Arkansas Derby an important prep; US Army Ranger lightly-raced but a solid Epsom Derby favorite
BY DICK POWELL
So the prep season is over and unlike years ago when we might only have about a week to put it all together, now we get three weeks from the final prep to the first Saturday in May.
The final Kentucky Derby (G1) prep race was run on Saturday and I have to say, the Arkansas Derby (G1) lived up to expectations as it has become one of, if not the most important Derby prep race. From SMARTY JONES (Elusive Quality) to AFLEET ALEX (Northern Afleet) to SUPER SAVER (Maria’s Mon) AMERICAN PHAROAH (Pioneerof the Nile), Hot Springs, Arksansas has become a key stop on the road to the Kentucky Derby and this year should enforce that trend.
Even being three weeks away from the Kentucky Derby, the Arkansas Derby has found a spot in trainer’s planning. It is midway across the country so the ship to get there is not that bad. And, the Oaklawn Park dirt track plays remarkably similar to the one they will race over three weeks later at Churchill Downs.
Throw in a $1 million purse for the Arkansas Derby and $900,000 purse for the Rebel Stakes (G2), Oaklawn Park has encouraged many trainers to prep their 3YOs in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The field sizes for the three 3YO stakes races going long on the dirt at Oaklawn this year was 14 for the Southwest Stakes (G3), 14 for the Rebel and 12 for the Arkansas Derby.
A sensible program, on a consistent dirt track against big fields has made these races attractive not just for the shippers but the local contingent. And this year, the locals dominated the action with strong showings.
The Arkansas Derby looked like they might have had a budding superstar this year in CUPID (Tapit), winner of the Rebel Stakes (G2) last out at Oaklawn Park for Bob Baffert. If he wasn’t the second coming of American Pharoah, he easily looked like the second coming of BODEMEISTER (Empire Maker) as he showed good speed that day and held on gamely despite a fast pace.
He looked like he would be the one to catch in the Arkansas Derby but a funny thing happened on the way to the first turn. Johnny Velazquez sent GETTYSBURG (Pioneerof the Nile) to the front from post 12 and took the lead away from Cupid. What was noticeable was that Gettysburg was owned by Winstar Farm and Cupid, trained by Bob Baffert, was owned by Michael Tabor, Mrs. John Magnier and Derrick Smith, people that Pletcher often trains for.
So the gloves were off and the pace was hot. The first quarter was 22.81 seconds and considering the ground loss for Gettysburg, it took a lot of energy to accomplish. The first half was run in 46.33 seconds as Cupid was content to sit second a length off the front-runner.
The big field did not give the pacemakers any chance for a breather so with a third quarter mile run in 24.28 seconds, Cupid was the first to crack as he could not keep up around the far turn despite whip urging. Gettysburg was looking strong on the front end turning for home.
From the back of the pack, Ricardo Santana had CREATOR (Tapit), also owned by Winstar Farm, in a strong drive but instead of trying to loop the field, he split horses at the top of the stretch and began his winning rally. SUDDENBREAKINGNEWS (Mineshaft) was ninth down the backstretch instead of 12th. He dropped back some to get outside and then commenced a wide rally out in the middle of the track, just like he did winning the Southwest Stakes (G3).
Creator saved enough ground and that was the difference as he won by 1 ¼ lengths over Suddenbreakingnews. Both were very impressive as they handled Kentucky Derby-like conditions and I thought Suddenbreakingnews’ stride through the lane was immense. WHITMORE (Pleasantly Perfect) finished third and wound up in the money in all three Arkansas prep races.
The final time for the nine furlongs was 1:50.14 and Creator earned a BRIS Speed rating of 100, showing improvement in each start this year. Suddenbreakingnews gets a 99 so he is right in the mix and when you factor in ground loss, it was a big effort. Plus, he spotted Creator four pounds and they’ll be equal weights in three weeks.
Two races earlier, EFFINEX (Mineshaft) won the Oaklawn Park Handicap (G2) by a length over Santa Anita Handicap (G1) winner MELATONIN (Kodiak Kowboy) in 1:49. Effinex, at the age of five, has now won more than $2.6 million and has become a serious racehorse. He was second to American Pharoah in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) and came back to capture the Clark Handicap (G1) at Churchill Downs in November.
Creator’s winning time stands up well to the older Effinex’s and shows the legitimacy of this Arkansas Derby.
Without much fanfare, trainer Steve Asmussen won two $1 million prep races this year and heads to Kentucky with two extremely legitimate chances. GUN RUNNER (Candy Ride), winner of the Risen Star (G2) and TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2), earned the most points in the Kentucky Derby field and now Creator gets a spot on the big stage.
To show you how different our races are from Europe’s, look at the hot favorite for this year’s running of the Epsom Derby (G1). We just got through our prep season and all the major contenders had decent form as 2YOs.
In Europe, the clear favorite for the Derby is US ARMY RANGER (Galileo). Unraced until April 3, he got up in time to capture a maiden race at the Curragh going 1 ¼ miles on heavy turf. Second choice in the wagering, but already 20-to-1 in early Derby betting before his career bow, the colt was guided by Ryan Moore to a handy three-quarters of a length win over the highly regarded AASHEQ (Dubawi).
Trainer Aidan O’Brien, who has won three of the past four runnings of the Derby, said US Army Ranger is the top colt of the Ballydoyle operation and would probably have one start before the Derby to get more experience. Ryan Moore told the Racing Post that “every time he went for him, there was another gear and he did not get to the last gear.”
US Army Ranger’s dam is Group 1 winner MOONSTONE (Dalakhani), who was second in the Epsom Oaks (G1) before coming back to win the Irish Oaks (G1) next time out. She has already produced three stakes winners with her first three foals to race including WORDS (Dansili), winner of the Munster Oaks (G3) last year at 3.
US Army Ranger is an example of a horse O’Brien and Ballydoyle knew from the start how good he was. They work him with other world-class runners and when he went through his work as well as he did, they planned everything around the Derby and ignored any other races that might have been tempting. So far, their confidence has been well founded. He is currently about 4-to-1 with the British bookmakers with the next choice at 10-to-1.