Will a Former Claimer Win the Oklahoma Derby?

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

Five weeks out from the Breeders' Cup World Championships, there are so many high-profile races on the agenda that it's difficult to keep track of them all. The Breeders' Cup Challenge Series is really heating up with 11 "Win and You're In" qualifiers spread throughout the U.S. and Europe, and if you're looking ahead to the 2021 Kentucky Derby, you'll be excited to know there are three Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races on the agenda.

But from a handicapping perspective, one of the most intriguing races of the week is the $200,000 Oklahoma Derby (G3) at Remington Park. The 1 1/8-mile test is far from the most prestigious event on the weekend slate, but it annually ranks among my favorite races to handicap. The Oklahoma Derby typically draws a competitive blend of 3-year-olds stepping up and down the class ladder, and upsets are a regular occurrence. Case in point? Only one favorite has prevailed in the last nine editions of the Oklahoma Derby.

Nine horses have been entered to contest Sunday's renewal of the Oklahoma Derby, with #5 Shared Sense (5-2) and #9 Dean Martini (7-2) looming as the two favorites. Their short prices are understandable—they're the lone graded stakes winners entered in the Oklahoma Derby field, and their proven form against tough company is appealing.

But I'm inclined to oppose them both. While Shared Sense did rally to an eye-catching victory in the 1 1/8-mile Indiana Derby (G3), he failed to close significant ground when finishing fifth in the 1 1/8-mile Ellis Park Derby last month. A son of Street Sense produced by a Bernardini mare, this Godolphin homebred is a one-run deep closer without any tactical speed, placing him at the mercy of the early pace.

Dean Martini is more versatile, as he displayed when parlaying an early move up the rail into victory in the 1 1/8-mile Ohio Derby (G3). But after pressing the pace in the Ellis Park Derby, Dean Martini weakened to finish sixth, and he risks a wide trip while breaking from the far outside post in the Oklahoma Derby.

#3 Rowdy Yates actually defeated both Shared Sense and Dean Martini when finishing fourth in the Ellis Park Derby, but although the son of Morning Line is a four-time stakes winner (with two of those victories coming at Remington), he might find the waters a bit deep in the Oklahoma Derby. Rowdy Yates could finish no better than fourth in a quartet of races on the 2019-20 Road to the Kentucky Derby, and at this point—with 10 straight stakes efforts under his belt—it appears as though Rowdy Yates has plateaued as a listed stakes type.

So rather than support the favorites, I'm tempted to play outside the box with a horse offering better odds. #1 Salow (15-1), #2 Creative Plan (8-1), and #8 Mo Mosa (8-1) all enter off promising allowance wins, and for the purpose of exotic wagers I'm interested in using them all. But the horse who intrigues me most in the Oklahoma Derby is #7 Avant Garde (6-1).

A former claimer, Avant Garde showed little in his first three starts on turf, but he's improved dramatically since switching to dirt and transitioning to the care of trainer Jesus Lander. In his first start for new connections, the bay gelding dominated a $25,000 maiden claiming race at Gulfstream Park by 5 1/4 lengths. For good measure, Avant Garde came right back to win a $25,000 claiming race by 3 1/4 lengths and a $50,000 event by four lengths.

Avant Garde finally left the claiming ranks behind in a 1 1/16-mile starter allowance race on Sept. 5 at Gulfstream, and the results were eye-catching. Facing older rivals, Avant Garde settled behind and between horses through fractions of :24.08, :46.90, and 1:10.71, the pounced to the front with a rapid turn-of-foot on the far turn. Seizing command with authority, Avant Garde powered away to win by 4 1/2 lengths, earning promising speed figures of 92 (Beyer) and 101 (Brisnet).

Visually, Avant Garde looked fantastic. I loved the way he patiently waited in traffic before instantly accelerating when an opening appeared. He ran strongly through the wire and appeared to have something left in the tank, suggesting Avant Garde can handle another step up in class for the Oklahoma Derby. Considering his sire (Tonalist) and dam sire (Afleet Alex) both won the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes (G1), the added distance shouldn't be an issue either.

At 6-1 on the morning line, I'm keen to support Avant Garde in the Oklahoma Derby, betting him to win and keying him in the exotics. If we can get another longshot on the board as well—perhaps Salow or Mo Mosa—the payoffs could be quite lucrative.

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