This piece is jointly submitted for Thorofan's Handicapper's Corner.
Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas brings down the curtain on its 2016 meet with its traditional closing day feature, the Grade One $1,000,000 Arkansas Derby. It carries, like other April preps, a 100-40-20-10 allotment of Kentucky Derby qualifying points. The Arkansas Derby was first created in 1936 and has been contested every year except for 1945. Always at nine furlongs, the race has produced three Kentucky Derby winners, Sunny's Halo (1983), Smarty Jones (2004), and American Pharoah (2015), the most recent of which became a Triple Crown winner. The exploits of Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex (2005), and Curlin (2007) - all of which won the Preakness - helped the Arkansas Derby get back to Grade One level after a decade-plus as a Grade Two.
American Pharoah takes command on the turn, winning the 2015 Arkansas Derby. Two months later, he'd be victorious in all three legs of the Triple Crown.
The Arkansas Derby isn't the only race with Kentucky Derby points on the line this weekend. Nicolle Neulist takes a look at the G3 Lexington Stakes on Saturday. In a separate piece she'll also investigate the last prep for the Kentucky Oaks, the G3 Beaumont on Sunday at Keeneland.
All races in this piece are scheduled for Saturday April 16th.
Oaklawn Park -- Race 11 -- G1 Arkansas Derby -- One and one-eighth miles on dirt -- post time 6:18 pm CT
On the NTRA Teleconference, trainer Ron Moquett wants to put WHITMORE, his closer with local connections, a touch closer to the pace. The thinking on his part is that Oaklawn is naturally titled for speed, or that there's an inside/speed bias brewing for a big day, or both. In any case, WHITMORE is a closing type that will need to show he's got a little bit of tactical speed in him, as opposed to a dead one-run closer like SUDDENBREAKINGNEWS. Irad Ortiz rode WHITMORE in the G2 Rebel in March and he has the return assignment. He did show some tactical ability in going for the lead in career start two in the G3 Delta Jackpot, but that may have been too much too soon. Plus he was put closer to the pace last time in the Rebel than he was in the Southwest. If he were a one-run closer, he would be accused of making his run too soon, but both the Rebel and the Southwest saw him in different places but with similar results. Perhaps there are tactical gears. He should, based on the sire line, appreciate the nine furlongs. DAZZLING GEM comes into this race looking for a Derby berth. With twenty points from a third-place finish in the Louisiana Derby, a podium finish here should put him in the gate. DAZZLING GEM will be a price, considering he was 8/1 in New Orleans at the end of last month. DAZZLING GEM has been the nine furlong trip. His trip in the Louisiana Derby has plus and minus points to these eyes: while speed wasn't great on Louisiana Derby, neither was the inside. And while he was speed that hung on, he was in the two-path (while eventual winner GUN RUNNER was scraping the paint before going inside-outside). Perhaps he was in the right path, but he wasn't in the right flow. There were sensible fractions three weeks ago, and there should be sensible fractions again. The morning line favorite in this race is CUPID, who comes in with a target on his back. He ran the field off its hooves in the Rebel and made the local horses look blah. Perhaps west is best this year, but the distance is longer (though he should handle it), and we saw him repel and turn back the speed while cutting out zippy splits. Yet no one truly challenged him the way, and someone's bound to do it this go-round. But he's proven his mettle and does get used defensively.
#8 WHITMORE (9/2)
#7 DAZZLING GEM (12/1)
#10 CUPID (2/1)
Longshot: Not often do you get Joe Bravo on a 30/1 shot for the leading trainer of the Oaklawn meet in Steve Asmussen, but that's the case with #9 LUNA DE LOCO (30/1), who sports Calumet Farm silks. Adding to this is that Asmussen has two in here, CREATOR being the other and CREATOR is held in higher regard. LUNA DE LOCO is, to this observer, is bred as well for nine furlongs (by Malibu Moon o/o a Bertrando mare). LUNA DE LOCO went in to the parking lot two back in the Southwest and had to work from a disasterous post twelve. Eliminating that dud of a race, and we have a runner who cleared the a-other-than last time over the local strip while being close to a soft pace. Perhaps a more honest pace forces him to work out a trip. However, he nearly did that three back in the Southwest and perhaps with a new pilot and maturity, he can make a better move.
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