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.