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Split divisions in Arkansas highlight big day of horse racing

For the first time in 10 years, I won’t be waking up in Louisville on the first Saturday in May.

Kentucky Derby day takes on a different twist this year, as the Run for the Roses has been postponed until the first Saturday in September. The racing world instead will turn to Hot Springs, Ark., and a 14-race card to fill the void of the Derby's traditional pomp and circumstance.

Due to an abundance of entries, the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby will be run in two divisions late Saturday evening after a day full of Derby-at-home festivities, including a virtual Derby race of the 13 Triple Crown winners.

NBC Sports will air a three-hour special from 3 to 6 p.m. ET with features on American Pharoah’s 2015 Triple Crown run and the virtual Derby, tentatively scheduled for 5:45 p.m. The telecast will then shift to NBCSN and Oaklawn Park for the Arkansas Derby races. The split divisions will be sandwiched around a tremendous Oaklawn Handicap, which will include some of the top older horses in the country, airing from 6 to 8 p.m.

FS1 also will present a seven-hour broadcast from racing sites around the country from 1 to 8 p.m. and will also televise the races from Oaklawn.

The Arkansas Derby is the last of the scheduled 170-point races to qualify for the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby. The first four finishers in each division will attain 100-40-20-10 points, respectively, on the road to Louisville. Each race will have a purse of $500,000. More races are expected to be added to the qualifying schedule with the extension of the Derby to September by Churchill Downs.

First Division – Arkansas Derby

Considered the weaker of the two divisions, the first division field has been reduced to nine colts and is expected to be dominated by a horse that will be running in his first stakes race.

Charlatan, ranked No. 4 on the NTRA’s top 3-year old poll behind stablemates Authentic (idle) and Nadal, who will run in the second division, is the even-money favorite. Trained by two-time Triple Crown-winning conditioner Bob Baffert, the son of Speightstown is running in only his third career race.

Highly regarded after his first two efforts at Santa Anita winning by a combined 15 3/4 lengths, he comes to Hot Springs looking to earn Derby points that could vault him into the Derby picture.

Starlight Racing’s Jack Wolf, a co-owner in Charlatan, was thankful for the split divisions allowing his horse to enter.

“My hat's off to the Cella family at Oaklawn, they don’t even have the casino running, for them to do what they’ve done has been a godsend,” Wolf said on a media conference call Tuesday. “Thank goodness for Churchill Downs and Oaklawn sitting down to find a way to split the race, $500,000 for each division and still a Grade 1 and keep the total points for each race.”

His horse will benefit from the scratch of Shooters Shoot, who came down with a fever earlier in the week, leaving Charlatan as the likely lone speed in the race. The Todd Pletcher-trained Gouverneur Morris (9-2) comes in third off the layoff and should improve on his fourth-place finish in the Florida Derby, his first race in graded company.

It’s hard to discount the Steven Asmussen/Ricardo Santana Jr. combination, especially at Oaklawn. Basin (8-1), a son of Liam’s Map, drew the outside post and hopes to run on a fast track after three consecutive races on an off track. He could be the X-factor in the race.

If you draw a line through the effort of Anneau d’Or (6-1) in the Risen Star, his numbers from his 2-year-old season fit with this group. Trainer Blaine Wright will take the blinkers off the son of Medaglia d’Oro, a tactic that has produced winners at a 31% clip in 2020.

Post Time Outlook (First Division):  1 – Charlatan; 2 – Gouverneur Morris; 3 – Basin; 4 – Anneau d’Or 

Second Division - Arkansas Derby 

The second division also suffered two scratches and is down to nine horses, headlined by another Baffert trainee, Nadal (5-2) named after the popular tennis star. The son of Blame, a $700,000 purchase, is undefeated in three starts, including a three-quarters length win gutted out in the local prep for the Arkansas Derby.

He held on over a game Excession with Joel Rosario up in the Grade 2 Rebel in mid-March and returned to Santa Anita to train up to this weekend’s big race. His efforts in the morning show that he is ready, but he could be a vulnerable favorite based on how he struggled to put away a lesser foe in the Rebel.

A horse that shined moving from the turf to dirt in the Tampa Bay Derby was the Uncle Mo progeny, King Guillermo (3-1). He was impressive drawing away from the Tampa field at 49-1, and he will not be overlooked Saturday. His worktab is equally impressive at Gulfstream and trainer Juan Avila will try to step into the Derby spotlight for the first time.

The second and third-place finishers in the Oaklawn Stakes should have something to say about this division. Late-running Farmington Road (12-1) will hope for a fast pace to vault Pletcher to Louisville in September, a place he has been accustomed to visiting in May.

Taishan (15-1) gave way in the late going, but the experience gained from that effort could move him forward at a nice price. He proved he wasn’t a fluke in his race leading up to the Oaklawn Stakes and the son of Twirling Candy could be the surprise horse that crashes into the exotics.

Post Time Outlook (Second Division):  1 – King Guillermo; 2 – Farmington Road; 3 – Nadal; 4 – Taishan 

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

Race 11 $500K Arkansas Derby (First Division) - 1 1/8-miles 6:29 ET
PP Horse Trainer Jockey ML odds
1 Charlatan Baffert Garcia Even
2 My Friends Beer O'Dwyer Cannon 20-1
3 Mo Mosa Maker Carmouche 30-1
4 Gouverneur Morris Pletcher Velazquez 9-2
5 Jungle Runner Asmussen Baze 30-1
6 Shooters Shoot Eurton Talamo SCR
7 Wrecking Crew Miller Prat SCR
8 Anneau d'Or Wright Hernandez 6-1
9 Winning Impression Stewart Leparoux 15-1
10 Crypto Cash McPeek Lanerie 20-1
11 Basin Asmussen Santana, Jr. 8-1
Race 13 $500K Arkansas Derby (Second Division) - 1 1/8-miles 7:43 ET
PP Horse Trainer Jockey ML odds
1 Finnick the Fierce Hernandez Garcia 15-1
2 Saratogian Brisset Talamo SCR
3 Storm the Court Eurton Prat 6-1
4 King Guillermo Avila Camacho 3-1
5 Nadal Baffert Rosario 5-2
6 Code Runner Asmussen Elliott 50-1
7 Silver Prospector Asmussen Santana, Jr. 10-1
8 Fast Enough Becerra Baze SCR
9 Taishan Baltas Cohen 15-1
10 Farmington Road Pletcher Castellano 12-1
11 Wells Bayou Cox Geroux 7-2


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