Is the Derby Winner Running in Arkansas?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

We're almost there, folks! On April 16th the last two prep races for the 2016 Kentucky Derby will be held, and the field for the 142nd running of the "Run for the Roses" will be more-or-less established. The most important of the two prep races is the $1 million Arkansas Derby (gr. I) at Oaklawn Park, a race that has been won in recent years by such standout runners as American Pharoah, Smarty Jones, Curlin, Afleet Alex, Lawyer Ron, and Bodemeister. This year's Arkansas Derby has drawn an extremely deep field of twelve horses, and such is the talent of these twelve runners that as I've been handicapping the race, I keep asking myself one question: Could the Kentucky Derby winner be running in the Arkansas Derby? To try and answer that question, let's take a look at the entries!

#HorseJockeyTrainerLast race
1DiscreetnessJon CourtWilliam Fires7th Rebel Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
2CutacornerA. BirzerJack Van Berg8th Rebel Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
3CreatorRicardo Santana, Jr.Steve Asmussen3rd Rebel Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
4SuddenbreakingnewsLuis QuinonezDonnie K. Von Hemel5th Rebel Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
5American PioneerRafael BejaranoWayne Catalano1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)
6Unbridled OutlawCorey LanerieDale Romans2nd Allowance Optional Claiming
7Dazzling GemJoe TalamoBrad Cox3rd Louisiana Derby (gr. II) (VIDEO)
8WhitmoreIrad Ortiz, Jr.Ron Moquett2nd Rebel Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
9Luna de LocoJoe BravoSteve Asmussen1st Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)
10CupidMartin GarciaBob Baffert1st Rebel Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
11Gray SkyRamon VazquezD. Wayne Lukas6th Rebel Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
12GettysburgJohn VelazquezTodd Pletcher2nd Sunland Festival of Racing Stakes (VIDEO)

The morning line favorite at 2-1 is the Bob Baffert-trained Cupid, a son of Tapit that is 2-for-2 in two-turn races, most recently winning the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn in gate-to-wire fashion. At first glance, his victory was nothing to write home about-he won by 1 ¼ lengths with a 95 Beyer speed figure-but upon further review, his performance becomes more and more astonishing.

To start, Cupid broke slowly in the Rebel Stakes and had to be urged hard in the opening furlong to get clear of traffic and secure the early lead. As a result, he ran the opening quarter-mile in :22.96 and the half-mile in :46.82, fractions that are very fast for two-turn Oaklawn. Furthermore, they were by far the fastest fractions in any of the eight two-turn races held at Oaklawn that day, including two graded stakes races for older horses. The second-fastest half-mile fraction was :47.50, nearly seven-tenths of a second slower than Cupid's. But despite those slower fractions, six of the seven other two-turn races were won by horses closing from off the pace-it wasn't a day for success by front-runners.

Basically, the pace that Cupid set was destructive, and should have caused him to tire. In fact, it did tire out every horse that chased him-the horses racing in second through seventh early on retreated to finish eighth through fourteenth, while two horses that raced in last rallied to finish in the superfecta.

But Cupid didn't tire. In fact, when he was challenged by the late-running Whitmore in the homestretch, he actually accelerated in the final sixteenth of a mile, running the distance in a rapid :06.19, which was faster than the accomplished Upstart ran while winning the Razorback Handicap off a slower pace.

In my opinion, Cupid had every excuse to lose the Rebel Stakes but didn't, which says a lot about his talent. Since that race, he has trained sharply at Santa Anita, including a seven-furlong workout in 1:24 3/5 on April 6th in which he started several lengths behind the stakes-winning sprinter Toews On Ice and beat him to the wire in decisive fashion. As a lightly-raced colt with just four starts under his belt, I wouldn't be surprised if Cupid took a big step forward in the Arkansas Derby, much like Bodemeister did in 2012. Cupid does have a habit of breaking slowly, which could potentially lead to a wide trip if he gets beaten to the lead by several of his speedy rivals, but I think he's good enough to overcome it. I could be wrong-it wouldn't be the first time, and it wouldn't be the last!-but I think Cupid will not only win the Arkansas Derby, but the Kentucky Derby as well.

Lots of respect must also be given to Whitmore, who looked like a winner in the homestretch of the Rebel Stakes before Cupid turned him back. Whitmore had a much wider trip than Cupid, albeit while closing from off the fast pace, and should have a strong chance to finish in the top two again. Another intriguing contender is Suddenbreakingnews, who finished fifth in the Rebel Stakes after breaking from post fourteen and dropping far behind early on. He showed earlier in his career that he can be effective while racing closer to the pace, and his deep-closing style-which also saw him defeat Whitmore by 2 ¾ lengths in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III)-may be more the result of wide draws forcing him to drop far behind than it is a lack of early speed. But while he had to wait for racing room briefly on the far turn of the Rebel Stakes, he actually got a pretty good trip avoiding too much ground loss except at the very end of the final turn, and he didn't close as much ground as one might have expected when free of traffic in the homestretch. Drawing post four should help his chances a lot and provide him with more options to gain position in the early stages of the race, and the extra half-furlong of the Arkansas Derby should be beneficial as well, but unless another blazing pace unfolds, he could find it difficult to turn the tables on Cupid and Whitmore.

Due to limitations of word count, I can't go in-depth on all of the talented horses in the Arkansas Derby, but I'll try to briefly mention as many as possible. Creator closed from far behind in the Rebel Stakes to finish a good third and looks like a rapidly-improving colt that will appreciate the extra distance; however, he did get the jump on Suddenbreakingnews when the latter had to wait in traffic, which is something to keep in mind. American Pioneer broke his maiden at Oaklawn about half an hour after the Rebel Stakes, settling a couple lengths off the lead before accelerating clear to win by 3 ¾ lengths over Goats Town, who came back to finish a solid sixth in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland. American Pioneer looks like an exciting, promising colt that could finish in the trifecta if he takes another step forward. Unbridled Outlaw showed good form last year, finishing third in the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) despite a very bad trip, and he set the pace in an 8.5-furlong allowance race at Oaklawn on Rebel day before tiring late to finish second. It was a great effort for his first start of the year, and while I think there's a chance that nine furlongs will be a bit too far for him, he must be respected. Dazzling Gem finished third in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) off two straight wins to open his career, but got a pretty good trip that day stalking a modest pace and will need to take a step forward in the Arkansas Derby. Gettysburg disappointed in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) but rebounded to finish second in the Sunland Festival Racing Stakes last time out. He's trained by Todd Pletcher, and it's not every day that you can get a nice price on a Pletcher horse in a Derby prep, but Gettysburg is stepping up in class and has drawn the far outside post position-he could be facing a tough task. Discreetness won the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn earlier this year before running seventh in the Southwest and Rebel Stakes; however, he is expected to show more speed from post one and could be more effective that way.

Lastly, if you're looking for a live longshot, I think Gray Sky has a chance to hit the board at a huge price. He made a bold run at Cupid on the far turn of the Rebel Stakes before fading late to finish sixth, but was the only horse near Cupid's early pace that hung around for a decent finish. I think Gray Sky's Rebel performance was a quiet step in the right direction, and if he can work out a better trip in the Arkansas Derby, I think he will outrun his odds.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Arkansas Derby?


To help simplify the process of choosing and keeping track of everyone's prime horse selections in our 2016 Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge, I would like to ask everyone to please submit their prime choice each week by leaving a special comment on the official blog page for the contest. This will greatly reduce the chances of any prime horse selections getting overlooked, and will also make it simpler to double-check the standings. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!


J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website

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