Cupid Settles In at Oaklawn
Coolmore's Cupid, the short-priced favorite in the field of 12 sophomores contesting Saturday's $1 million (G1) Arkansas Derby, remained right on schedule as he got another feel for Oaklawn Park's racing strip on Thursday.
Jimmy Barnes, the assistant to trainer Bob Baffert, didn't wait for the special period reserved for horses running in the remaining stakes which comprise the Racing Festival of the South.
“We went out early because I didn’t want Cupid to get antsy waiting until 9 a.m. We'll probably train at 9 tomorrow," said Barnes, who also accompanied the Tapit colt here when he won the $900,000 (G2) Rebel Stakes in his last effort.
“We just went straight off and galloped around three-quarters of a mile. Just an easy day today. We just breezed: he worked on Tuesday, walked on Wednesday, and we just let him have an easy lope around there,” he said.
Pletcher Hoping Oaklawn Luck Continues
When he came from off the pace and dug down deep inside the sixteenth pole to edge stable mate Stanford just before the wire in the Gulfstream Park (G2) Handicap last out, Blofeld proved again that he’s got plenty of grit and guts.
Trainer Todd Pletcher is looking for more in Saturday's $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2), which will be run at 1 1/8 mile as the 9th race on the 11-race card which is highlighted by the 80th edition of the $1 million (G1) Arkansas Derby.
The 4-year-old Blofeld has three Grade 2 wins, two of which were at one mile, to his credit but he has never attempted a race with the extra furlong of the Oaklawn Handicap. By Quality Road out of the Storm Cat mare Storm Minstrel, he is bred to stay the trip.
“He's a very game horse and he’s really come back well from that last race. His first start back this year (a $100,000 optional claiming race in January) was a perfect prep for the Gulfstream Park Handicap. The six furlongs of that race was a little short for him, but it set us up really well for that next race. We're excited to get him stretched out around two turns and hope he runs the way that we think he will stretching out,” Pletcher said.
The 66th running of their Oaklawn Handicap came up particularly salty, with many of the best older horses in the division traveling from across the country to contend with some who are locally based.
“It is a competitive race with a lot of good horses there, but you would expect that for a race of this caliber. We're looking forward to seeing how Blofeld fits with this type of horses around two turns," said Pletcher, who also sent Gettysburg for the Arkansas Derby and Decorated Soldier for the 19th running of the $150,000 Northern Spur Stakes on the same card.
Blofeld will depart from the rail in the 8-horse field that includes Grade 1 winners Effinex and Melatonin, who arrived from New York and Southern California, respectively; 2016 (G3) Razorback Handicap winner Upstart; Point Piper; and local hopefuls Carve, Razorback runner-up Domain's Rap and Financial Modeling.
“I think the post is great,” said Pletcher. “I love the rail. He's showed that he's game inside of horses like he was last time, so we should get to save some ground around the first turn and go from there.”
Gettysburg drew the far outside of the 12 post positions in the Arkansas Derby as he tries to earn his first stakes trophy as well as enough qualifying points to get to the Kentucky Derby. There are 100-40-20-10 points up for grabs Saturday.
“Gettysburg has drawn the 12 post in back-to-back races, and I just hope we can work out as good of a trip at Oaklawn as he was able to get at Sunland Park from that outside post. Hopefully, he continues to break alertly and is able to get himself into a good position going into the first turn,” Pletcher said. “It's now or never with those Derby points. We're confident that if he runs well, he'll earn enough points. It's on him to do that. I thought his last race was a big step in the right direction, and hopefully, he's moving forward from that one.”
The WinStar Farms’ colt is by Pioneer of the Nile, the sire of 2015 Arkansas Derby winner American Pharaoh. "Pharoah" went on to win the first Triple Crown in 37 years and was the unanimous Horse of the Year selection.
“The mile-and-the-eighth of the Arkansas Derby will be no problem for Gettysburg. He's already got a win and a second at the distance, so he's accustomed to the distance," said Pletcher, who retained the services of Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez for all three of his Saturday horses.
Pletcher is certainly accustomed to shipping in top runners for Oaklawn's major stakes races and shipping out with the hardware to add to his sizeable trophy case.
