The Derby and Oaks prep seasons draw to a close this weekend in Hot Springs.
Friday's card at Oaklawn features the Fantasy Stakes (G3). The Hot Springs spur of the Oaks trail has been wide open, and this year's Fantasy field reflects that -- twelve fillies will take their shot, and the field lacks a clear standout.
Twelve also entered Saturday's Arkansas Derby (G1), the open-company complement. Classic Empire stands out on two-year-old form -- but physical issues have beset his three-year-old campaign. Rebel winner Malagacy returns as the only representative for red-hot Todd Pletcher. But, ten others hope to spoil the party.
Friday, April 14: Oaklawn Park
Race 8, Fantasy Stakes (G3), three-year-old fillies, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 4:42pm CST
This year marks the 45th running of the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn. At stake this year are a share of a $400,000 purse, as well as 100-40-20-10 Road to the Kentucky Oaks points to the top four places. The race has been run at 1 1/16 miles and restricted to three-year-old fillies since its inception in 1973. It has been either a Grade I or a Grade II for most of its history, though it was downgraded to a Grade III starting in 2013. Even so, this final prep race at Oaklawn has been a rich source of Kentucky Oaks winners. It has produced eight to date: Davona Dale (1979), Bold 'n Deterimined (1980), Heavenly Cause (1981), Tiffany Lass (1986), Lite Light (1991), Blushing K. D. (1997), Rachel Alexandra (2009), and Blind Luck (2010). Rachel Alexandra would then go on to win the Preakness Stakes -- the only Fantasy Stakes winner to then win a Triple Crown race.
Rachel Alexandra tunes up for the Kentucky Oaks with an easy romp in the 2009 Fantasy Stakes.
The Fantasy Stakes offers a $400,000 purse, as well as Kentucky Oaks points (100-40-20-10) for the horses in first through fourth place. Twelve horses passed the entry box here. Given the lack of a real standout and the plethora of entrants who do their best on or quite close to the front end, this space sees reason to get EVER SO CLEVER in this spot. EVER SO CLEVER comes third off the lay for the barn of Steve Asmussen -- a trainer who fires at 20% going third off the lay. And, though she finished fifth behind It Tiz Well in the Honeybee (G3) last out, she did take a step forward from the Martha Washington into that start. With a trio of solid works after that race, expect her to progress even further. Sure, EVER SO CLEVER is marooned on the outside, but given her running style she should be able to drop nicely off the pace and rally late. The distance suits -- this daughter of Medaglia d'Oro belongs going two turns, and has hit the board three times at age two while going the mile and a sixteenth distance, including twice in graded stakes. With a pace setup and every reason to fire third off the lay, EVER SO CLEVER looks a prime upset candidate here.
The one to beat, albeit at a short price, is BENNER ISLAND. You may remember her for finishing second behind Diadura in the Arlington-Washington Lassie last year, but all five of her other starts have come on dirt. She broke her maiden sprinting at Indiana Grand last summer, she romped in an allowance over Churchill's one-turn mile last November, and last out she finished second behind It Tiz Well in the Honeybee (G3). It Tiz Well shipped west, and ended up facing tougher company. BENNER ISLAND stays on this comparably soft Oaks prep circuit, and gets a dream pace setup. She also get a change to rider Ricardo Santana: 19% on the meet, and blazing hot lately with trainer Brad Cox. If he times her move right, it would be no surprise to see BENNER ISLAND proceed to Kentucky. The biggest question is the fact that her form likes to yo-yo a bit. With that, a short price is less than thrilling. Still, with her Oaklawn form, connections, and likely pace, BENNER ISLAND makes sense.
VEXATIOUS takes a bit of a class drop here, after chasing Farrell around at Fair Grounds last out and finishing third behind stakes-quality males Battle of Midway and Reach the World two starts back. With all the speed in this race, she can be trusted to sit a bit off the pace. Last out, she stalked closer than she likes, but chalk that up to not wanting to let the early speed in a short field get too loose. That shouldn't be a problem here, and VEXATIOUS should sit more comfortably back. Her pedigree (a full sister to Creative Cause and Destin) suggests she wants even more distance -- the mile and an eighth in the Oaks, or even the mile and a quarter of the Alabama (G1) later in the year. But, right now, VEXATIOUS is a class horse who gets a decent setup, and should acquit herself well.
#12 EVER SO CLEVER (20/1)
#3 BENNER ISLAND (5/2)
#5 VEXATIOUS (7/2)
Longshot: Yes...if the morning line holds, this space is not going to come up with a longer shot than EVER SO CLEVER. Still, at a price that stands to be longer than at least BENNER ISLANd and VEXATIOUS, take a look at Sunland invader #6 KELL PASO (6/1). She has never raced outside of New Mexico -- but in four starts, she has never been out of the exacta, including a pair of seconds against out-of-state invaders in stakes races at Sunland. On speed she's in range with what she needs to hang with who she faces at Oaklawn, and in the Island Fashion Stakes and the Sunland Park Oaks, she showed at least some ability to stalk early and contend late. The worry is that KELL PASO still runs too close to a too-hot early pace. But, KELL PASO has always been game in the late stages of a race -- which, to these eyes, makes her the most likely of the front-end brigade to be a factor late.
