The final Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve points race, the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby, will be contested at Oaklawn Park at 1 1/8 miles Saturday. This race is sure to be a competitive one with nine of the 11 entrants sitting on the outside looking in to those top 20 spots in the starting gate on May 4 at Churchill Downs.
One question that has been floating around, and one I did not address, is the topic of weather. The weather looks to be a factor on Saturday, and based on early reports a “fast” track appears unlikely. The track maintenance team at Oaklawn historically does an excellent job with the racing surface and keeping it fair under inclement conditions. It is always recommended to watch the earlier races and look for any patterns that might arise.
With that out of the way, here are five questions to be answered in the Arkansas Derby:
1. “Improbable, 8-5 favorite, draws the rail for the #ArkansasDerby …” — @rollyhoyt
The topic of post positions comes up in almost every prep, and continues to be a topic of discussion with Improbable drawing the rail in the Arkansas Derby. A lot of extra attention is often given to the post, though with Improbable it is a legit factor and something he will have to overcome. Trip is going to be a main factor and finding early position will be crucial in this race.
Before getting into pace and race shape, it must be noted that Improbable is not a great gate horse. He has broken a step slowly in every race of his career and that must be considered for this race. He has experience breaking from inside posts, however, based on those past race shapes, he has not had to race in tight directly behind horses. The closest scenario to that was his win in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity. He was behind horses early and was rank going into that first turn before angling outside of horses. He was able to overcome that early issue fairly easily with the smaller six-horse field that day, but that figures to be trickier Saturday in a field of 11 horses.
As far as race shape, Improbable does have early speed and probably will be near the first flight of horses. There are horses in this field that have shown to be quicker to the first call so establishing early position will be paramount. Visually, he acts like a horse who prefers to race outside of horses, and it will be interesting how his new rider, Jose Ortiz, manages that trip.
As far as the addition of blinkers, it does not look like a move to put more early speed into the horse. It is more likely an equipment change to keep him focused late. Looking back at his performance in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes, it was a race he probably should have won. Even with the wide trip — those lanes were fine that day, and much better than the inside lanes — he did not show enough “grit” when needed to hold off the winner, Long Range Toddy. In my opinion, this probably is the reason for the blinkers to be added for the Arkansas Derby.
2. “G2 Rebel Stakes winners; Omaha Beach or Long Range Toddy?” — @racing_dudes
With the split division of the Rebel Stakes, the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby will have a rare opportunity with both winners of that respected stakes competing in this race. Leading into the Grade 2 Rebel, it was my impression that the first division, won by Long Range Toddy, had more depth in the field, with many of the horses in that group with graded stakes experience. By contrast, the second division featured Game Winner, the 2018 champion 2-year-old male making his 2019 racing debut, and ultimately was won by Omaha Beach. Both winners ran excellent races that afternoon, deserving of their respective wins, though both will face a legitimate challenge this Saturday.
Starting with Long Range Toddy, he was able to run down Improbable late under an excellent ride by Jon Court. Long Range Toddy was coming into the Rebel the right way off a sneaky-good third in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes in his previous start. He looked to be sitting on his best race for the Rebel and, indeed, ran that race. From a form-cycle question, it must be asked if he can repeat and come up with a similar effort for this race. There are some concerns with him on that front, and the far outside post (#11) does him no favors today. Long Range Toddy does have the tendency to be a little headstrong and prefers to race closer to the pace. He has been able to get cover and save ground in most of his races, a trip he does not mind and allows him to relax. While not impossible for Court to try and tuck in behind horses early, it is more likely this one will have early ground loss, especially given expectations of significant competition to set the early pace.
Capitalizing on a perfect trip in the Rebel Stakes last out, and holding off Game Winner late, Omaha Beach will be one of the wagering favorites this afternoon. Like Long Range Toddy, he prefers to race forwardly placed and use his tactical speed. His recent success seems to match the subtle change in tactics, getting Omaha Beach out in front of horses early. Back in his early maiden days, he had shown on more than one occasion the tendency to idle and not pass horses. That change in tactics has been positive so far and yielded success; Mike Smith will most likely to be looking for a similar trip in here. Given the potential of multiple horses vying for early tactical position, he will be tested Saturday to find that perfect racing position. Considering the steeper competition and added pressure with many horses needing to earn points, there will very likely be some aggressive rides in here. Both Rebel winners deserve respect coming into this race, however there are handicapping (and value) factors to consider for the Arkansas Derby.
