With the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve postponed until the first week in September, the $200,000 Oaklawn Stakes now serves as the springboard to the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, which was moved to May 2. Thirteen 3-year-olds were entered for the 1 1/8-mile race at Oaklawn Park. They are led by Thousand Words, winner of the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity in December and the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes in February before a disappointing fourth-place finish in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes last month.
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Among the dozen trying to beat the most likely betting favorite are eight horses that ran in graded stakes in their most recent starts, none finishing better than third. Basin may have the most upside of the group as his third-place finish in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes last month followed six months on the sidelines. Also with a chance is sharp recent winner Taishan, who coasted home by 4 3/4 lengths on this track last month in an allowance race. Sir Rick ships in from the southwest off a four-length win in the Mine That Bird Derby and hopes to step up against better competition. Farmington Road closed from 10th of 11 in the early stages of a division of the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford to get fourth and is one of only three horses in the field to have run this far on dirt to date. Shoplifted won the Springboard Mile Stakes in December but has managed just third- and fourth-place finishes in stakes races since. Gold Street is very likely to be in front early, or at least to try for the lead from his extreme outside post, which was the tactic that led to a win in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn in January before a ninth-place finish in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes in February. Flap Jack returned from six months off when finishing sixth in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes last month and may have upside potential. Something Natural tried stakes company for the first time last month in the Rushaway Stakes on an all-weather surface and finished third of seven, so he could be a factor as well. Similarly, Digital moved up to second in the stretch in a division of the Risen Star before tiring to fifth and may run better off the experience. Mr. Big News passed a few to be fifth in a division of the Risen Star and might be considered for a share. Background and Coach Bahe round out the field.
Taishan (8-1 morning-line odds) really came into his own last month and, even though unproven at this stakes level, may be the one to beat in the Oaklawn Stakes. Stretching out to two turns in the second start of his career last November, Taishan improved off an inauspicious fifth-place debut to win by one length and earned a moderately strong 96 Equibase Speed Figure for a maiden win in the fall. Given two months off to mature, Taishan returned in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes and, although well regarded at 2.30-1 odds, was a well-beaten fourth to a pair of next-out stakes winners in Authentic and Azul Coast. Shipped to Oaklawn to get on the Derby trail, Taishan ran poorly when fifth in the Southwest Stakes in February. Something changed significantly in his next start on March 14 at Oaklawn, where he went to the lead and never looked back when ridden out to a 4 ¾-length win. I think that something was the jockey change to Joel Rosario, as well as a change in tactics. With Rosario back in the saddle today and with that last effort earning Taishan a career-best, and more importantly field high, last-race figure of 98, Taishan may take some beating in this race.
Basin (7-2 odds) had a fine 2-year-old campaign that saw him missing by a nose in his debut last June followed by two wins. The second of the two was a powerful 6 ½-length win in the Grade 1 Runhappy Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga, which earned a 96 figure. More than six months passed before Basin raced again, that effort coming in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn. Not only was Basin giving away a lot of recency to most of the field, he also had some traffic trouble with a quarter-mile to run. Nevertheless, he rallied a bit to get third as the top two horses drew off by seven lengths. Very likely to improve in his second start off a layoff and being a half-brother (same dam) to multiple stakes winner Rise Up ($1.2 million in earnings), Basin could continue to move forward off the 89 figure earned in his comeback and therefore could be a strong factor in the Oaklawn Stakes.
Thousand Words (5-2 odds) won the first three starts of his career, a sprint and two routes, the latter both graded stakes. Following a game win by a neck in the Los Alamitos Futurity in December (101 speed figure), Thousand Words won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes by three-quarters of a length in February with an even better 107 figure. Sent to post as the second betting choice behind his stablemate Authentic (also trained by Bob Baffert) in the San Felipe Stakes last month, Thousand Words never showed the spark he had in his previous three races, checking in a well-beaten fourth. Since then, the colt has put in three strong workouts and appears to be back in good spirits. Being a son of Pioneerof the Nile, who sired Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, there’s little doubt Thousand Words can handle the 1 1/8-mile trip of the Oaklawn Stakes, so the only question is whether the colt is physically and mentally ready to run as well as he did prior to the San Felipe in order to be competitive.
The rest of the field (with best representative Equibase Speed Figure): Background (87), Coach Bahe (88), Digital (100), Farmington Road (100), Flap Jack (92), Gold Street (98), Mr. Big News (91), Shoplifted (108), Sir Rick (88) and Something Natural (91).
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