Saturday, April 15: Oaklawn Park
Race 11: Arkansas Derby (G1), three-year-olds, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 6:18pm CST
Oaklawn's meet draws to a close with the Arkansas Derby -- a $1,000,000, Grade 1 affair that is the final 100-40-20-10 point prep of the season. Inaugurated in 1936 and run every year since except for 1945, it has always been run at nine furlongs. It has vacillated between a Grade 1 and a Grade 2 since 1976, but held firm at a Grade 1 since 2010. It does not look to be losing its top grade anytime soon, as its recent form has held well come Classic season. Last year's winner, Creator, won the Belmont. 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah won Hot Springs's richest race before going to Kentucky. 2014's longshot winner, Danza, franked that form by finishing third behind California Chrome in the Run for the Roses.
Danza, despite being ignored at odds of 41/1, romps in the 2014 Arkansas Derby.
All in all, six horses have come from the Arkansas Derby and won the Kentucky Derby. Three won: the aforementioned American Pharoah, Smarty Jones (2014), and Sunny's Halo (1983). Three second-place finishers also came back to win on Churchill's biggest day: Super Saver (2010), Grindstone (1996), and Lil E Tee (1992).
This race drew a pair of horses who stand to take the attention and the money. One of them, CLASSIC EMPIRE, this space will stand against here. CLASSIC EMPIRE was the most brilliant of his class...last year. But, this year, he has one lackluster third at Gulfstream, and then a sequence of issues. Even after the issues, the original plan was the Blue Grass -- and his connections instead re-routed him here. Yes, CLASSIC EMPIRE at his best should win this race: he has been able to vary his running style, and run well at different tracks. But, with so many issues and changes of plan, he may still go off the chalk here. If he springs back to his best -- this space will tip its cap to CLASSIC EMPIRE and Mark Casse, but will not be cashing any tickets.
MALAGACY, on the other hand, figures. The Todd Pletcher barn has gotten red hot, and so far MALAGACY has shaken out to be the best Derby prospect he has. Pletcher and owner Sumaya US Stables got very lucky with this one: after some lackluster work in the mornings they entered him for a tag at Gulfstream, but had to scratch him after he spiked a fever. MALAGACY instead debuted against maiden special weight types, and aired. He then easily annexed a sprint allowance, then stretched out nicely to two turns when he won the Rebel last month. The stretch to a mile and an eighth is a question -- but it's a question for most of this field. What matters most is that MALAGACY sat off the pace in the Rebel, something that he should do again with lesser horses like ROCKIN RUDY and GRANDPA'S DREAM likely to send.
Still, MALAGACY will be a short price, and he's marooned in the twelve hole. This space will use MALAGACY, but sees even more value in the third-place horse coming from the Rebel: UNTRAPPED. UNTRAPPED is the "A" of two Asmussen entries. (The other, LOOKIN AT LEE, is the consummate undersides sort; use him to round out a tri or super, but that's about it.) UNTRAPPED has a good running style for this race: he's a versatile sort who can stalk relatively close or kick on from midpack. He ran well enough last out -- third, but part of a blanket place photo behind MALAGACY -- that the Oaklawn surface poses no concern. And, he gets a switch to Mike Smith in the irons. Smith is not based at Oaklawn, of course, but he has won plenty of big stakes in Hot Springs. This includes two renditions of the Arkansas Derby. Finally, his pedigree suggests at least giving UNTRAPPED a chance at a mile and an eighth, especially at odds. His dam is a Giant's Causeway mare, and his sire (Tapit son Trappe Shot) was Grade 1 placed going nine panels.
Finally, we get to one of the few consistent parts of this year's three-year-old circuit: PETROV. Though he has not won a stakes race yet, he has not run a bad race on the Oaklawn spur of the Derby trail yet. He finished second in the Smarty Jones and the Southwest (G3). Even though he missed the board in the Rebel (G2), just noses separated SONNETEER, UNTRAPPED, and PETROV for place behind MALAGACY that day. He won't get burned in pace, but won't be too far off the pace. He gets a rider change to Ricardo Santana: a 19% rider at Oaklawn this meet, and who hops off the multiple graded stakes placed LOOKIN AT LEE to show up on PETROV. Whether he wants a mile and an eighth is the question -- but his consistency appeals, and he'll be the right price to use on tickets.
#9 UNTRAPPED (6/1)
#12 MALAGACY (2/1)
#4 PETROV (12/1)
Longshot: #11 CONQUEST MO MONEY (15/1) has made a bit mo' money than his connections paid for him: the son of Uncle Mo sold for just $8,500 as an unraced two-year-old, as part of the Conquest Stables dispersal last November at Keeneland, and has now earned over $300,000 in just four starts. Though he won his first three races, what makes CONQUEST MO MONEY particularly interesting is his lone second-place finish, which came behind Hence in the Sunland Derby. This makes him the only horse in the field who has even tried nine furlongs, and he acquitted himself well. Of course, he has class to prove -- Hence aired in the desert, but hadn't quite proved his mettle against the Oaklawn stakes set. However, CONQUEST MO MONEY fits on speed, he has shown he can rate and rally, and he is the only one in the field who has proven he has the fitness and stamina to get nine panels.
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