Saturday, the Kentucky Derby trail comes to an end. This piece focuses on the final race of the Hot Springs spur of the Derby trail, the Arkansas Derby. Keeneland also hosts a last-minute 20-point prep, the Lexington Stakes (G3), which we visit in a separate piece. Friday's Oaklawn card also features the track's final Oaks prep, the Grade 3 Fantasy Stakes, which we analyse in another article.
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. Though last year's winner Classic Empire finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby, he rebounded with a second-place finish in the Preakness. 2016'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.
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).
Smarty Jones continues his domination of the Oaklawn spur of the 2004 Derby trail, with a win in the Arkansas Derby. He would go on to win both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes.
Saturday, April 14: Oaklawn Park
Race 11: Arkansas Derby (G1), three-year-olds, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 6:18pm CST
Discussions around this race have deservedly centered around three horses, the main players in terms of both class and speed. MAGNUM MOON and SOLOMINI had their showdown in the Rebel (G2) last month, with MAGNUM MOON a convincing winner of that round, over the more-experienced but first-off-the-lay SOLOMINI. Once Justify was routed to the Santa Anita Derby, SOLOMINI was pointed for a rematch. Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner QUIP entered the discussions last week when he was rerouted to Arkansas from a full (and speed-laden) Blue Grass (G2) at Keeneland. Between the three marquee contenders, MAGNUM MOON and QUIP both have their tickets to Kentucky punched, with fifty points apiece. SOLOMINI enters the Arkansas Derby with 34 points, meaning that trainer Bob Baffert needs him ready to snag at least a share of the Arkansas Derby for him to punch his ticket to Kentucky.
Now that we see the bigger picture, who is best set to do well here?
This race should have an honest enough pace. MACHISMO really should send from the two gate. QUIP will send from the outside, and gets dangerous on the front end if MACHISMO either breaks poorly or (in this space's opinion, unwisely) gets rated too far off the pace yet again. MAGNUM MOON, SOLOMINI, and TENFOLD have every right to be close to that early pace, though none have to be on it.
Among them? Off his impressive Rebel, MAGNUM MOON looks best suited to win right back here. Not only does he return to Oaklawn and keep regular rider Luis Saez, but he hails from the hottest barn on the Derby trail right now, that of Todd Pletcher. There's no reason the kind of stalk-and-pounce trip MAGNUM MOON has had in his last couple of starts can't win the race again here, and he has the dangerous combination of tactical speed and sharp late kick. Even with both QUIP and SOLOMINI coming second off the lay? They need a step forward against a horse who is still lightly-raced enough to himself do better here, and both QUIP and SOLOMINI mark the Arkansas Derby as plan "B". Beating MAGNUM MOON looks a tough task, too tough for this space to think trying to pick against him on top will be anything but being cute for cute's sake. In this spot, it looks like you either have to single MAGNUM MOON on top or cover perhaps half the field; we roll on a budget here, so we're rolling with MAGNUM MOON.
Of course, both QUIP and SOLOMINI could hit the board. SOLOMINI will likely be more fancied by the bettors on his trainer's reputation, but Bob Baffert doesn't have quite the hammerlock on the Arkansas Derby as he had on the Rebel. He has the experience edge on QUIP, and the West Coast class, but he still looks like he's figuring it out. QUIP is preferred between these two. Especially if they try to rate MACHISMO yet again, QUIP looks the one they have to catch up front, which is not a bad place to be at Oaklawn. The relative outside post is a positive, too, giving QUIP a good chance at a clean trip. Though he hasn't raced in Hot Springs yet, he has shown his ability to take his form to different tracks. And, the Tampa Bay Derby that QUIP won has graded out well so far: second-place Flameaway was a game second in the Blue Grass last week, and fourth-place Vino Rosso won the Wood (G2). All in all, even with the last-minute re-route a point in his disfavour, QUIP should be a legitimate contender in the Arkansas Derby.
But, if we're looking for a horse to finish in the money behind MAGNUM MOON, there's one who can do it at a better price than either SOLOMINI or QUIP -- and one for whom Oaklawn was always on the map. COMBATANT has been a consistent presence on the Hot Springs spur of the Derby trail; the Steve Asmussen trainee is the only one in the field who ran in the Smarty Jones, Southwest, and Rebel as well. Though he did not win any of those races, he has held his own, hitting the board in all three of those preps. This space isn't sure about COMBATANT winning the Arkansas Derby. But? He should once again make good account of himself. He has never missed the board at two turns on dirt, and on speed, he doesn't need a huge step up to be right with the best. Whether COMBATANT will take that step up to win? That's a question, and this space leans to the negative on top, as he looks like the sort of horse from whom you know what you're going to get. But, what you're getting with COMBATANT is as dependable an undersides sort as there has been this entire Derby prep season: one who should track off the pace, keep running late, and find a spot on the podium yet again.
#6 MAGNUM MOON (8/5)
#9 COMBATANT (6/1)
#8 QUIP (9/2)
Longshot: Steve Asmussen packed the Arkansas Derby field. He has the well-proven COMBATANT. He has DREAM BABY DREAM, second in the Sunland Derby (G3), but with questionable affinity for the dirt in Hot Springs. Then, he has #3 TENFOLD (10/1). TENFOLD lacks the experience of most of his foes, as the Arkansas Derby is his first career start in stakes company and only his third start overall. This is a class test, of course. But, TENFOLD has two wins over the Oaklawn course, making the surface a known quantity. TENFOLD has won on the front end, as well as from a stalking spot. He also showed he could dig in and win a fight late; it never hurts to bring some heart to a battle against saltier horses. Finally, his pedigree suggests that a mile and an eighth -- and perhaps even longer, down the road -- should suit him better than almost anyone on the Derby trail. TENFOLD is by Curlin. His dam, Temptress, is a Tapit mare who did her best work at two turns; Temptress's dam is by Giant's Causeway.
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