That sure is an attractive line, right? The one in the headline on this story.
“Drops in class.”
It was one of the earliest angles that I learned from the guy who taught me how to bet horse racing nearly 40 years ago. Counterintuitive as it first sounded, moves up and down the class ladder in racing have been and always will be strong factors that cannot be ignored.
But in what is bound to be known as the pandemic era (true, it is way too soon), certain drops or moves up will be deceiving.
Two perfect examples come Saturday in Arkansas, where the $200,000 Oaklawn Stakes for 3-year-olds and the $150,000 Oaklawn Mile for older horses will be run in front of empty stands and on a wet track, if weather forecasters are correct.
The two races that were moved up three weeks from their original date are ungraded. But because Santa Anita, Keeneland, Aqueduct and Laurel Park are closed, owners and trainers are desperate to find tracks to run their better horses, even if the scheduled races do not have the cachet – the class – that they deserve.
“This business right now, this life that we live in, it’s hour by hour, day by day,” trainer Bob Baffert told Oaklawn Park’s media department by phone from southern California. “It’s nice that you guys are still open.”
Baffert shipped his almost forgotten 3-year-old Thousand Words and Grade 1 winner Improbable to start Saturday in the two races that are technically “drops in class” from the company that they have kept. But they are among the 20 starters that have been in graded stakes. And they are among the five that have graded victories.
Class drop? Hardly.
“They did draw some pretty good horses for this,” Thousand Words’s new jockey Joe Talamo told VSiN. “If horses run well, I’m sure they’re going to go into the Arkansas Derby.”
Thousand Words (5-2) is the morning-line favorite for the Oaklawn Stakes despite a flat, fourth-place finish behind stable mate Authentic last month in the Grade 2 San Felipe at Santa Anita. That loss was the first after three victories for the colt sired by Pioneerof The Nile.
“I think he’s a good horse,” Baffert said, “and he got beat by a good horse. He just didn’t show up that day.”
Flavien Prat decided not to fly from California to take his usual ride on Thousand Words. Enter Talamo, who left southern California last fall when it became clear that Santa Anita was losing quality horses to other tracks. Now Talamo on his way to becoming the champion jockey in his first full season at Oaklawn, and he is reunited this weekend with a trainer with whom he has seen a lot of ups and downs.
“I was actually very fortunate to ride some pretty decent horses for Bob,” Talamo said. “Just the fact that I know he’s shipping here means I know he thinks he has a pretty good shot.”
In spite of an uncharacteristic slump in Arkansas, trainer Steve Asmussen is expected to have the respect of bettors with at least one of his three starters for the 1⅛-mile Oaklawn Stakes. Drawn to the rail post, Grade 1 winner Basin (7-2) is expected to join Thousand Words in chasing whatever early pace there is as he tries to bounce back from finishing a distant third last month in the Rebel. Asmussen also saddles Springboard Mile victor Shoplifted (10-1) and three-time wet-track winner Gold Street (20-1), a frontrunner that got stuck with the outside post in the field of 13.
Two-time graded-stakes also-ran Taishan (8-1) and maiden winner Digital (8-1) should gather bets from value seekers. Taishan was an allowance winner four weeks ago in the Oaklawn slop, and Digital is coming back from two months off after his fade to fifth in the better of the two divisions of the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds.
The top three Oaklawn Stakes finishers get automatic invitations to the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, which was postponed until next month and presumably remains a win-and-you’re-in qualifier for the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby. No matter what Thousand Words does Saturday at 6:48 p.m. EDT, Baffert figures to have a big presence with Rebel winner Nadal and lightly raced Charlatan pointed to the new May 2 date for Oaklawn Park’s biggest race.
“We’ll have those in there if all goes well,” Baffert said.
With so few races and so many quality horses needed a run, the Arkansas Derby is expected to be oversubscribed. Oaklawn Park management has not addressed speculation that the race could be split into two divisions, something that would be costly at a time when the lockout of fans forced the track’s biggest race to have a purse drop from $1 million to $750,000.
If there is a lesson to come out of this weekend, it is that the comment “moves up in class” may be misleading in the coming months. Take heed, then, when handicapping horses that come out of the Oaklawn Stakes.
