A Final Twist on the Derby Trail

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

It's been a long journey, but the 2018-19 Road to the Kentucky Derby will come to an end this Saturday with the running of two final prep races at Oaklawn Park and Keeneland.

The highlight of the day is undoubtedly the $1 million Arkansas Derby (gr. I) at Oaklawn, which will pit three highly-regarded Derby contenders against each other in a battle for supremacy. But I'm just as interested in the $200,000 Lexington Stakes (gr. III), which features a horse that I believe could contend for victory on the first Saturday in May.

Let's take a look at both races....

Arkansas Derby (gr. I)

With significant rainfall forecast for Saturday at Oaklawn Park, you can expect the Arkansas Derby to be contested over a wet track, adding another layer of complexity to an already tricky race.

For starters, how do you separate #1 Improbable, #3 Omaha Beach, and #11 Long Range Toddy? The latter two scored victories in the two divisions of the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn last month, recording nearly identical winning times, while Improbable was beaten just a neck in Long Range Toddy's division after striking the front too soon and possibly losing focus.

Improbable is actually the morning line favorite thanks to his high-class juvenile form (he won the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity by five lengths) and the fact that he is conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. Following Improbable's defeat in the Rebel, in which he was sluggish early on and endured a wide trip, Baffert has made some changes, adding blinkers and naming jockey Jose Ortiz to ride the colt for the first time.

I think the blinkers could make a positive difference for Improbable, but I am a little concerned about his rail draw. In all four of his starts to date, Improbable has shown a tendency to be a little sluggish in the opening furlong, taking his time to reach top speed. This was particularly evident in the Rebel Stakes, and the result was a very wide trip around both turns.

Maybe the blinkers will make a difference in the Arkansas Derby, but if Improbable is sluggish again, he risks getting bottled up inside heading into the first time. Over a sloppy track in a large field, that could be a tricky trip for a colt who has done his best running when given time to lengthen his stride.

In contrast, Omaha Beach should encounter no such difficulties. This rapidly-improving son of War Front is already proven over a sloppy, sealed track, having broken his maiden by nine lengths over such a track at Santa Anita two starts back. Just as significantly, Omaha Beach has the tactical speed necessary to work out a traffic-free trip on or near the lead, where he can stay clear of the muddy kickback. Expect to see jockey Mike Smith put Omaha Beach's speed to good use early on, just as he did in the second division of the Rebel Stakes, in which a forwardly-placed and generally ground-saving trip gave Omaha Beach the edge he needed to hold off champion and heavy favorite Game Winner to prevail by a nose.

If asked to choose between Improbable, Omaha Beach, and Long Range Toddy, I would side with Omaha Beach to get the job done again and stamp himself as one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby. But is there anyone else in the Arkansas Derby who could potentially challenge for victory?

Call me crazy, but I do have some interest in #6 Country House. Trained by Bill Mott, Country House has been his own worst enemy at times, making a habit of breaking slowly from the starting gate and conceding ground to his rivals right from the start. He might have overcome that trouble in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) two starts back, except that he insisted on lugging in down the homestretch, making it impossible for jockey Luis Saez to take aim at the eventual winner War of Will. Even still, Country House managed to finish second, beaten just 2 ¼ lengths.

Subsequently, Country House could only finish fourth in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), but I thought his performance was deceptively good. A slow start left him off the pace and racing wide in a compact field, and when Country House tried to rally around the far turn, the field bunched up even more and he had to travel five-wide into the homestretch. The race really didn't set up for him at all from a pace and trip perspective, so it's not surprising that he flattened out after drawing within a length or so of the leaders at the top of the stretch.

There's a fair amount of speed in the Arkansas Derby field—Omaha Beach, #6 Gray Attempt, #7 Galilean, #9 One Flew South, #10 Jersey Agenda, and maybe even Improbable all figure to show varying degrees of early speed—so it's possible that Country House could get a much better pace setup in the Arkansas Derby. Also, as a son of Lookin At Lucky out of a War Chant mare, Country House is bred to enjoy a wet track.

Plenty of speed, a sloppy racing surface, a rider switch to the highly accomplished Joel Rosario... I don't know about you, but to me, that sounds like a recipe for a strong performance from Country House. He might not win, but at 12-1 on the morning line, he's a longshot that I would want to include on all my tickets.

Lexington Stakes (gr. III)

I won't get too creative in the Lexington Stakes. #4 Anothertwistafate will likely be a short price, but I have been highly impressed by this son of Scat Daddy, who has been almost unstoppable since stretching out around two turns. He possesses something that many young horses don't have, and that is the ability to finish genuinely fast at the end of a two-turn route race.

Just look at his last two performances. In the El Camino Real Derby, Anothertwistafate set a steady (though somewhat unremarkable) pace against a quality field, then exploded away in the homestretch, running the final furlong in :12.08 seconds to win by seven lengths over Bob Baffert's capable colt Kingly.

In the Sunland Derby, Anothertwistafate was arguably even more impressive despite suffering a defeat. Showing a new dimension by rating behind the leaders, Anothertwistafate got caught up in traffic on the far turn, a critical turn of events that prevented him from matching the sweeping outside move of eventual winner Cutting Humor. In my opinion, this cost Anothertwistafate the victory, but give him credit—once he got to the outside, he re-rallied with powerful strides, running the final furlong in less than :12 seconds to fall a neck short of catching the winner.

But setting fractional splits aside, what has struck me the most about Anothertwistafate is the visual impression that he makes while running. In both the El Camino Real Derby and the Sunland Derby, he simply looked like a powerful, top-class horse, running straight and true down the lane each time. Truth be told, I think Anothertwistafate might have the talent to win the Kentucky Derby, so I certainly expect him to emerge victorious from the Lexington Stakes.

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


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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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