Three weeks out from the Run for the Roses and the last major prep race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby worth significant qualifying points is on tap in Hot Springs, Ark. tomorrow. The Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park will offer 100-40-20-10 points to the top four finishers in the $1 million race over 1 1/8-miles.
The Arkansas Derby has proven to be a key prep race for the Derby, producing a Triple Crown champion (2015), a third-place finisher (2014) and a runner-up (2012) in the past four years. Over the past 11 years, it has produced two Derby winners (Smarty Jones, American Pharoah), four Preakness winners (those two plus Afleet Alex and Curlin) and two Belmont winners (Pharoah and Afleet Alex), so ignore the winner of this race at your own risk.
A field of 12 sophomores, 11 colts and a gelding headline the Grade 1 race that will certainly send several horses to Louisville. The field includes the Revel winner Cupid (2-1) and the Southwest winner Suddenbreakingnews (5-1) and the runner-up in both local preps in Whitmore (9-2).
Add to the mix, third=place Louisiana Derby finisher Dazzling Gem (12-1), the lightly raced American Pioneer (8-1), and third-place Rebel finisher Creator (10-1), the race is shaping up to be one of the most competitive of the prep season.
Let’s take a capsule look at each of the entries (post position, trainer, jockey, ML odds and Derby points in parenthesis):
Oaklawn Park – Race 11 – 7:18 p.m. EDT
1 – Discreetness (Fires, Court, 20-1, 10 pts). The son of Discreet Cat needs a top two finish to pave the road to Louisville. Earned his points with a win in the Smarty Jones, but two seventh-place finishes in the local preps have put him behind the eight-ball. He will need to make big strides forward to make a trip to Louisville. Others much tougher.
2 – Cutacorner (Van Berg, Birzer, 50-1, 0 pts). Longest shot in the field has yet to make a mark against graded company. Top two finish also required for any shot at the Derby. Would be a major upset.
3 – Creator (Asmussen, Santana, 10-1, 10 pts). Intriguing son of Tapit finished third in the Rebel behind the top two favorites in this race. Had a wide trip in the Rebel and may relish the additional distance as he was coming late against the top two. Asmussen has been dangerous with these types in the past. Contender.
4 – Suddenbreakingnews (Von Hemel, Quinonez, 5-1, 10 pts). Bad trip in the Rebel cost this gelding valuable points and has him desperate for a top two finish to get him into the Derby. His late running style puts him right in the thick of things, but needs running room. Was making a late bid in the Rebel, but ran out of track. The added distance is a plus. Dangerous.
5 – American Pioneer (Catalano, Bejarano, 8-1, 0 pts). Lightly raced colt won impressively on the Rebel undercard, although in almost a full second slower time than Cupid. His first class test will be a big one and he’ll be hard to back, but can’t be totally discounted. West coast rider ships in for the mount and his hopes for a Derby mount.
6 – Unbridled Outlaw (Romans, Lanerie, 10-1, 2 pts). Earned points last year with at third-place finish in the Iroquois at Churchill Downs. Romans already has one horse (Brody’s Cause) in the Derby and a second (Cherry Wine) on the bubble. He has to be respected, but he ran second against much weaker foes in his last race and nothing indicates that ready for a break out race. Others more interesting.
7 – Dazzling Gem (Cox, Talamo, 12-1, 20 pts). Currently sits in 25th place on the leaderboard and needs a top three finish to even sniff a spot as 32 points is the current total for the last horse eligible for the final gate. Son of Misremembered out of a Vindication mare was bumped around at the quarter pole at the Fair Grounds and had nothing left in the tank for the stretch. Can use underneath in the exotics but not the cream of the crop in here.
8 – Whitmore (Moquett, Ortiz Jr., 9-2, 24 pts). Trainer got Far Right to the Derby last year and hopes the son of Pleasantly Perfect can duplicate the effort. He sits on the bubble currently after two strong efforts in the local prep races. Improving running lines, a strong jockey aboard and a solid pre-race workout should get this one to hit the board and a ticket to Louisville.
9 – Luna de Loco (Asmussen, Bravo, 30-1, 1 pt). Malibu Moon colt runs in the renowned Calumet silks. He picked up a Derby point with a fourth-place finish in the Smarty Jones. Love the connections, but not the horse.
10 – Cupid (Baffert, Garcia, 2-1, 50 pts). Favorite will look to give trainer Baffert back-to-back wins in the race and his third career Arkansas Derby win. Already firmly established with a gate in the Derby due to his win in the local prep, the $900K grey has sparkled since he stretched out in his maiden victory in February. The one to beat.
11 – Gray Sky (Lukas, Vazquez, 30-1, 0 pts). D. Wayne is looking for a ride to the Derby and hoping this grey son of Tapit can spring an upset to get him there. Likes an off track, so if it turns up sloppy don’t discount. If there was a long shot in the race I had to select, this would be the one.
12 – Gettysburg (Pletcher, Velazquez, 6-1, 0 pts). Pletcher has won this race a record four times and seeks to extend it with the son of Pioneerof the Nile. After an impressive maiden-breaking victory, he struggled in the Davis at Tampa before shipping to New Mexico to take second behind highly-respected Collected in a non-graded stake at Sunland. He’s the Pletch-factor in the race and a Hall of Fame jockey aboard for the ride. He certainly will have no problem with the distance and if the track is speed-favoring he could be one to watch. Outside post may force him to be used early. Using in third and fourth spots.
I’m looking for Suddenbreakingnews to rebound with a cleaner trip and sweep by the favorite late in the race.
Post Time Outlook: 1 –Suddenbreakingnews; 2 – Cupid; 3 – Whitmore; 4 - Creator
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.