Tom’s d’Etat is lukewarm Mile favorite
Regional favorite Tom’s d’Etat (3-1), last year’s Kentucky Derby favorite Improbable (7-2) and last summer’s buzz horse Mr. Money (4-1) lead the 14 horses drawn into Saturday’s 5:43 p.m. EDT Oaklawn Mile.
Tom’s d’Etat won three of his last four races in 2019, including the Grade 1 Clark in his last start four months ago at Churchill Downs. Trained by Al Stall Jr., the $1.2 million earner will be ridden again by Joel Rosario, who is 4-for-4 riding this 7-year-old horse.
Both 4-year-olds, Improbable and Mr. Money have not raced since they finished off the board last November in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Improbable drew widest of the 14 for Saturday, and Baffert assigned the ride to southern California-based Drayden Van Dyke, who has not had a race since Santa Anita was shut down after March 22. Four consecutive victories in Grade 3 races raised awareness for Mr. Money last summer, and he will be ridden again by Gabriel Sáez for trainer Bret Calhoun.
Tom’s d’Etat, Improbable and Mr. Money are all expected to stalk the pace that may be set by any of four frontrunners. Cutting back from his fade to third in last month’s sloppy, 8½-furlong Essex Handicap at Oaklawn, 7-year-old horse Pioneer Spirit (6-1) seems the most serious threat to lead the whole race.
Asmussen will be represented by stalking, Essex runner-up Snapper Sinclair (10-1), deep-closing, two-time stakes winner Bankit (15-1) and pace-chasing, state-bred stakes winner Boldor (20-1).
Racing notes and opinions
Oaklawn Park, Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs are the only U.S. tracks offering thoroughbred races that have at least one turn in all of them. Shorter races will be run at Los Alamitos and Remington Park. Most advanced-deposit wagering platforms are also taking bets overnight Friday and early Saturday on the second weekend of The Championships in Australia and overnight Saturday and ear ly Sunday on the Grade 1 Ōka Shō in Japan. (For Nevadans not allowed by casino-influenced state leaders to be in the know, ADWs are useful tools that came into being in the latter part of the 20th century.)
Here are some predictions for the weekend’s featured races:
* My picks: Pioneer Spirit win-place in the Oaklawn Mile and Gold Street across the board in the Oaklawn Stakes as long the track is muddy or sloppy; Sanctuaire (8-1) win-place in the Ōka Shō over a turf mile for 3-year-old fillies.
* From VSiN’s Dave Tuley: Mr. Money to win the Oaklawn Mile and combinations of Shoplifted and Flap Jack (20-1) with Basin and Thousand Words vertically in the Oaklawn Stakes. (More of Tuley’s Thoroughbred Takes are posted at VSiN.com.)
* From Japan-based racing journalist Kate Hunter: Maltese Diosa (6-1), Cravache d’Or (7-1), Miyamazakura (14-1), Daring Tact (4-1) and Sanctuaire in exotic boxes.
* From Sky Racing’s Nick Quinn: Collette (2-1) and Probabeel (3-1) exacta box in the Group 1 Australian Oaks, Young Rascal (3-2) a best-bet win with Yogi (25-1) to win-show the Group 1 Sydney Cup, Danon Premium (5-2) to win and Master Of Wine (8-1) win-show in the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth, and Nettoyer (8-1) to win with Alizee (12-1) underneath in the Group 1 Coolmore.
Tuley, Hunter and Quinn expand on their choices on the current episode of the Ron Flatter Racing Pod.
Fonner Park, Neb., and Will Rogers Downs, Okla., continue to have the sports landscape to themselves Mondays and Tuesdays as the only U.S. tracks staging early-week races, and their handles have reflected that. As reported this week in the Daily Racing Form, Fonner Park used a Pick 5 carryover to attract a one-day, state-record $7.2 million Tuesday. During the week the track brought in $7.8 million in bets, more than eight times the handle of the same week last year. Will Rogers Downs has lured $26.5 million the first 10 days of its current meet. During the entire 25-day racing calendar last year it brought in $16.8 million.
Renowned gambler Alan “Dink” Denkenson talks about his life betting horses and sports, and jockey Joe Talamo discusses his ride on Thousand Words in this weekend’s Oaklawn Stakes. They are both on the Ron Flatter Racing Pod. There are also previews of races in Arkansas, Japan and Australia with Dave Tuley, Kate Hunter and Nick Quinn. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available via Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and is sponsored by 1/ST BET.