The $1 million Grade 1 Arkansas Derby is the last of the 170-point races to qualify for the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby.
The first four finishers of Saturdays’ race at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs will attain 100-40-20-10 points, respectively, on the road to Louisville.
The top 20 finishers in points make the starting gate at Churchill Downs. Master Fencer, the 20th horse on the list, has 19 points but has an automatic bid. That means, the 19th-ranked horse, Omaha Beach, is the most vulnerable on the list, although only 3 1/2 points separates No. 15 from No. 19.
Omaha Beach is listed as 2-1 in the Arkansas Derby and is coming off a nose victory in the local prep race, the Rebel, on March 16.
Up the road in Lexington at Keeneland, the Grade 3 Lexington Stakes is a last-gasp attempt for points with 34 points available (20-8-4-2 points going to the top four finishers, respectively). Anothertwistafate (2-1) sits on the Derby bubble at 30 points (ranked No. 23) and will most likely need a win to advance to Louisville.
The Arkansas Derby will be run at 1 1/8-miles at 7:43 p.m. EDT at Oaklawn, the signature race of the meeting as Race 11 on the card. The morning-line favorite and Rebel runner-up Improbable (8-5) has 25 points and needs a top-two finish to secure a spot; a third-place finish will likely get him in.
He sits in the No. 5 spot in the weekly National Thoroughbred Racing Association 3-year-old poll and might not even make it into the Derby. Trainer Bob Baffert already has two horses qualified in Roadster (100 points, No. 1 in NTRA poll) and Game Winner (85 points, No. 3 in NTRA poll). Improbable would give him his third starter.
He’ll have to get by Omaha Beach and Derby qualifier Long Range Toddy (53.5 points, No. 8 in NTRA poll).
Here’s a look at the 11 entries for the Arkansas Derby (post position, horse, trainer, jockey, ML odds in parenthesis):
1 – Improbable (Baffert, Ortiz, 8-5). Cali shipper was beaten a neck by Long Range Toddy in the local prep. Son of City Zip out of an A.P. Indy mare draws the rail for Baffert. Should he win, jockey will have a tough decision to make as he also rides Tacitus, the Wood winner. Baffert puts on the shades; it's time for this one to shine.
2 – Six Shooter (Holthus, Cohen, 30-1). Son of Trappe Shot comes off a bullet workout and a sprint race to face the big boys in the Derby. Cohen has had a nice meet, winning at a 24 percent clip at Oaklawn and he climbs aboard for the first time in the colt’s 11th career race. Might be asking a little too much.
3 – Omaha Beach (Mandella, Smith, 2-1). Another horse whose mount might be available after this race as Big Money Mike Smith will likely ride Roadster for Baffert in the Derby. Trainer Mandella has never won the Derby and his last entrant was in 2004 when he had two in the gate. Has never finished outside of the exacta in six career races. He was impressive looking Game Winner in the eye in the Rebel and succeeding. Contender.
4 – Tikhvin Flew (Asmussen, Baze, 30-1). Street Sense colt ships in from Aqueduct to try to conquer Oaklawn. Going two turns for the first time might be a huge ask for Bloom Racing’s hopeful. Has pedigree to go long and Baze in the irons for the first time. Going to pass.
5 – Laughing Fox (Asmussen, Santana Jr., 20-1). Ran a disappointing seventh in the Rebel after a troubled start. Had an impressive win coming into the race and has a legit excuse for his performance so he could surprise. Son of a Belmont Stakes winner and Asmussen’s first call in the saddle. Logical underneath in the exotics.
6 – Gray Attempt (Fires, Elliott, 8-1, 10 points). Smarty Jones winner over the surface returns to graded company after a limp attempt in the Southwest. Strong return in a non-graded stake in a sprint March 23. A bit of an enigma wrapped in a puzzle. Others interest me more, but wouldn’t be surprised if he rebounds and catches a piece.
7 – Galilean (Hollendorfer, Prat, 10-1, 7.5 points). My Rebel pick didn’t exactly disappoint, finishing a length behind Improbable in his first graded stake race. Son of Uncle Mo is looking for a top-two finish to garner enough to send him to Churchill. The price will definitely be right on the West Coast shipper. The Dorf takes off the blinkers in his third off the layoff on the form cycle. Intriguing.
8 – Country House (Mott, Rosario, 12-1, 30 points). Runs back with three weeks' rest after finishing fourth in the Louisiana Derby. Last-gasp effort to boost himself off the bubble and into the Derby. Late closing type who will need some pace to run into. His sire won the Preakness so if he fails to qualify with a fourth-place finish or less we might see him in Baltimore in the “new shooter” role.
9 – One Flew South (O’Neill, Borel, 50-1). Turfway to Sunland to Oaklawn. You don’t hear that combination of races too often. It’s likely not going to get it done here, either. Lightly raced son of Giant’s Causeway will be running in just his third career race. O’Neill makes an equipment change and he’s 50-1 for a reason. Hard pass.
10 – Jersey Agenda (Asmussen, Vazquez, 30-1). Jersey Town colt hasn’t won since January after stretching, trying both graded local preps. Beat Louisiana Derby in his maiden win in the slop at Churchill, but it hasn’t exactly been seashells and balloons since then. Will need to make a major improvement to compete here.
11 – Long Range Toddy (Asmussen, Court, 5-1, 53.5 points). Beat the Juvenile winner and 2-year-old champ last out to make believers out of many racing pundits. I was in Take Charge Indy’s corner in the Derby several years ago and he looks to have produced a solid colt for Asmussen, who is also looking for his first Kentucky Derby win. Made a believer out of me and doesn’t need to run a big race here so Asmussen could save his best for Kentucky. In the mix.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Improbable; 2 – Galilean; 3 – Omaha Beach; 4 – Long Range Toddy
The $200,000 Lexington is a last chance for qualifying points for Anothertwistafate (2-1, 30 points) and Sueno (5-1, 28 points). A win vaults either into the Derby and a second-place effort will have them waiting for defections (which always happen, by the way) among the qualfiers.
Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, who had a big weekend last week at Keeneland, has the mount on the favorite who finished second in the Sunland Park Derby last out for Blaine Wright after winning the El Camino Real at Golden Gate Fields.
My Louisiana Derby pick, Sueno, runs back after three weeks for Keith Desormeaux after finishing third at the Fair Grounds. Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Knicks Go (15-1) returns after a dismal Gotham at Aqueduct.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Anothertwistafate; 2 – Sueno; 3 – Zenden; 4 – Owendale
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.