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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


The first Saturday in May is the most gala occasion in American racing. It’s Derby Day!

It’s not quite the same this year (nothing is) but this could still be the case even though the Derby won’t be the one in Kentucky. In a move that’s turning out to be inspired, after Churchill Downs postponed the Run for the Roses until at least September, Oaklawn Park pushed back the Arkansas Derby from this coming Saturday to May 2.

Tiz The Law, the nation’s ranking 3-year-old, won’t be there. Apparently, neither will Authentic, one of Bob Baffert’s sensations. They are being given a break with an eye toward a summer campaign leading toward America’s race, if it is able to be run on Sept. 5.

Otherwise, there figures to be so many horses, including most of the really good ones who would have been top contenders for Louisville, trying to get into the Oaklawn starting gate the police might have to be called for crowd control.

Oaklawn doesn’t have one of those super 20-horse berths Churchill has acquired. It has the standard 14-horse model. The width of the track probably doesn’t allow for an auxiliary gate. The logical solution is to split the race, as undesirable as this might be for historical purposes.

Filling a pair of 14-horse fields shouldn’t be a problem. In addition to a huge purse (announced as $1 million but possibly reduced if there are multiple divisions), it’s the last Kentucky Derby points race for the time being. There’s also an automatic berth in the Preakness for the winner.

Considering how the heavyweights view the second jewel of the Triple Crown (only two Derby horses showed up last year), It’s doubtful Pimlico would mind making that a doubleheader.

Even without Authentic Baffert could account for almost half a gate. Rebel winner Nadal almost certainly will be back.  Also likely, but only if the race is split, is undefeated Charlatan, who many analysts and Derby future bettors think is the best of the bunch.

Azul Coast, who has lost only once, to Authentic, a defeat he rebounded from to take the El Camino Real, would dress up any stakes. So would Eight Rings, Baffert’s ace last summer. Two-time graded stakes winner Thousand Words, 3-for-4, heads Saturday’s Oaklawn Stakes, a prep for the Arkansas Derby.

There are other serious 3YO’s out West eyeing Hot Springs. A lot of analysts on the West Coast think Honor A.P. eventually will overcome all of the Bafferts despite his second to Authentic in the San Felipe. Eclipse winner Storm the Court, third in that race, is also being mentioned as an Arkansas Derby possibility. 

The canceled Blue Grass and Wood Memorial left a lot of sophomores looking for somewhere else to go. There is only one option.

Gotham winner Mischevous Alex, who likely would have gone in the Wood, is probable for the Arkansas Derby. Attachment Rate, third in the Gotham, is training well and with the Blue Grass not in the equation, might show up if Dale Romans thinks the race will be split and might opt in.

Sizable contingents can be expected from Tampa Bay Downs and the Fair Grounds. King Guillermo, upset winner of the Tampa Bay Derby, is probable for the big one at Oaklawn. The connections of Sole Volante, brilliant winner of the Sam F. Davis, want to come. However, quarantine rules at Gulfstream might prevent that. Maybe by the end of April, those will be lightened.

Lining Up for Arkansas Derby Prep

Wells Bayou, who stole the Louisiana Derby, is coming up from the Bayou. He won’t be the only one. Farmington Road and Digital, 4th and 5th, respectively, in a division of the Risen Star, are prepping in Saturday’s Oaklawn Stakes. Blackberry Wine, 7th in the same Risen Star heat, is expected in the May 2 headliner. Mr. Big News, 5th in the other division, also is using Saturday’s Arkansas Stakes as a prep..

The Oaklawn Stakes is offering Arkansas Derby berths to the first three finishers. Thousand Words should be about even-money to win but he’s 1-to-10 to get into the money. 

Among those hoping to grab one of the two other guaranteed berths is Hopeful winner Basin. So is Smarty Jones winner Gold Sheet and Shoplifted, who got home first in the Springboard Mile.

The overwhelming interest is easily explained. There’s no where else to go. Only three major tracks are still in operation. Oaklawn closes on Derby Day. Tampa Bay Downs ends its season the following afternoon. After May 3, Gulfstream Park will stand alone and it has no major 3YO race on its docket.

