Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners

Legends
American Pharoah romped by eight lengths in the 2015 Arkansas Derby, setting him up for a sweep of the Triple Crown. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Oaklawn Park's road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve concludes this Saturday, when the Hot Springs, Ark. track hosts the $1 million, Grade 1 Arkansas Derby. A field of 3-year-olds will travel 1 ⅛ miles on dirt in search of Derby qualifying points. The winner will get 100 points, while the runner-up will receive 40, the third-place finisher 20, and the fourth-place finisher 10.

The race was first held in 1936, and has been held every year since then except in 1945 due to World War II restrictions. Last year, it was delayed and held on May 2, the original date of the 2020 Kentucky Derby, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The race has been a Grade 1 since 2010; it was also held as a Grade 1 from 1981 to 1988.

Let's take a look back at some of the best Arkansas Derby winners in history.


NODOUBLE (1968)

CAREER RECORD: 42 starts, 13 wins, 11 seconds, 5 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $846,749

Generally considered the greatest Arkansas-bred of all time, Nodouble went into the 1968 Arkansas Derby in search of his first stakes win. As a 2-year-old, he hit the board in four stakes races in the Midwest but hadn’t yet gotten the job done.

A field of 10 lined up for that year’s Arkansas Derby, with Nodouble, who was coupled in the wagering with Loud Singer, the slight 5-2 favorite. He was off the pace early on and then moved closer to the front as they advanced up the backstretch. Under apprentice jockey William McKeever, Nodouble took control as the field entered the stretch and drew off to a one-length win. He became the first Arkansas-bred to win his state’s biggest race.

Nodouble was not nominated to the Kentucky Derby but he was supplemented for the Preakness Stakes. At 16.80-1 odds, he finished fourth after setting the pace but was moved up to third thanks to a disqualification. He began to blossom toward the end of the year, when he won the Michigan Mile and an Eighth Handicap and the Hawthorne Gold Cup. As an older horse Nodouble made his biggest mark. At age 4, he won four major stakes races, including the Santa Anita Handicap and another Hawthorne Gold Cup. For his accomplishments, he was named the champion older male. In 1970, he won the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park by a head, which was his seventh career win in a race worth at least $100,000.


SUNNY’S HALO (1983)

CAREER RECORD: 20 starts, 9 wins, 3 seconds, 2 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $1,247,791

The Canadian-bred Sunny’s Halo went into the 1983 Arkansas Derby off a win in the Rebel Handicap. It was his first stakes win in the United States after enjoying success in his home country as a 2-year-old.

For the Arkansas Derby, Sunny’s Halo got a new jockey: Hall of Famer Eddie Delahoussaye. He was the slight 2.90-1 favorite in the field of 14 and lived up to expectations. An Oaklawn-record crowd of 67,974 watched Delahoussaye guide Sunny’s Halo to a four-length, gate-to-wire win in spite of a fast pace. His time of 1:49 ⅖ was the fastest Arkansas Derby time since 1976.

As the 5-2 second favorite in the Kentucky Derby, Sunny’s Halo delivered, winning by two lengths after stalking the pace. He became the first horse to win both the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby, the first Canadian-bred Derby winner since Northern Dancer in 1964, and the second Derby winner in Delahoussaye’s career. The jockey had won the year before with Gato Del Sol.


TANK’S PROSPECT (1985)

CAREER RECORD: 14 starts, 5 wins, 2 seconds, 2 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $1,355,645

By the fall of 1984, D. Wayne Lukas had begun to establish himself as one of the country’s top trainers. His top 2-year-old that year appeared to be Saratoga Six, who won three stakes races in California. Unfortunately, Saratoga Six suffered a career-ending injury just before the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

That left top billing in the Lukas barn to Tank’s Prospect. He was owned by Eugene Klein, the owner of the San Diego Chargers and one of Lukas’s biggest clients, and was named after “Tank” Younger, the General Manager of the Chargers at the time. Tank’s Prospect ran in the Breeders’ Cup in place of his injured stablemate, and finished a surprise second at 25.60-1, beaten less than a length by heavy favorite Chief’s Crown.

Hitting the Derby trail not long afterward, Tank’s Prospect won the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields but then finished last of nine in the Santa Anita Derby. Looking for redemption, Lukas pressed on to the Arkansas Derby with Tank’s Prospect, who was given a 3.10-1 chance. He got a new rider for the occasion, future Hall of Famer Gary Stevens.

Stevens rated Tank’s Prospect off early leaders Encolure and favored Clever Allemont in the developing stages. The pacesetters set a fast second quarter-mile of 23 seconds, and Stevens began to move his mount closer to the lead. As the field entered the stretch, Tank’s Prospect took charge and began to draw off. He crossed the finish line 6 ½ lengths in front, giving Lukas his second straight Arkansas Derby win. He won it the year prior with the filly Althea.

