April 17, 2011
Saturday's Arkansas Derby was a shocker for fan and announcer alike.
Who knew that J P's Gusto would shoot from the outside like a cannon to snatch the lead?
More than that, who knew that a horse called Dance City would play such a diverse and important role in the race, both before and during the running?
And who figured The Factor would not live up to his name?
From my standpoint I was watching The Factor at the start. I knew the little gray bullet was one of the eight required to stand for a lengthy time in the starting gate while Dance City did everything he could to confound the starting gate crew's efforts to load him for the race. It was reasonable to think the City Zip colt had already run his race. After all, he had unseated jockey Javier Castellano in the infield walk to the track, then acted up in his arrival at the starting gate. Castellano sat off to the side for many minutes while the assistant starters did all they could to get cooperation from Dance City.
That wait may have been good practice for future Kentucky Derby contenders who will have a long wait for the 20-horse field of the Run for the Roses to load. But it doesn't appear to have had a positive impact, if the Arkansas Derby result is any indicator.
Archarcharch, the winner, and J P'sGusto, the spoiler, both loaded after the Dance City debacle and their plans were executed in fine fashion. I was impressed that two colts who had sustained the worst of the starting gate incident in the Rebel, Alternation and Sway Away, were perfect gentlemen while in the gate during the long waiting period.
But I was focused on The Factor and Brethren, a nice Todd Pletcher trainee trying regain respect following a disappointing outing in the Tampa Bay Derby. When Brethren actually outbroke The Factor, I was a bit surprised. But then I saw the blur from the outside in the form of J P's Gusto, flying to the lead and being chased by Dance City, the horse which has just caused considerable commotion at the gate.
On the turn The Factor moved up along the rail, but it was clear the others were going to try to take him out of his game plan. Between J J P's Gusto stealing the rail and the lead, while Dance City had The Factor to his inside and pretty much boxed in, there were some shifts in tactics going on behind the leaders. Patrick Valenzuela, aboard Sway Away, had to be shocked by the sudden turn of events which suddenly saw him fairly close up and in a stalking position. When he went four wide to pass the three leaders coming off the turn, he had to have thought back to the day he guided Althea to her dominating win in the Arkansas Derby in 1984, the only time a filly had ever won the race.
Just about everyone watching the race figured that Sway Away had made a winning move, except Jon Court, who was following Sway Away aboard eventual winner Archarcharch. Even as Sway Away opened up on the field Court's mount was just gaining momentum. While Sway Away moved closer to the rail, Archarcharch had the middle of the track to himself and began to cut into the margin. One hundred yards out it was clear that Archarcharch would have the measure of Sway Away. But right behind him came the menacing presence of Nehro, who had seen victory snatched from him and his late-running tactics in the Louisiana Derby, following a nice maiden win at Oaklawn.
The two runners bore down for the final forty yards and Archarcharch just lasted by a head to win. Nehro zipped by him quickly after the wire and was a handful for jockey Corey Nakatani to pull up on the turn. Nehro will get a lot of play at the Kentucky Derby and Nakatani will give the press plenty of copy, since his post-race comments indicated that he didn't realize how muchrun Nehro had and that he needed to start him earlier.
I suspect that over the next three weeks the price on Nehro for the Kentucky Derby may drop, while the odds on Archarcharch will pretty much remain the same. That will be fine for the local punters. They remember winning over $1 million at the Oaklawn simulcast when Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby, following his successes at Oaklawn. They can only hope for another big payday on May 7 when Archarcharch enters the starting gate for the mile-and-a-quarter at Churchill Downs.
The Arkansas Derby was a mind-boggler, but it made for a huge party atmosphere. There was barely enough room for the horse in the winner's circle after the race. So large was the crowd of followers who wanted to share the moment. Even Arkansas Governor, Mike Beebe, and his security entourage had problems getting both in and out of the circle for the trophy presentation.
But in the end, it was a dream fulfilled for many Arkansas racing fans. Archarcharch had been here all year with some locally popular people. There were many celebrating who did not visit the windows to cash the $52.40 win payoff or the huge payoffs on the exotic plays. They were just thrilled that local guys looked the stars from coast to coast directly into their eyes and made them blink.
It was a happy result for Arkansas sports fans who tend to feel like they're taking a beating on so many fronts.
Even on this day, when it appeared the plans for them to win were mostly dreams, we discovered that the best laid plans do go awry. A toast to the Archarcharch people (Yagos, Fires and Court contingent) which will now head east to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby. They gave their fellow Arkansans a great moment in time.