Instead of 20 horses galloping for two minutes beneath Louisville’s twin spires on the first Saturday in May, 22 will be running in two races for a little more than 3½ minutes near mountain hot springs in the Southwest.
Not to be confused with the Kentucky Derby, the twin runnings of the oversubscribed Arkansas Derby might provide racing fans and gamblers their last chance this spring to bet on an eagerly anticipated American gathering of high-quality horses.
Since no shortage of quality exists, Bob Baffert must be in the thick of it. The Hall of Fame trainer who has two Triple Crowns in the last five years and five victories in the Kentucky Derby could double his Arkansas Derby win total in 75 minutes. That is how long it will take to finish the two divisions of this Grade 1 race worth a combined $1 million.
By shipping undefeated colts Charlatan and Nadal to Oaklawn Park, Baffert is likely to have both favorites. Charlatan is already the 6-1 co-favorite overseas to wear the roses Labor Day weekend at Churchill Downs. Not that Nadal is a long shot by any means. According to Oddschecker.com, he is best-priced at 10-1 in Europe to win the Kentucky Derby.
Their odds will be much, much shorter this weekend, but not for a lack of quality opponents in the 11-horse fields competing for the 100 Derby qualifying points that go to each winner.
Carrying a 2-for-2 record, Charlatan will face Grade 1 winner Basin and stakes victor Jungle Runner in the first division. With first-place finishes in a pair of Grade 2 races, 3-for-3 Nadal faces the seemingly tougher test against four other graded-stakes winners — Wells Bayou, Silver Prospector, Storm The Court and King Guillermo — in the second division.
In between, older horses led by Pegasus World Cup runner-up Mr Freeze, Razorback Handicap winner Warrior’s Charge and New Orleans Classic victor By My Standards meet in the $600,000 Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap.
The three 1⅛-mile stakes make for a richly talented, high-profile Pick 3, the last one with fields this full and deep for an unforeseeably long time.
$500,000 Grade 1 Arkansas Derby
First Division, 6:29 p.m. EDT Saturday
Charlatan is the only horse in either division of the Arkansas Derby with a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure to his name. He actually has two in as many career starts.
He is coming off a 10¼-length, 1-mile allowance victory last month after making his debut in February with a 5¾-length win over 6 furlongs. Those two races at Santa Anita followed in the hoof steps of 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify, Baffert’s late bloomer who broke the 136-year curse of Apollo by winning the Kentucky Derby without having raced at age 2.
Sired by Speightstown, Charlatan is bred for speed. The question may yet be whether he is bred to stay a classic distance.
Even from his rail post, Charlatan might not have the loose, early lead he enjoyed in his first two races. Another Southern California horse, Shooters Shoot, is a front-runner who got his two wins in maiden and allowance company, the latter less than three weeks ago at Oaklawn Park. The difference is that this Peter Eurton-trained colt lost his first four races by an average of nearly 12 lengths. The difference on the racecourse is that Shooters Shoot is not as fast, which was apparent Feb. 16, when he finished a distant second in Charlatan’s debut.
If Charlatan is to be caught late, Gouverneur Morris should get the first run coming into the stretch. Coming off a fourth-place finish a month ago in the Florida Derby, this colt appears right now to be the best chance for trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez to get their third Kentucky Derby victories. It is not so much because of his maiden and allowance wins. It is more because Gouverneur Morris was sired by Constitution, the leading second-crop stallion in the country with progeny that includes Derby futures favorite Tiz The Law.
Breaking from Post 11, Steve Asmussen-trained Basin will come from off the pace in search of his first victory since last summer’s Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga.
After a disastrous addition of blinkers for a ninth-place finish in the Florida Derby, Anneau d’Or will have them removed by California trainer Blaine Wright. The maiden winner will try to reclaim the form he enjoyed when he rallied to finish a close second in last autumn’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Los Alamitos Futurity.
A case certainly can be made for Anneau d’Or, and he should carry attractive odds that make him a must-play for value bettors. But presuming Charlatan has it in him to stretch to a ninth furlong for America’s best dirt-track trainer, there is every reason to single him in the all-stakes Pick 3.
$600,000 Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap
7:04 p.m. EDT Saturday
Mr Freeze was not even supposed to be in this race, certainly not going 1⅛ miles.
After finishing second to Mucho Gusto at this distance in the Pegasus, he delivered as the 5-2 favorite in winning the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Mile on Leap Day. Dale Romans then had him pointed to the Godolphin Mile in the Middle East. Then came the pandemic. Dubai World Cup night was called off, and Mr Freeze never made the trip.
Despite two consecutive graded-stakes victories at a mile, the 5-year-old horse is being stretched back to a distance at which he is 0-for-4 since winning the 2018 West Virginia Derby. Yet he also got a three-digit Beyer in two of those losses. In contention for the riding title at Oaklawn, Joe Talamo will be Mr Freeze’s fourth rider in as many races.
