Five things to know for the Arkansas Derby

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

April 14th, 2017

While Saturday’s $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) is a major prize in its own right, its timing as the last Kentucky Derby (G1) points race raises the stakes for horses trying to make the cut for the first Saturday in May. The 170 points on offer, awarded to the respective top four finishers on a 100-40-20-10 scale, only add to an already intriguing renewal featuring a champion on the comeback trail and an up-and-comer seeking validation.

Here are my five things to know for the Arkansas Derby.

1. Classic Empire, last year’s unanimous champion two-year-old male, needs to prove he’s back in business after a problematic start to the season. He’s the 8-5 favorite on the morning line as a nod to his undeniable ability, and his 108 BRIS Speed rating from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) puts him in a different league from these. But it’s an open question whether he’ll strike that level of form here.

Trainer Mark Casse has had his work cut out for him ever since Classic Empire finished a disappointing third in the February 4 Holy Bull (G2). A foot abscess turned out to be the culprit then, only to be followed by a tweak of his back, and finally by refusals to work at Palm Meadows.

Classic Empire has a newfound zest for the job, however, after moving to the bucolic environs of Winding Oaks Farm near Ocala. If his four works there are any indication, the Pioneerof the Nile colt may be ready to re-assert himself as the leader of his generation. And he’s fired fresh in the past, although arguing a potentially swift pace from post 2 leaves him no margin for error.

In any event, the champion must deliver a reasonably solid performance at Oaklawn to advance to Churchill Downs. Partly that’s just good horsemanship; Casse wouldn’t press on if he’s obviously out of sorts. But it’s also an objective fact because Classic Empire is currently 21st on the Derby points leaderboard. If he’s out of the superfecta, he may find himself on the far side of the bubble to get into the Derby starting gate.

Bettors must decide whether Classic Empire is worth backing in the circumstances at a short price, or if he’s best used defensively while trying to beat him. Half of that calculus is finding the right alternative.

2. Unbeaten Rebel (G2) winner Malagacy is the obvious rival on paper, yet brings his own question mark in tow. The Todd Pletcher pupil has virtually the opposite profile to Classic Empire’s: he was unraced at two, scratched from his intended debut in a maiden claimer, but unexpectedly erupted as a talent this winter at Gulfstream Park. He’s the veritable poster child for “pleasant surprise.”

Malagacy enters in the best form of anyone. The conqueror of his two Gulfstream sprints by a combined margin of 22 lengths, he handled the stretch-out to 1 1/16 miles, and the ship to Oaklawn, to capture the Rebel. Still, his BRIS Speed rating declined significantly over a route, from his triple-digit numbers sprinting to a 95 last time. Now he must negotiate an additional sixteenth of a mile. Post 12 promises to tack on some more yardage, and a likely fast pace will ensure a proper stamina test.

You can make a case for Malagacy on pedigree. From the first crop of 2011 Preakness (G1) hero Shackleford, he’s actually inbred to 1981 Derby/Preakness winner Pleasant Colony. Malagacy has the blocky build of a sprinter, though, and given the blistering speed he’s shown around one turn, you’ve got to wonder how far he really wants to go. Yet the Arkansas Derby could be a perfect storm for him, if Classic Empire is lacking in fitness, and if the rest aren’t good enough to take advantage.

3. The respective second through sixth in the Rebel – Sonneteer, Untrapped, Petrov, Silver Dust, and Lookin at Lee – are eligible to take a step forward in the rematch.

Of those, Steve Asmussen’s Untrapped has the most appeal, and not merely because he gets first-time blinkers and a rider switch to Hall of Famer Mike Smith. In the stretch of the Rebel, Untrapped appeared poised to overhaul Malagacy, but stalled late and lost second in a photo to the rail-skimming Sonneteer. The turnaround from his bang-up second to Girvin in the Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds was cited as the cause, and Untrapped stands to benefit from the extra week here. A nicely-bred son of Trappe Shot, he has a sneaky look. It wouldn’t take much improvement to see him upsetting this.

Stablemate Lookin at Lee shapes up as a dour type, but for that reason, he’s entitled to produce his best effort for some time on the step up to nine furlongs. The deep closer has acquitted himself well at this level before, finishing second to Classic Empire in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) and fourth to the favorite again in the Breeders’ Cup. He’s been making good headway late when third in the Southwest (G3) and an even nearer sixth in the Rebel, and the pace scenario should help.

Sonneteer, dismissed at 112-1 in the Rebel, showed nifty athleticism to change paths a couple of times, and ignore a bumping match with Petrov, to grab second at the wire and galloped out with gusto. He’s still a maiden for Keith Desormeaux, but after Irap’s breakthrough in the Blue Grass (G2), anything looks possible on this Derby trail. And his owner/breeder, Calumet, has had a good run of late with Sunland Derby (G3) winner Hence and Louisiana Derby (G2) runner-up Patch.

Silver Dust has shown glimmers here and there, and the $510,000 Tapit colt may put it together with the addition of blinkers. He doesn’t have that much of a bridge to gap after a fourth in the Southwest and a fifth in the Rebel.

Petrov may look pretty exposed following his runner-up efforts in the Smarty Jones and Southwest and his fourth in the blanket Rebel finish. On the other hand, it’s also possible that he just hasn’t had his ideal set-up. Maybe chasing the pace is detracting from his finish a bit, and more patient tactics could help. At least one thing is certain: the Ron Moquett trainee picks up a new rider in Ricardo Santana Jr.

4. Conquest Mo Money hopes to give the Sunland Derby another form boost. Irap, a distant fourth in the Sunland Derby, wheeled back to surprise the Blue Grass at 31-1. By that logic, Sunland runner-up Conquest Mo Money smacks of a 15-1 overlay at Oaklawn.

One key difference is that Conquest Mo Money is attempting to take his game on the road for the first time for trainer Miguel Hernandez. A bargain buy at $8,500 (not a typo) from the Conquest Stables dispersal at Keeneland last November, the beautifully bred son of Uncle Mo began his career with a three-race winning spree at Sunland. He suffered his first loss to Oaklawn shipper Hence in the Sunland Derby, so it would be ironic if Conquest Mo Money topples the Oaklawn cast.

5. Rockin Rudy bids to emulate stablemate Irap by springing the upset. The biggest quibble with forcing that parallel is their diverging profiles. They’re Reddam Racing colorbearers trained by Doug O’Neill, and taking blinkers off, and that’s about it.

Irap was a maiden going into the Blue Grass, but a graded veteran who’d placed to Mastery and Royal Mo around two turns. In contrast, Rockin Rudy sports a maiden claiming romp at Del Mar last summer, but is untested in graded company and over a route. Since joining O’Neill this term, he’s stuck to sprinting down Santa Anita’s unique downhill turf. Rockin Rudy has flashed high speed before finishing second both times, and he figures to go forward from the rail here. Unlike blueblood Irap, Rockin Rudy’s pedigree is suggestive of distance limitations, being by Midshipman and out of a Confide mare. Yet he is also a half-brother to the dam of Chanel’s Legacy, winner of Oaklawn’s Dixie Belle and Martha Washington who nearly wired Friday's Fantasy (G3).

For more details on the entire 12-horse field, see the free Arkansas Derby PPs courtesy of Brisnet.

Classic Empire photo by TwinSpires' James Scully