Although Tank’s Prospect was seventh in the Kentucky Derby, his Preakness performance launched him into the history books. He looked beaten at the three-sixteenths pole, but under vigorous urging from new jockey Pat Day he surged to victory by a head over heavy favorite Chief’s Crown. His time of 1:53 ⅖ is tied for the third-fastest in Preakness history, behind Secretariat’s 1:53 performance in 1973 and Swiss Skydiver’s 1:53.28 effort in 2020.


CONCERN (1994)

CAREER RECORD: 30 starts, 7 wins, 7 seconds, 11 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $3,079,350

A Maryland-bred trained by a stalwart of racing in that state, Richard Small, Concern was the definition of a stone-cold closer. He had no early speed whatsoever, preferring to sit last early on and make a big move at the end. That style made him fun to watch, but it hadn’t earned him a lot of wins going into the Arkansas Derby. He had a rather unsightly 2-for-12 career mark and hadn’t yet won a stakes race. He was an outsider in the Arkansas Derby field, going off at 20.70-1 in the nine-horse race.

To no one’s surprise, Concern was dead last early on. In fact, after the opening quarter-mile he was farther away from eighth-place Blumin Affair (eight lengths) than Blumin Affair was to the leader (seven lengths). Fortunately for him, he got a fast pace to run into. The opening quarter was a speedy 22.45 seconds, and the half-mile was a strong 46.43 seconds. As the horses rounded the far turn, Garrett Gomez began to move on Concern, but he remained nine lengths off leader Silver Goblin. In the last eighth of a mile, Silver Goblin was still clear but his strides were beginning to shorten. Concern closed with a rush, prevailing by a neck over Blumin Affair, with Silver Goblin finishing third.

Small elected to bypass the Derby with Concern, instead saving him for the Preakness. His big rally fell short as he finished third after falling 18 lengths off the lead. He finished second or third in his next six stakes tries, including a runner-up finish by a neck to Holy Bull in the Travers Stakes. In the 1994 Breeders’ Cup Classic, it all came together for Concern. He rallied from last to win by a head.


SMARTY JONES (2004)

CAREER RECORD: 9 starts, 8 wins, 1 second, 0 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $7,613,155

Smarty Jones wins the 2004 Arkansas Derby. (Coady Photography)

This lovable Pennsylvania-bred went to Oaklawn in the winter of 2004 in search of more than Derby seasoning. To celebrate its 100th anniversary, Oaklawn announced that if a horse swept the Rebel Stakes, the Arkansas Derby, and the Kentucky Derby, they would win a $5 million bonus. That temptation lured the East Coast-based Smarty Jones to Oaklawn, where he won the Southwest Stakes by three-quarters of a length, then took the Rebel by 3 ¾ lengths to extend his career mark to a perfect 5-for-5.

In the Arkansas Derby, Smarty Jones was the even-money favorite in the field of 11 despite drawing the far outside post. Unable to get to the lead from the outside, jockey Stewart Elliott decided to rate Smarty Jones off front-running Purge, pressing him while racing in the two path. As the pair neared the stretch, Smarty Jones took off, overtaking a tired Purge and drawing away. He stayed clear in the stretch, winning by 1 ½ lengths.

Three weeks later, Smarty Jones got the job done in the Kentucky Derby, wearing down front-running Lion Heart in the stretch for the victory. He became the first undefeated Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977 and secured the $5 million for Roy and Pat Chapman’s Someday Farm. After his runaway Preakness win, he was the overwhelming favorite to become the first Triple Crown winner in 26 years at the Belmont Stakes. However, Smarty Jones was caught late by stretch-running Birdstone in one of the most memorable Triple Crown races of modern times.


AFLEET ALEX (2005)

CAREER RECORD: 12 starts, 8 wins, 2 seconds, 1 third

CAREER EARNINGS: $2,765,800

Afleet Alex went into the 2005 Arkansas Derby looking to prove himself. As a 2-year-old, the Florida-bred had won two graded stakes in sprints but was second, beaten less than a length, in the Champagne Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In his 3-year-old debut, he won the Mountain Valley Stakes handily at six furlongs, but was soundly defeated in the Rebel Stakes while battling a lung infection. Fully healed in time for the Arkansas Derby, he was the 2.40-1 favorite while looking for his first win at a mile or longer.

Jockey Jeremy Rose kept him just off the pace and on the outside in the early stages in the Arkansas Derby, and the pace was mild. Rose gave Afleet Alex his cue on the final turn and the colt made a bold, four-wide move after the lead. He seized control in the stretch and exploded for an eight-length win, stopping the clock in 1:48.80.

As one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby, Afleet Alex made what looked like another menacing move at the top of the stretch, but he could not finish it off and ended up third in a race won by huge longshot Giacomo. However, he bounced back in a big way in the Preakness, winning by 4 ¾ lengths despite being interfered with by runner-up Scrappy T at the top of the stretch and nearly falling. In his final career start, he crushed the field in the Belmont by seven lengths, making a move much like the one he made in Arkansas to capture his second classic and wrap up the year-end Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male.


