J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
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)
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
it's your turn! Who do you like in the Arkansas Derby?
The Unlocking Winners Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge is back for a third consecutive year! Please be sure to post all entries, prime horses, and stable additions on the official contest page. 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 www.theturfboard.com.