J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
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!
|7th Rebel Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
|Jack Van Berg
|8th Rebel Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
|Ricardo Santana, Jr.
|3rd Rebel Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
|Donnie K. Von Hemel
|5th Rebel Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
|1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)
|2nd Allowance Optional Claiming
|3rd Louisiana Derby (gr. II) (VIDEO)
|Irad Ortiz, Jr.
|2nd Rebel Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
|Luna de Loco
|1st Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)
|1st Rebel Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
|D. Wayne Lukas
|6th Rebel Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
|2nd Sunland Festival of Racing Stakes (VIDEO)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 http://www.theturfboard.com/.