CURLIN (2007)

CAREER RECORD: 16 starts, 11 wins, 2 seconds, 2 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $10,501,800

Going into the Arkansas Derby, Curlin had very quickly become one of the major players on the Derby trail. He broke his maiden in February 2007 at Gulfstream Park by 12 ¾ lengths, covering seven furlongs in 1:22.25. After that race, Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Stables purchased an 80% share of the promising colt for $3.25 million.

In his second career start, Curlin won the Rebel Stakes by 5 ¼ lengths after making a dramatic move to the lead on the far turn. On the basis of that win, he was made the 4-5 favorite in the nine-horse Arkansas Derby field.

Once again, Curlin sat a great trip and won impressively. Gulfstream shipper Deadly Dealer, who was also well-bet, set the early pace while Robby Albarado rated Curlin right off of him. When Deadly Dealer tired around the final turn, Curlin pounced and drew off impressively. He crushed the field by 10 ½ lengths, instantly becoming one of the Kentucky Derby favorites.

As the 5-1 third choice on the first Saturday in May, Curlin finished third behind Street Sense. He avenged that defeat in a thrilling Preakness Stakes – defeating the Derby winner by a head – and then lost another great stretch duel to the filly Rags to Riches in the Belmont Stakes. Later that year, Curlin won the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Classic to clinch the Horse of the Year title.

Curlin added another Horse of the Year title to his résumé in 2008, winning four Grade or Group 1 races. In the process, he became the first American-based horse to earn more than $10 million.


BODEMEISTER (2012)

CAREER RECORD: 6 starts, 2 wins, 4 seconds, 0 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $1,304,800

Bodemeister in 2012. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Bob Baffert had yet to win an Arkansas Derby going into 2012, but he looked to have his opponents surrounded that year. He sent out Secret Circle, who was coming off wins in the Southwest Stakes and the Rebel Stakes, but that colt was the second betting choice in the race behind his stablemate Bodemeister. Bodemeister broke his maiden in his second start out in California by 9 ¼ lengths and then finished second in the San Felipe Stakes. Off of that performance, he was the 2.40-1 favorite in the Arkansas Derby.

After breaking from the outside post position, jockey Mike Smith sent Bodemeister straight to the early lead. He set honest fractions, rattling off an opening quarter of 23.02 seconds and a half-mile of 46.55 seconds. No other horse came close to catching him and Bodemeister won by an impressive 9 ½ lengths.

As the slight favorite in the Kentucky Derby, Bodemeister set a swifter pace than he did in Arkansas but maintained a clear lead turning for home. With Smith aboard again, Bodemeister was still well in front in the last eighth of a mile, but I’ll Have Another wore him down in deep stretch and he settled for a game second. The Preakness played out in similar fashion, with Bodemeister setting the pace and I’ll Have Another running him down late to win by a neck.


AMERICAN PHAROAH (2015)

CAREER RECORD: 11 starts, 9 wins, 1 second, 0 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $8,650,300

The great American Pharoah. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Three years later, Bodemeister’s owner Ahmed Zayat was back in Hot Springs with another imposing Baffert-trained 3-year-old. American Pharoah was voted the champion 2-year-old male the year before based on two Grade 1 wins in California. He was an easy winner of his 3-year-old debut, crushing the field in the Rebel Stakes by 6 ¼ lengths. In the Arkansas Derby, he was the overwhelming favorite in the field of eight, going off as the 1-10 betting choice.

There was never an anxious moment in the race. Victor Espinoza rated American Pharoah off early leader Bridget’s Big Luvy, who began to back up as the field rounded the final turn. As soon as American Pharoah took the lead, he began to draw away. He finished first by eight lengths, covering the distance in 1:48.52.

That race set him up perfectly for the Kentucky Derby, which he won by a length despite a wide trip. From there, American Pharoah won the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. He capped his memorable season with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland, becoming the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby and the Classic since Unbridled in 1990.


CREATOR (2016)

CAREER RECORD: 12 starts, 3 wins, 4 seconds, 1 third

CAREER EARNINGS: $1,610,320

Creator in 2016. (Eclipse Sportswire)

This Steve Asmussen trainee took some time to come into his own. He did not break his maiden until his sixth career start, finally doing so at Oaklawn in February 2016. In his next start he closed from fourteenth to finish third, beaten by three lengths in the Rebel Stakes. Off of that effort, he was sent off at odds of 11.60-1 in the Arkansas Derby.

In the Arkansas Derby Creator had a similar trip as he did in the Rebel, but this time it resulted in a winning effort. Ricardo Santana Jr. kept him towards the back of the pack early on, sitting in dead last through the first five-eighths of a mile. On the final turn, Santana began to make his move but the pair remained well behind turning for home. Racing towards the center of the track, Creator began to hit his best stride. He drew clear late and won by 1 ¼ lengths.

Although he was a non-factor in the Kentucky Derby, finishing 13th, Creator found redemption five weeks later in the Belmont Stakes. Once again, he rallied from behind, and churned down Belmont Park’s long stretch to win by a nose over Destin. Irad Ortiz Jr. picked up the mount on Creator for that race and won his lone Triple Crown race to date in the process.

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