By Gene Kershner
The Road to the Kentucky Derby series goes through Hot Springs, Ark. and Lexington, Ky. on Saturday afternoon (CNBC, 6:00 p.m.) when two major Derby prep races will be featured in a one hour telecast. The $1 million Arkansas Derby and the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes take over the spotlight on this weekend’s Derby Trail.
The Grade 1 Arkansas Derby will be run at Oaklawn Park on Saturday afternoon as the signature race of the Oaklawn meeting and has attracted 11 entrants looking to punch their ticket for the Kentucky Derby. Leading race contenders include Grade 2 Rebel Stakes winner Secret Circle (5-2), runner-up Optimizer (6-1) and the talented Bodemeister (9-5).
Bob Baffert trains two of the three aforementioned colts, will already have Secret Circle in the gate in Louisville, but will need a victory from Bodemeister for him to have a shot at the roses. Secret Circle, the first ever winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint race last November at Churchill, just keeps on winning and Baffert keeps stretching him out since his sprint victory last fall. Rafael Bejarano will be in the irons trying to win for the sixth time in seven tries aboard Secret Circle.
Bodemeister ran a competitive second to West Coast sensation Creative Cause in the Grade 2 San Felipe and will take plenty of the public’s money at the windows. Anything short of a victory however, will keep him out of the Derby. The Empire Maker colt has only three career races but is starting to mature into a solid race horse. Baffert takes the blinkers off and Mike Smith, who rode his 5,000th career winner last weekend, gains the mount.
Hall of Fame trainer and four-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, D. Wayne Lukas, is hoping his late closing colt out of English Channel continues to move forward off his second place effort in the Rebel. Optimizer had struggled in a decent effort in a fall race at Keeneland in his third career start, missing the board in four straight races before his placing in the Rebel at 28-1. He has an excellent pedigree for the classic distance (A.P. Indy is his dam sire) and could be a sleeper pick in the Derby if he garners enough earnings to make the gate. He currently sits in 26th place on the graded earnings list and will need to hit the board to have a shot at qualifying.
Other notables in the Arkansas Derby are Delta Jackpot winner Sabercat (15-1, currently 9th on the list) and Sunland Derby runner-up Isn’t He Clever (6-1, currently 25th on the list) who also needs to hit the board.
We’ll box the two Baffert horses in an exacta and also play both over Optimizer and Isn’t He Clever, who I think is ready to produce a big effort.
Shifting our focus to Lexington and the beautiful Keeneland Race Course, the Grade 1 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes will highlight the spring meeting. Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion and the horse currently sitting atop the graded stakes standings, Hansen (6-5), will take on 11 challengers in the 1 1/8-mile race. Coming off a big win in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, he shipped back to Kentucky to run on the polytrack at Keeneland instead of last weekend’s Wood Memorial at the Big A.
Dr. Kendall Hansen is amped to see his horse run on the poly again. “It's exciting when your horse has won his two poly track races by 12 and 13 lengths. You know, I hope he can have a lot of fun on it Saturday, you know, without throwing out his biggest race. But I'm really shocked to see how tough the Blue Grass is coming up. There's some great competition in there, and he's going to have to run well—he—just to win the race. And, of course, we don't have to win the race, but it sure would be nice to see him win by daylight, and then have plenty left at the end,” Dr. Hansen told the media on Tuesday afternoon.
Hansen’s biggest obstacles will come from Dullahan (6-1), who won at Keeneland last fall in the Breeders’ Futurity coming from behind to beat a field that included the aforementioned Optimizer. He will attempt to make the Derby a la Paddy O’Prado’s same route in 2010 via the Palm Beach Stakes on turf at Gulfstream followed by the Blue Grass. O’Prado finished third in that Derby two years ago.
Eccentric Russian trainer Gennadi Dorochenko entered 109-1 Louisiana Derby winner Hero of Order (12-1) off two weeks rest. Unfortunately the colt was never Triple Crown nominated and will not run in the Derby.
Another interesting entrant who could make some noise is Howe Great (6-1), who has won four straight races (three on the turf) and defeated Dullahan in the Palm Beach last month. The Hat Trick colt is aptly named after hockey great Gordie Howe and most likely needs to win to earn a Derby gate. Javier Castellano has the mount aboard Howe Great for the first time.
Tampa Bay Derby winner with the Woodbine connections, Prospective (10-1), will also look to put up a decent effort to prepare for the Run for the Roses. Luis Contreras rides the Malibu Moon colt for Toronto-based trainer Mark Casse.
The Blue Grass has been a race that has produced long shot winners in the past, this year could be no different. I’m leaning towards Howe Great, as Castellano has ridden several horses in the race and decided to ride for Graham Motion, so we’ll look to use him to key most of our plays.
Good luck and enjoy this weekend’s Derby trail races.