Trained by Brad Cox and ridden by Florent Geroux, Warrior’s Charge figures to challenge Mr Freeze for the early lead. Stretched over the last 13 months, he has carried his speed to wins as a favorite in four of his last five races, including the Grade 3 Razorback Handicap in his last start 2½ months ago. The one loss came in his fade to fourth in last year’s Preakness. That was also the only race in that streak that was longer than 8½ furlongs. So will the Oaklawn Handicap be 110 yards too far?
Drawn into Post 12 in the field of 14, By My Standards has also won four of his last five, including last month’s Grade 2 New Orleans Classic. The exception was his 11th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, where he was banged around and hurt, forcing trainer Bret Calhoun to give him nine months off. A stalker sired by the speedy Goldencents, the 4-year-old colt has been a workout fiend, firing five bullets this year, including his 47.0-second turn around 4 furlongs Saturday at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans.
Tacitus makes his first start since he finished fifth Feb. 29 in the $20 million Saudi Cup. That ended a streak of eight races in which he finished in the money for trainer Bill Mott. But since winning last year’s Wood Memorial, he has also lost six in a row. With Velazquez riding him for the first time, this 4-year-old stalker by Tapit was assigned the top weight of 121 pounds, still five pounds less than he carried in the Middle East.
Pace chasers Tax, Improbable and Trophy Chaser, mid-pack hunter Identifier and deep-closing 5-year-olds Bravazo and Sky Promise also have graded-stakes victories on their resumes.
So does Combatant. The closer, bought last fall by the Hronis brothers and transferred from Asmussen to John Sadler, won the 1¼-mile Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap nearly two months ago. That victory earned the 5-year-old Scat Daddy ridgling a 101 Beyer and came a month after he finished a wide third from a poor draw in the Grade 2 San Pasqual. With Joel Rosario riding him again, Combatant looms as a threat to make a serious run on the early speed and score an upset win Saturday. Warrior’s Charge and Tacitus should also be included by horizontal bettors who stop short of a complete spread play on this race.
$500,000 Grade 1 Arkansas Derby
Second Division, 7:43 p.m. EDT Saturday
There will be plenty of pace to make this race. In other words, Nadal and his regular rider, Rosario, will not be alone on the early lead as he tries to run his record to 4-0 while getting a second consecutive victory at Oaklawn Park.
Sired by Blame, the only horse that ever beat the great Zenyatta, Nadal won last month’s Grade 2 Rebel Stakes on a sloppy, sealed track. He did so as an odds-on favorite, which he also was in February in winning the Grade 2 San Vicente sprint at Santa Anita. The closest he came to offering value was as a 6-5 favorite in his January debut.
That’s right. Like Charlatan in the first division and Justify two years ago, he is a Baffert colt who did not race at age 2. And though he does not have a triple-digit Beyer, Nadal’s 94, 96 and 95 exhibit a consistency that also applies to his mornings. Six of his last eight timed workouts at Santa Anita have gotten bullets, including his 59.1-second turn around 5 furlongs Sunday.
Nadal has had early company in all his races, putting two of them away early before outlasting closers to the wire. This time, though, he faces more accomplished pacesetters.
Last month’s winning favorite in the Louisiana Derby, Wells Bayou figures to be the best of them. Likely the second choice in the parimutuels, he and Geroux will have to overcome the outside draw, a new experience for a Lookin At Lucky colt who has never started wider than Post 4. His best Beyer was a 96 in a narrow loss to Silver Prospector more than two months ago in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park. If he can duplicate that effort cutting back from 9½ furlongs, he has a chance to be the first horse to win the Louisiana and Arkansas derbies since Crypto Star in 1997.
Two others with early speed have graded-stakes wins, but they might have been flukes. Storm The Court led the whole way in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and King Guillermo pressed the pace all the way in the Tampa Bay Derby. Each carried odds of at least 45-1, and they are still eligible for races restricted to non-winners of more than one other than a maiden.
Likely to be in mid-pack, Silver Prospector figures to carry value. Trained by Asmussen, he has two out-of-the-money finishes sandwiched around his Southwest Stakes victory. Those losses came in the Oaklawn mud and slop. Throw out those and his three early failures on the turf, and this colt by Declaration Of War is 2-for-3 on fast tracks. The lone loss was by 1½ lengths in a one-turn mile stakes last fall at Churchill Downs.
It might be tougher to single Nadal in the second division. The play could be to include Wells Bayou and Silver Prospector, both horizontally and vertically.
After Saturday, who knows where 3-year-old Triple Crown candidates and older handicap horses will resume their seasons? With the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup so far in the distance, what happens this weekend at Oaklawn Park may well provide humble brags for everyone from horsemen to horseplayers. And given the uncertainty of what lies ahead, they might have to last awhile.