3. “Country House back for the Arkansas Derby and Joel “smooth operator” Rosario is up .” — @2Close_2Call
Bill Mott trainee Country House is one of the few “new shooters” in the field coming into the race making his Oaklawn Park debut. What he lacks in local experience he makes up for as the lone horse in the field who has already raced at 1 1/8 miles in the Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby. He finished fourth that afternoon and, coming up short on points (currently 25th), will need to pick some up in this race in order to secure a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. Country House is an improving type based on his races and speed figures, though he will need to continue that progression to make impact here and on the first Saturday in May. That said, he still is lightly raced and visually has shown enough to suggest he has that necessary upside. Like Improbable, he is not the best gate horse. Country House has a habit of breaking slowly and his lack of early speed makes those slow starts far more obvious. Breaking slowly is not the most favorable characteristic, especially facing classier, graded stakes types, and will make his task from off the pace that much more of a challenge. There are a number of horses in here that like to race forwardly placed, and there should have enough early speed for him to make a run from off the pace. Twitter user @2Close_2Call, picked up on the rider change this afternoon to Joel Rosario. Take nothing away from his previous rider, an excellent jockey in Luis Saez, however the running style of Country House and the riding style of Joel Rosario looks like a great fit. Rosario has good timing from off the pace and has documented success with these type of horses; overall a subtle, positive change.
4. “Blinkers off for Galilean on Saturday at Oaklawn.” — @westpointtbred
Currently sitting at No. 34 on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard, Galilean will need to finish in the top two in order to advance to the Kentucky Derby. To his credit, he has never finished out of the trifecta, and has three wins in his five-race career. He is a competitive horse, but he will need to move forward off the third-place finish last month in the first division of the Grade 2 Rebel after finishing behind runner-up Improbable and Long Range Toddy. He was the second choice in the wagering and, considering the overall effort, ran a quality race. He uncharacteristically broke slowly, hopping in the air at the break while losing some ground and position heading into the first turn. From there, he was able to track the pace in a not-entirely-comfortable trip between horses. It was the first time in his racing career he had to deal with that type of trip and he handled it well. He was very game in the lane. Despite the top two taking the advantage, Galilean kept trying to the finish line. The blinkers will be coming off for this race, and that could help him to settle and perhaps conserve some energy. Trip and the additional distance are other significant factors, and I’m not sold either will quite be to his advantage. To this point in his career, Galilean has shown a good amount of class and is an honest contestant in this race.
5. “Here we go folks, your Arkansas Derby field. … Who do you like to win?” — @ArizonaDowns
There is some potential vulnerability with some of the more-fancied runners in this race, and we could see some chaos once again Saturday afternoon. The horse I am most interested in taking a shot with is Tikhvin Flew (#4) coming out of the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. He was my “pick” for the race and, while lightly raced, looked to have some quality while on the improve coming into the Gotham.
Physically, he should not have any issues at this distance based on his previous races and might actually prefer going around two turns. He had to run against the track bias when racing wide in the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes back in February. Following that race, he did not have the right pace scenario for his running style in the Gotham. The Gotham Stakes has been a productive race with two next-out stakes winners and another pair of runners to finish in the money in their subsequent stakes race. Following the Gotham, Tikhvin Flew was shipped to Oaklawn and has been training locally in preparation for this race. A recent addition to the riding colony at Oaklawn Park, Tyler Baze will pick up the mount for Steve Asmussen.
All together, Asmussen will have four horses in the race, with the headliner of the group clearly Long Range Toddy, however the other two horses, Laughing Fox and Jersey Agenda, are also worth a look and have upside off their most recent efforts in the Rebel Stakes.
This will be the final “Five Questions” for the 2019 Kentucky Derby prep races, and will return with “Five Questions” for the big race, the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 4. All of the Kentucky Derby prep analysis are available now and complimentary at OptixEQ.com. Thanks for reading and, as always, good luck horseplayers - see you back for the Derby!