday, March 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Danny Johnston
March 19, 2016

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) His last time out, Cupid won by 5 ¼ lengths for his maiden victory. After this time around, he's pointed toward the Kentucky Derby.

The gray colt led nearly from wire-to-wire Saturday to capture the $900,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park and propel yet another Bob Baffert-trained horse toward Churchill Downs.

"Going in, I knew he was a nice horse but he never had been tested," Baffert told reporters by telephone after the race. "It was a pretty strong bunch."

While Rebel entrants Suddenbreakingnews, Whitmore and American Dubai picked up Kentucky Derby qualifying points earlier in Oaklawn's meet, Cupid toiled at Santa Anita and broke its maiden just over six weeks ago. The Rebel victory pushed him into a tie for fourth place among horses battling to run for the roses May 7.

"It's hard for horses to break their maiden and then step up to this kind of company with this many people around and win, but he did," jockey Martin Garcia said.

Whitmore ran second, but it was a disappointing Derby prep for Suddenbreakingnews after he got caught up in traffic and finished fifth.

"He was just getting his momentum going and he (jockey Luis Quinonez) basically said a horse stopped right in front of him and had to check pretty hard," said Donnie K. Von Hemel, who trains Suddenbreakingnews, the favorite among Saturday's crowd of 35,000. "Otherwise, he's probably going to be right there. That's racing."

Cupid took the rail early, opened a two-length lead in the far corner and outran Whitmore in a sprint from the top of the stretch. Creator finished third.

A Baffert-trained horse won the Rebel for the sixth time since 2010. Last year's winner, American Pharoah, also took the Arkansas Derby and went on to win the Triple Crown for the first time since 1978.

"I'm just really happy. We've been getting beat up at Oaklawn the last couple times there pretty badly," Baffert said, triggering chuckles through the press box atop the grandstand. "I kept throwing 3-year-olds at them and finally found the right one."

Cupid picked up 50 points in the Kentucky Derby standings to move into a tie with Danzing Candy and Shagaf. Mohaymen leads with 71 points and Destin and Gun Runner each have 51. Another Baffert-trained horse, Mor Spirit, is seventh. Whitmore earned 20 points and is now 10th, with 24 points.

With Mor Spirit already pointed to the April 9 Santa Anita Derby, look for Cupid to make his next start in the Arkansas Derby April 16, given Baffert's success here.

"He looked fantastic in the paddock. In the post parade he looked great," Baffert said. "He was ready to run and he ran like he loved it."

Cupid paid $7.80, $5.00 and $3.80; Whitmore paid $5.20 and $4.00 and Creator paid $4.80.

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