Five things I’m looking forward to at Oaklawn Park

Profile Picture: James Scully

April 12th, 2017

I’ve been to Oaklawn Park before but never for Arkansas Derby Day. It promises to be a packed house in Hot Springs, with 65,000 people expected for the closing-day program, and a field of 12 has been entered for the $1 million main event.

A total of four stakes will be offered on Saturday’s 12-race program and I will also be on hand for the Apple Blossom (G1) and Fantasy (G3) on Friday.

Here are five things I’m looking forward to seeing:

1. Classic Empire returns – After earning a 108 BRIS Speed rating winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), Classic Empire entered 2017 as the prohibitive favorite for the Kentucky Derby. But little has gone right for the champion 2-year-old male, who exited a well-beaten third in the Holy Bull (G2) with a foot abscess, and trainer Mark Casse wound up shipping him to a farm in Ocala when he refused to work a couple of times at Palm Meadows. He’s now training forwardly according to reports, pleasing onlookers with a pair of recent 5-furlong drills from the starting gate, and there may be enough time left still for Classic Empire to deliver his best in the Kentucky Derby. But he needs to run well first in the Arkansas Derby.

2. Is Malagacy for real? – I still think Malagacy’s future is in one-turn races but the unbeaten colt surprised me posting a two-length score in the March 18 Rebel (G2) at 1 1/16 miles and can continue to prove me wrong on Saturday. He stretches out an extra furlong and must overcome the far outside post with regular rider Javier Castellano, but the 2-1 second choice on the morning line will have plenty of supporters.

3. No Irap redux – A maiden winning the Blue Grass (G2) for the first time ever provided no clarity for the Kentucky Derby and the Arkansas Derby features a winless performer in the 0-for-9 Sonneteer, who couldn’t earn a BRIS Speed rating better than 88 or finish with five lengths of the winner in his first three starts this year but somehow managed to rally for second at 112-1 in the Rebel. He’s too slow to win, I hope.

4. Top sprint prospect – Whitmore opened the year with a pair of awesome performances at Oaklawn, registering 104 and 102 BRIS Speed ratings winning for fun at 6-furlongs, and looks well on his way to developing into an elite sprinter. The 4-year-old will look to keep rolling in Saturday’s Count Fleet Sprint H. (G3).

5. Stellar – After defeating Beholder in back-to-back starts, Stellar Wind missed the break and never got involved in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1), checking in a disappointing fourth behind Beholder and Songbird. She only made three starts before last year’s Distaff but John Sadler opted to her back sooner for the 5-year-old campaign, beginning with Friday’s Apple Blossom. The potential is there for some exciting match-ups against Songbird later this season if Stellar Wind dominates as expected.

You can follow my coverage from Oaklawn at the blog, @TwinSpires and @James_Scully111, as well as on Instagram