Older Horses Set to Go, Too

The lack of near future opportunities is as much of a problem for older horses as it is for 3YO’s. It’s not necessary to look any further than the Oaklawn Mile, the co-feature on Saturday, for evidence. 

A full field of 14 will line up, led by some big names in the division. How often do you see that in a quality race for older horses?

Tom’s d’Etat, who won three of his final four races last season, including the Grade 1 Clark, is the probable favorite while making his 2020 debut from the 3 hole. Starting right inside him is Mr. Money, a four-time graded stakes winner last year, also making his seasonal debut. 

Baffert is jumping in with Improbable, who finished second as the favorite in last year’s Rebel and Arkansas Derby. At least Baffert intended to run Improbable before the draw. Improbable, who drew bad posts in both 2019 Arkansas starts, is really up against it this time, having pulled the 14 pill. It will be interesting to see if Baffert wants to spot that much of an advantage to Improbable’s multiple stakes-winning rivals.

There’s plenty of upset potential if the big horses aren’t ready to fire their best shots. Long Range Toddy upset Improbable in last year’s Rebel but then tailed off. He, too is making his 2020 debut. Kershaw ships in from the West Coast off an allowance win at Santa Anita for Phil D’Amato, whose horses can never be dismissed.

Local hero Snapper Sinclair has a pair of seconds and a third in three Oaklawn stakes this season. Pioneer Spirit closed his 2019 campaign with a victory in the Tenacious Stakes at the Fair Grounds and was third last time out in the Essex at Oaklawn. Bankit ran second in the Razorback before checking in a disappointing 7th in the Essex.

Many of them hope to be back on Derby Day for the Oaklawn Handicap when the water could get even deeper. Big Cap winner Combatant is coming for John Sadler and a few other heavyweights shut out in Florida and New York also could join the fray.

Racing fans don’t have a look to look forward to, but the first Saturday in May will be an exception.

News Not Promising

The latest news on the coronavirus front, which trumps racing, is encouraging but it still could be a while before there is racing, let alone 3YO stakes, anywhere else in America. Churchill announced another delay in opening its stable area.

Originally set for March 17, it now will open no sooner than April 28 and that isn’t set in concrete. Sometime in late May or early June would seem to be the earliest racing could start in the blue grass. Monmouth Park said it is shooting for a July 4 opening, two months after the original May 2. 

Tragic news came out of New York. Martin Zapata, a groom for trainer Tom Morley, became the first known coronavirus backstretch death at Belmont. In the reporting of Zapata’s passing it also was revealed that there are 20 known cases of the virus on Belmont’s backside. This does not bode well for the resumption of racing in the near future.

In more negative news, NYRA postponed the scheduled April 15 opening of the Oklahoma training track indefinitely, leaving horsemen who ship from winter tracks straight to the Spa in a tough position. But, it was said, the Saratoga meeting is still a go for the full 40 days.

In light of all this it shouldn’t be difficult for Oaklawn to put together a super card of 13 or 14 races on May 2, headed by a couple of divisions of the Arkansas Derby as well as a loaded Oaklawn Handicap and a few other improvised stakes. 

Oaklawn has to be thinking this way after the monstrous play Gulfstream had on Florida Derby Day. No race is the equal of the Kentucky Derby but Arkansas Derby Day could come as close as possible under the terrible circumstances. 

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11 Responses

  1. TJ, With respect to the first Saturday of September producing the strongest possible Derby based on quality depth, Monmouth Park’s announced date of the Haskell gives other major tracks–assuming the resumption of racing everywhere/anywhere–a target for scheduling their races. But it certainly appears that the Jersey Shore track will be among the added 100-point Derby qualifiers.

    Three more races, of course, would have to include future dates for the Preakness, Belmont and Travers.

  2. We don’t have to wait. It looks like the Arkansas Derby will be the closest to the real deal, since so many top 3YO’s look like they will show up.

    After May 2, if and when racing resumes, the heavy hitters are likely to begin picking their spots to avoid each other before Kentucky.

