Secret Circle battled for a three-quarter length victory Saturday, turning back a challenge from Optimizer in the $500,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park and giving Bob Baffert his third consecutive victory in the Grade II race.
Secret Circle finished the 1 1-16 miles in 1:44.5, though co-owner Karl Watson said it remains to be seen where the horse will run again. The Rebel is a prep for the $1 million Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on April 14.
Watson said he felt confident after Baffert sent him a text message earlier in the week saying Secret Circle was "breathing fire."
"He's not one to overpromise," Watson said of Baffert, who didn't make the trip to Arkansas for the race.
Jockey Rafael Bejarano, who rode to victory, said Secret Circle is coming into his own.
"I'm glad they made the decision to bring him back here. It was the right decision. He was really ready today. The key was getting him to relax. He has lots of talent," Bejarano said.
Jim Barnes, an assistant trainer to Baffert, said he expects Secret Circle to take the next step.
"It looks like he will (keep going). Bob will decide all that, but we did what we had to today. He got the mile-sixteenth and showed he could rate a bit. I'll be getting my room for the Arkansas Derby tomorrow," Barnes said.
Secret Circle, who won the $150,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn last month, fended off D. Wayne Lukas-trained Optimizer and Scatman, who was the second finisher in the Southwest.
"We are real proud. We didn't get beat by much - only about a half-length. They only get longer and tougher from here. That's the way it goes," Lukas said.
Secret Circle paid $4, $3.20 and $2.80. Optimizer, ridden by Jon Court, paid $15.60 and $8.80, and Scatman paid $4.60. Secret Circle carried 122 pounds, giving up between 3 pounds and 7 pounds to the field.
The winner's share of the purse was $300,000, with $100,000 for second and $50,000 for third.
In addition to Watson, Secret Circle is owned by Michael E. Pegram and Paul Weitman.
Baffert bought the horse about a year ago for the trio at Ocala, Fla., Watson said.
Secret Circle was four back at the far turn but pushed forward and took over the race at the mile mark. Optimizer, with Jon Court riding, drove six wide into the stretch and eventually moved inside for the finish. Scatman, trained by Michael E. Lauer and ridden by Luis Quinonez, couldn't stay with the winners.
Baffert won last year's Rebel with The Factor and the 2010 edition with Lookin At Lucky.
With the infield open, a crowd of 31,882 watched the Rebel on a warm, mostly sunny afternoon in the Ouachita Mountains. The on-track handle was $2.216,392 and total handle was $6,832,020.
Jake Mo, trained by Allen Milligan and ridden by Cliff Berry finished fourth and Cyber Secret, owned by Oaklawn owner Charles Cella, was fifth.
Watson, who said he and his fellow owners have about 30 horses, said it was difficult to compare Saturday's Rebel with other races.
"The most exciting, the most stressful is the one you're in," Watson said.
Also running were Najjar, Adriondack, Sabercat, Pee H Dee, Reckless Jerry, Atigun and Unbridled's Note.
Ring It Up was a scratch.