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....
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
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.
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
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
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Saturday 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.