Will Classic Empire Strike Back in the Arkansas Derby?

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

With just three weeks remaining until the Kentucky Derby, the last of the official prep races are scheduled to be run this Saturday, led by the $1 million Arkansas Derby (gr. I) at Oaklawn Park. Given the number of surprising results that we've seen on the Derby trail so far this year, it would come as no surprise if the Arkansas Derby produces another upset winner, though the favorite-Classic Empire-looks formidable if able to rebound to his best form. Let's start handicapping!

Arkansas Derby (gr. I)

A large field of twelve has turned out for Oaklawn's final Kentucky Derby prep race, an event that has been won in recent years by Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, Belmont Stakes winner Creator, and Preakness Stakes winner Curlin.

The favorite in this year's renewal will almost certainly be Classic Empire, who won the Eclipse Award as champion two-year-old male following a strong 2016 season that saw him win three graded stakes races, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) with an eye-catching 102 Beyer speed figure.

Not surprisingly, Classic Empire was the early favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, but his three-year-old season has not gone as planned. He opened the year with a distant third-place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) at Gulfstream, emerging from the race with a foot abscess that interrupted his training. Then, after refusing to breeze a couple of times at Palm Meadows, Classic Empire was shipped to Winding Oaks Farm, where he has turned in four good workouts while being rerouted from the Blue Grass Stakes to the Arkansas Derby.

On his best day, Classic Empire is undoubtedly the horse to beat in the Arkansas Derby-after all, he's already defeated such prominent Derby contenders as Practical Joke, Gormley, and Gunnevera. But given the troubles he's had this year, I think it's worth taking a shot against him on Saturday and looking for a horse offering better odds.

Malagacy, winner of the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn last month, is the other obvious contender. Trained by Todd Pletcher, Malagacy is unbeaten in three starts by the combined margin of 24 lengths, and a repeat of his Rebel performance would put him right in the mix again. But there are a few reasons to be wary of his chances. For one, he has drawn the far outside post position and could be in for a wide trip while carrying seven pounds more than he did in the Rebel.

Secondly, the value on Malagacy is likely gone now that he's a proven graded stakes winner-he went off at nearly 7-2 in the Rebel but is 2-1 on the morning line for the Arkansas Derby. For as dominant as Pletcher can be on the Derby trail, it's less common for his three-year-olds to win back-to-back Derby prep races, particularly as the season progresses and the competition gets tougher. One example is Tapwrit, who finished fifth in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II) last week after previously winning the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) in impressive fashion.

With this in mind, I think Petrov might offer value at anywhere near his 12-1 morning line odds. Trained by Ron Moquett, the son of Flatter finished a clear second in both the Smarty Jones Stakes and Southwest Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn before coming home fourth in the Rebel, beaten two noses for the runner-up spot. Considering that he had to briefly wait in traffic at a key moment turning for home, I think he might have nabbed second place with a cleaner trip.

After being ridden by Jose Ortiz in his last four starts, Petrov will have Ricardo Santana, Jr. in the saddle, which could be a positive upgrade given that Santana is the leading rider at Oaklawn and rode Creator to victory in this race last year. I don't know if Petrov really wants to go nine furlongs, but getting him into the exacta-even behind Classic Empire-could pay nicely.

But an even more intriguing longshot might be Silver Dust, who finished fifth in the Rebel Stakes while beaten just 1 ¼ lengths for second. The son of Tapit had a bit of trouble that day but ran on well in the homestretch; he'll be adding blinkers for the Arkansas Derby to help him focus, which is a strong move for trainer Randy Morse, who wins at a 27% rate when adding blinkers.

Overall, Silver Dust has shown steady improvement throughout his career and took a nice jump forward in the Rebel after finishing a distant fourth in the Southwest Stakes. He's kept good company throughout his career and signaled his readiness for this race by breezing five furlongs in a bullet :59 2/5 on April 7th at Oaklawn, an excellent time for that track, as all but one of the other workouts were slower by a full second or more.

I get the feeling that we haven't seen the best that Silver Dust has to offer, but this could be the day that he puts it all together with a big run. There will also be a subtle weight shift in his favor, for after spotting Petrov and Untrapped three pounds in the Rebel Stakes, they'll all carry equal weights on Saturday, and that shift-at least according to one scale of weights-could be enough for Silver Dust to turn the tables.

I'll also throw in a good word for Rockin Rudy, who ships in from California for trainer Doug O'Neill. Although Rockin Rudy has never run farther than 6 ½ furlongs, he broke his maiden by 11 ½ lengths last summer at Del Mar, and after a long layoff, he returned to finish second in the Baffle Stakes (behind the talented Conquest Farenheit) and an allowance race, both on the downhill turf course at Santa Anita.

Rockin Rudy has never been beaten to the lead and figures to set the pace after drawing the rail. This is a very big step up in class and distance, but he's meeting a field comprised primarily of stalkers and closers-I think there's a chance that he gets loose on the lead and takes this field a long way on the front end.

As for some of the others, Lookin at Lee has run well in five straight graded stakes races and could be poised for his best run yet while making his third start off a layoff, but as a deep closer that tends to drop at least a dozen lengths off the early lead, he would likely need a pace meltdown to win and might be best used underneath for third or fourth. Sonneteer rallied to finish second in the Rebel Stakes, but received a ground-saving trip compared to the horses he nosed out for the runner-up spot; he's still looking for his first victory and is 0-for-9 so far, though he's kept good company throughout his career. Conquest Mo Money finished second in the Sunland Derby (gr. III) last time out, but is drawn very wide and I'm not sure how far he wants to run. Untrapped has placed in three straight graded stakes races, including a third-place effort in the Rebel; he'll add blinkers for the Arkansas Derby and picks up the services of top jockey Mike Smith, making him a logical candidate once again, albeit at a relatively short price.

So to put it simply, Classic Empire should win this race if he's at his best, but since there are reasons to question whether he's ready for a peak effort, I'll take a shot with Silver Dust. If he goes off at 20-1, I think he'd be worth a win bet while making him a key horse in the exacta and trifecta. Petrov would be my second choice and could also be worth a close look at 12-1.

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


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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 www.theturfboard.com.

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