    A July 18 Haskell could put the Travers in a vise. An Aug. 8 Travers would be four weeks before the Derby but only three weeks after the Haskell. Also, how many trainers would want to run a tough mile and a quarter before America’s mile and a quarter?

    It’s a sweet thought to imagine horsemen saying, “screw the Derby, I’m going to the Travers.” It’s also unrealistic.

    No matter how reprehensible Churchill might be, the Derby is still the race every horseman dreams of winning. My feelings about CD are well documented and I travelled more than 2,000 miles for 35 straight years to go to the Travers. Nonetheless, if I had a worthy 3YO, I would opt for the Derby.

  3. Perhaps Churchill Downs’ unwillingness to address post-pandemic stakes scheduling in cooperative fashion is masking a plan to extricate itself from the effects of the other natural catastrophe, climate change, which appears to be the cause for off-tracks predominating in Louisville on the first Saturday in May in recent years.

    Frankly, I’m curious to find out whether 20-horse fields can survive Churchill’s surrendering the first leg of the Triple Crown to Pimlico or Belmont. Will Todd Pletcher continue to skip the second leg, whichever it is?

    The 2019 Triple Crown was never contested much less attempted. The Derby first place finisher was scarred not only by disqualification, but also suspected PED usage. What other misfortunes, mistakes, or misdeeds may eventually manifest themselves this year?

    NYRA might consider conducting a bonus-incentivized 3YO championship series with the Wood (extended to 1-3/16 m), the Belmont, and the Travers, that would not obstruct a traditional TC, but rather make the Travers a highly desirable alternative to the Derby, especially if the Preakness and Belmont were to have different winners.

    Has the CDI brain trust achieved an own-foot-shooting bullseye?

  4. RE: Fonner Park. Operating as did all racetracks back in the seventies and prior; where purses and operating expenses are funded and paid from handle; where handle is ten-twenty times what the race’s purse size is; where casino dole does not exist; where the races look no different to me than those held at casino funded tracks. And where I am two for eight with win bets and got beat near the wire with two other wagers.

    The track has brought back memories of Lincoln Downs, Green Mountain, and the New England summer fair circuit.

  5. Indulto,
    You’ve got your finger on it. It’s climate change.

    But I thought that wasn’t supposed to happen for another 20 years? Or is it 50? Or it is 100?

  6. Your analogue ‘Spam to filet mignon’ does not earn a one-liner applause. I love to cook, and I think I am pretty good (right, Alice?). Over the past few months, in researching recipes, I have noted how Spam is becoming more popular by chefs.

    In fact, Spam (claiming races) is what racing organizations across this divisive country provide the most. So, where should be the emphasis of turf writers be? After fifty years plus, you guys still don’t get it (bout gambling, right Alice?).

  7. How many times are we going to do this?
    I’ve never disputed that racing is primarily, almost exclusively, about gambling.
    But most people would rather bet on the NFL or NBA than high school football or basketball.

    BTW: My wife loves Spam.

  8. Ah what a life. Just got back from ordering two cases of Foster’s via telephone/credit card. Just sit in your car and the booze is put in your trunk – gonna do this from now on.

    You write ‘most people would rather bet on NFL or NBA games than high school football or basketball games’. Absolutely right, but I can tell if I am watching a high school game or a professional game; try doing this with horse racing. Unless you have a program in front of your nose or have been informed by a turf writer it is impossible to ascertain the quality of the race going to post. Aren’t the entries in ALL races brothers and sisters or from the same family tree of parents. Two seconds, not two minutes or two hours, separate the winner of just about all Thoroughbred races. Can you determine how fast a race is going without a tote board timer?

    Tick tock, tick tock – two seconds! And one race has a purse of a million while another has a purse of $10,000. Go figure! Think Thoroughbred racing is controlled by breeders? Think any horseplayer can be profitable at any racetrack, anywhere (you bet, Alice!)?

  9. Alice just pointed this out to me: My sentence above ‘Two seconds, not two minutes ……..’ should read: Two seconds, not two minutes or two hours, separate the winner FROM THE PLODDER THAT FINISHED LAST!!! Tick tock, tick tock.

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