Will Baffert Sweep Both Divisions of the Arkansas Derby?

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

After five weeks without a single Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race to occupy our interest, the Derby trail will resume on Saturday with two divisions of the $500,000 Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn Park.

Let's dig in!

Arkansas Derby Division 1

I'll admit that part of me wants to oppose the even-money favorite #1 Charlatan. The inexperienced son of Speightstown can be a bit headstrong, and drawing the rail could leave him in serious trouble if he breaks slowly and winds up in traffic.

But that's a big "if," and if Charlatan comes out cleanly under hot jockey Martin Garcia, this race is probably over. Conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, Charlatan is unbeaten and unchallenged in two starts at Santa Anita, winning his debut sprinting six furlongs by 5 3/4 lengths before crushing a 1-mile allowance race by 10 1/4 lengths in the snappy time of 1:36.24. For the sake of comparison, recent Apple Blossom (G1) winner Ce Ce required 1:37.33 to win the Beholder Mile (G1) on the same afternoon.

With massive Beyer speed figures of 105 and 106 to his credit, Charlatan is clearly the fastest horse entered in the first division of the Arkansas Derby. Some might point to his pedigree as evidence that he won't stay 1 1/8 miles—Speightstown was a champion sprinter, after all—but dig a little deeper, and I see no reason to worry about Charlatan's stamina. Dam Authenticity won the Shuvee Handivap (G3) going 1 1/8 miles and placed third in the Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1), while Speightstown has sired an abundance of high-class winners running 1 1/8 miles or farther, including Travers (G1) winner Golden Ticket and Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) champion Haynesfield.

Charlatan should also enjoy a clear-cut tactical advantage on Saturday. With the news that #6 Shooters Shoot will scratch with an illness, Charlatan is the only clear front-runner on paper. Unless one of his rivals gets surprisingly aggressive in the early going, Charlatan should secure an uncontested lead heading into the first turn, giving him every opportunity to romp home on top with another triple-digit Beyer. For these reasons, I won't play against Charlatan—I'll key him on top in the exotics, single him in multi-race wagers, and call it a day.

Arkansas Derby Division 2

The tougher of the two Arkansas Derby divisions attracted five graded stakes winners, and unlike the first division, there's plenty of speed in the mix. The front-running Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner #3 Storm the Court could be a danger in his third start of the season, #11 Wells Bayou dominated the Louisiana Derby (G2) on the front end, and the speedy #4 King Guillermo parlayed pace-tracking tactics into a runaway victory in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2).

All three of these colts warrant respect, but so far none have shown the ability to survive a duel for early supremacy. As a result, they could be in deep water facing #5 Nadal, who has demonstrated impressive grit and determination while winning his first three starts for Bob Baffert.

A stoutly-bred son of Blame out of a Pulpit mare, Nadal has never enjoyed an easy lead in his life. He's had to fight tooth and nail for every race he's run, beginning with his eye-catching debut on Jan. 19 at Santa Anita. Sprinting 6 1/2 furlongs, Nadal dueled for the lead through fractions of :21.88 and :44.91, disposed of his pace rivals in the homestretch, and pulled away to defeat the late-rallying Exaulted by 3 3/4 lengths in the sharp time of 1:15.82.

Nadal has been even more impressive in subsequent starts. In the 7-furlong San Vicente (G2), he battled for supremacy through testing fractions of :21.81 and :44.09, then edged clear to defeat several quality rivals (including Storm the Court) by just under a length. The pace was destructive enough that RacingFlow.com assigned the San Vicente a Closer Favorability Ratio (CFR) of 98 on their 1-to-100 scale, signifying a race that should have given a distinct advantage to late runners. Nadal, of course, had other ideas.

Nadal encountered another tough setup when stretching out around two turns for the first time in Oaklawn's 1 1/16-mile Rebel Stakes (G2). Racing over a sloppy track, Nadal broke from the rail and was hounded from the start by the Grade 1-placed American Theorem. The two colts locked horns through splits of :22.89, :46.00, and 1:11.38, and while American Theorem eventually gave way to lose by 27 1/4 lengths, Nadal kept going. Challenged in the homestretch by deep-closing longshot Excession, Nadal somehow found another gear to stem off the challenger and win by three-quarters of a length, with Excession pulling seven lengths clear of the rest.

At this point, Nadal is about as battle-tested a Kentucky Derby contender as you'll ever find, and he's trained up a storm since the Rebel, cranking out a series of bullet workouts at Santa Anita. Drawing outside Storm the Court and King Guillermo affords jockey Joel Rosario some options for working out a more relaxed trip than in the Rebel, setting up the potential for Nadal to take a step forward. With a little bit of luck, Baffert can sweep both divisions of the Arkansas Derby.

For the exotics, I'll definitely use #7 Silver Prospector, who hails from the stable of three-time Arkansas Derby-winning trainer Steve Asmussen. An experienced runner with nine starts under his belt, Silver Prospector isn't the most consistent competitor—he misfired over sloppy tracks in both the Smarty Jones Stakes and the Rebel at Oaklawn this winter, finishing out of the money by wide margins.

But when Silver Prospector feels like running, he's among the best 3-year-olds in training. In the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) at Churchill Downs last fall, Silver Prospector unleashed a sharp rally from off the pace to defeat a deep field including future Florida Derby (G1) winner Tiz the Law plus Lecomte (G3) victor Enforceable.  And two starts back, Silver Prospector produced a smooth rally up the rail at Oaklawn to win the Southwest (G3) by a length over Wells Bayou, earning a 97 Beyer speed figure that ranks among the best in the Arkansas Derby field.

Silver Prospector has trained forwardly since his disappointing Rebel effort, clocking five furlongs in a bullet :59 on Apr. 18, leaving me optimistic that he'll rebound on Saturday. With a fast pace in the offing, Silver Prospector can take advantage to settle back, rally late, and crack the trifecta.

If you want to play a longshot for the exotics, why not consider #9 Taishan? A dominant allowance winner running 1 1/16 miles at Oaklawn on Mar. 14, Taishan turned in a deceptively strong effort in the 1 1/8-mile Oaklawn Stakes three weeks ago. In a race that unfolded at a blistering pace, Taishan made a premature rally into hot fractions and led into the stretch before weakening slightly to finish third behind deep closers Mr. Big News and Farmington Road.

The Oaklawn Stakes was assigned a CFR of 100 by RacingFlow.com, so Taishan deserves credit for racing much closer to the early pace than the top two finishers. If he times his rally a little better on Saturday, he can improve his performance and possibly finish on the board at a big price.

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


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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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