Run at 1 1/8 miles at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., the $1 million, Grade 1 Arkansas Derby is the final 100-40-20-10 points race on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
The Arkansas Derby has produced six Kentucky Derby winners. Sunny’s Halo (1983), Smarty Jones (2004) and American Pharoah (2015) scored the Arkansas Derby/Kentucky Derby double while Lil E. Tee (1992), Grindstone (1996) and Super Saver (2010) all ran second in the Arkansas Derby prior to donning the roses.
Todd Pletcher (Malagacy) has won the Arkansas Derby a record four times (2014 Danza, 2013 Overanalyze, 2001 Balto Star and 2000 Graeme Hall), while Steve Asmussen (Untrapped and Lookin At Lee) has three victories to his credit (2016 Creator, 2007 Curlin and 2002 Private Emblem).
The top six finishers from the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes return for the Arkansas Derby – Malagacy, Sonneteer, Untrapped, Petrov, Silver Dust and Lookin At Lee. The last two Arkansas Derby winners exited the Rebel, but only three of the last nine.
Bob Baffert, who has saddled the last six Arkansas Derby favorites, is not represented this year.
Here are five questions that must be answered ...
1. What can we expect from Classic Empire?
This is perhaps the most intriguing question we’ve asked ourselves this entire Triple Crown prep season.
The Mark Casse-trained son of Pioneerof the Nile had an adventurous, yet extremely productive freshman campaign. Off slowly in the first two starts of his career at Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby, he righted himself to win, but in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga, he wheeled right out of the starting gate, tossing jockey Julien Leparoux to the ground.
He bounced back to post professional scores in both the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland and the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, stamping himself as champion 2-year-old male and the early Kentucky Derby favorite in the process, but the road back to Louisville has been littered with potholes and detours.
A foot abscess was blamed for a dull, third-place run in the Grade 3 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, and the colt later refused to train at his Palm Meadows home base.
Running behind schedule, the connections targeted the Arkansas Derby and changed training venues, and Classic Empire has seemingly responded positively in recent workouts.
With 32 points, he’ll need to run fourth or better in order to earn a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.
Joe’s answer: Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets winner Irish War Cry and Santa Anita Derby victor Gormley bounced back from inexplicablely poor efforts in their race prior to score big wins, so perhaps Classic Empire will do the same. I’d love to see it. He was so good as a 2-year-old, and a big effort here would put him back in the mix for Kentucky Derby favoritism.
Do I think it will happen?
I’m very skeptical. His training hasn’t been fluid, he’s playing catch-up, he’s drawn down inside in a full field and who knows what his mental frame of mind will be. As a fan, I’m rooting for Classic Empire. As a bettor, at 8-5 on the morning-line, he may be worth tossing out of the gimmicks completely.
2. How big are the blinkers?
Untrapped and Silver Dust will both wear the hood for the first time in the Arkansas Derby and for different reasons.
Untrapped has lit the toteboard in all five career starts, three of them graded stakes. In his most recent race in the Rebel, he enjoyed a clear trip while stalking an even pace, loomed in hand while three wide and had dead aim on the eventual winner, Malagacy, but hung.
A deep closer, Silver Dust could only manage to pass tired horses in both the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes and the Rebel. His connections add blinkers hoping to improve his focus early in the race … to have him race closer to the pace so he doesn’t have nearly as much work to do late.
Joe’s answer: Off his “hanging” performance in the Rebel, Untrapped showed himself as the perfect candidate for blinkers. They should help improve his focus down the stretch and the equipment change could be just what the doctor ordered.
As for Silver Dust, the connections are more crossing their fingers than anything. Could the blinkers help? Sure, but I think it’s a bigger deal for Untrapped.
3. Will the added distance and rider change work in Lookin At Lee’s favor?
Steve Asmussen won last year’s Arkansas Derby with the deep-closing Creator, who would later take down the Belmont Stakes. Could he do the same with Lookin At Lee, who also does his best work rallying from out of the clouds?
Rallying from far off the pace, the son of Lookin At Lucky ran deceivingly well in both the Southwest and the Rebel, but he failed to make a true impact on the result. Asmussen has said all along that the colt is begging for more distance. The 1 1/8-mile distance should suit him better and the 1 ¼ miles of the Kentucky Derby might be exactly what he wants, but with only 12 points in the bank, he’ll need to run first or second on Saturday to earn his way in.
Ricardo Santana Jr., who won last year’s Arkansas Derby for Asmussen aboard Creator, hops off Lookin At Lee to ride Petrov for Ron Moquett. Santana replaces Jose Ortiz, who will remain at Keeneland, where he will pilot Shug McGaughey’s promising 3-year-old Eastport in an allowance race. That opens the door for Luis Contreras to ride Lookin At Lee.
Joe’s answer: Citing that he was too close to the early proceedings, Moquett wasn’t thrilled with Ortiz’s ride in the Rebel, a race in which fourth-place finisher Petrov was beaten by a heartbreaking nose for second. On paper, Petrov may look like a stronger contender than Lookin At Lee, but I’m not so sure. The added distance should help the latter, but the jockey switch is very likely inconsequential. The key to an honest early pace might be stretch-out speedster Rockin Rudy, who should set sail from the rail.
4. Who wins the mad scramble for critical Kentucky Derby points?
Since the Kentucky Derby points system was instituted in 2012, earning 30 points was the safety mark to get into the race, but in a rare year, it looks like it might take at least 40 this time around.
With the 50 points he earned in the Rebel, Malagacy already has enough. Here’s what the remaining horses most likely need to do in the Arkansas Derby in order to qualify.
Horses (current points)
4th (10 points) or better
Untrapped (34 - currently 20th)
Classic Empire (32)
3rd (20 points) or better
Conquest Mo Money (20)
2nd (40 points) or win (100 points)
Lookin at Lee (12)
Silver Dust (1)
Rockin Rudy (0)
Grandpa’s Dream (0)
Rowdy the Warrior (0)
One Dreamy Dude (0)
Joe’s answer: Following last weekend’s preps, Untrapped holds the final Kentucky Derby slot with 34 points, but both he and Classic Empire (21st with 32 points) will need to run fourth or better in order to feel safe. Sonneteer, who overcame trouble to finish second in the Rebel in what was a much-improved effort, needs to run third or better, and he just might. Finishing first or second is a bit of a stretch for Petrov, Lookin At Lee and Silver Dust, but rest assured they will be all in trying to do just that.
Cloud Computing sits 19th with 40 points. There are defections every year due to injury and connections deciding to target other races, but in a year that appears to be wide open, you can expect that the vast majority of the horses with enough qualifying points will take their shot.
Saturday’s Lexington at Keeneland is a 10-4-2-1 Kentucky Derby points race, but with no horses in range entered, it has been rendered inconsequential.
5. Who wins the Arkansas Derby and why?
Joe’s answer: In a race that isn’t overloaded with speed, post 12 shouldn’t be an issue for Rebel winner Malagacy. There’s no reason to think he won’t run big, but with 50 points he’s already qualified for the Kentucky Derby, and three weeks out the connections certainly don’t want to empty the tank.
I truly believe Untrapped will benefit greatly from the addition of blinkers. Lookin At Lee and Sonneteer may relish the added distance. Classic Empire is an absolute wild card, and for wagering purposes it makes more sense to take a stand against him.
Joe’s Arkansas Derby picks: 1. Untrapped 2. Malagacy 3. Sonneteer 4. Classic Empire 5. Lookin At Lee