Top Contenders Tough to Split in Arkansas Derby

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

April 11th, 2019

The tricky part of handicapping the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) on Saturday at Oaklawn Park isn’t identifying the top contenders. That part is easy. The challenging aspect is splitting them, so your wagers will yield a reasonable return on investment.

#1 Improbable, #3 Omaha Beach and #11 Long Range Toddy are the obvious favorites in this 1 1/8-mile Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race, the final event offering 100 qualification points to the winner. Long Range Toddy and Improbable were separated by a neck when finishing 1-2 in the first division of the Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn last month, while Omaha Beach was a narrow winner of the second division.

The problem is, they all recorded nearly identical winning times, so pure speed figures are essentially useless for separating them. Improbable might have the most room for improvement, since the Rebel was his 2019 debut and he arguably lost focus after striking the front in the homestretch. The addition of blinkers for the Arkansas Derby should help his chances.

But the rail draw isn’t ideal for Improbable, a colt who requires more time than some to reach top speed after breaking from the starting gate. This tendency has caused him problems on a couple of occasions, most notably in the Rebel, where a sluggish opening furlong left him racing wide on both turns.
That’s why, out of the three favorites, I narrowly prefer the chances of Omaha Beach. The son of War Front has really turned a corner in 2019, improving sharply with every start. In the second division of the Rebel, he put his excellent tactical speed to use, seized the lead partway through the race and stayed on strongly down the homestretch to edge champion Game Winner by a nose. His subsequent bullet workouts at Santa Anita—a half-mile in :47 4/5 and five furlongs in 1:00 3/5—suggest he’s still in great form.
But I’m not convinced the Arkansas Derby will be strictly a battle between the Rebel alumni. There’s a fair amount of speed in this field, which could play to the strengths of longshot #8 Country House. A habitual slow starter, Country House has been disadvantaged by slow-pace fractions on a couple occasions in his career, but he’s kept good company all the while and produced a big rally two starts back to finish second in the Risen Star Stakes (G2) at Fair Grounds.

If Country House ever masters the art of breaking alertly, I think we could see him step up his game significantly. Perhaps the rider switch to Joel Rosario will make a difference.

Also, don’t sleep on the chances of #6 Gray Attempt. He’d be easy to overlook after finishing last in the Southwest Stakes (G3), but if you draw a line through that effort, he’s an easy horse to like. Three starts back he gamely defeated Long Range Toddy in the Smarty Jones Stakes, and last time out he cut back to six furlongs and scored a decisive frontrunning victory in the Gazebo Stakes. He could be a danger to get out in front and hold on for a spot in the top three.

Rather than spread around a lot in the exotics, I’ll try to boost my return on investment by keying Omaha Beach to win in a trifecta. I’ll emphasize the combinations with Improbable and Long Range Toddy underneath, but I’ll also play tickets with Country House and Grey Attempt for third place:

$8 trifecta: 3 with 1,11 with 1,11 ($16) $4 trifecta: 3 with 1,11 with 6,8 ($16)

Good luck!