He leads all trainers with four Arkansas Derby victories (2014 Danza; 2013 Overanalyze; 2001 Balto Star; 2000 Graeme Hall), won the Oaklawn Handicap twice (2015 Race Day; 2007 Lawyer Ron) and the (G1) Apple Blossom once (2006 Spun Sugar). He's also won the Razorback Handicap three times, the (G3) Azeri Stakes once and the (G3) Fantasy Stakes once.
“We've been pretty lucky at Oaklawn over the years and we're hoping that trend continues,” he said.
Hollendorfer Invades with Strong Hand
Hall of Fame trainer has had a lot of success in Hot Springs and he has returned with some top runners in this weekend’s stakes.
He'll run multiple graded stakes winner Tara's Tango, who is a "now" horse in the national older filly and mare conversation, in the $600,000 (G1) Apple Blossom as well as I will Score in the $150,000 Bachelor Stakes Friday and Point Piper in the $750,000 (G2) Oaklawn Handicap Saturday.
Tara's Tango wore blinkers for the first time when winning the (G2) Santa Maria and kept them on for her next score in the (G1) Santa Margarita in her last at Santa Anita. She'll be adorned in them for her Apple Blossom date.
“She was very promising when she was 2 and ran some good races last year when she was 3. She’s getting better and better. We put blinkers on for the first time. Gutsy move, how about that?,” said Dan Ward, the longtime assistant to Hollendorfer. "It was just because of the way that she was running in spots. She’d run and then drop back and then run again and was looking at everything. The rider (Martin Garcia) suggested it. He didn’t ride her (in the Santa Margarita) because he was here riding Cupid in the Rebel.”
Rafael Bejarano rode Tara's Tango in the Santa Margarita and keeps the mount. But after working the 4yo daughter of Undbridled's Song back in California with them on, he concurred.
“This filly can do anything. She can be on the lead or she can be last. He can put her where he wants," said Ward, who added that she will get a break after this race and then point for more Grade 1 races in the division down the road.
“She’s run hard, four times already. Plus, the fillies in California (multiple champion Beholder) and (top 2015 3yo ) Stellar Wind are coming back to race there," he said.
Point Piper comes into his race after finishing fifth to fellow Oaklawn Handicap entrant Melatonin in the (G1) Santa Anita Handicap in his last effort March 12. Effinex, third in the Big 'Cap, will also be in the gate.
“I don’t think Santa Anita is our horse's favorite track. It was a very speed favoring track. The Handicap is a tough race. I think Enffinex needed his last race. He’s obviously a very good horse," said Ward.
Point Piper, who will add blinkers for the first time, gets a break in the weights, having to carry 113 pounds, including Martin Garcia. That's an 8-pound swing in his favor from the morning line favorite, Effinex.
When Ward saddles I Will Score for his test at 6 furlongs, he'll get first time blinkers, too.
“I brought three pairs of blinkers. He’s very fast. He’s a true sprinter. His two sprints were really fast. He did run well in the Robert Lewis against Mor Spirit (third behind Baffert's other Kentucky Derby hopeful, Mor Spirit). The last time they just wanted to see if he was going to be a distance horse. Even if you don’t like the distance, sometimes they’ll run good first time. The first time he ran OK, and we decided to give him a chance to see if he’d go on, see if he’d rate a little bit. And he didn’t like that," said Ward “We’re going to concentrate on sprinting with him for now.”
On Thursday, the Hollendorfer trio jogged once around the oval. Tara's Tango and I Will Score stood in the gate and later in the morning she schooled in the paddock. Point Piper will get his gate and paddock schooling tomorrow.
ARKANSAS DERBY UPDATES
Asked Thursday morning if he’s ever ridden in a Grade I race, jockey Alex Birzer paused and said, “I don’t know.”
But Birzer, 42, is scheduled to have the opportunity Saturday at Oaklawn in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) aboard Cutacorner, who is trained by Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg.
Birzer, Van Berg’s go-to rider this season in Hot Springs, recorded his only career graded stakes victory in the $100,000 Fifth Season (G3) in 2003 at Oaklawn.
“I try not to ever look at the purse,” said Birzer, who has 2,858 victories since 1992. “I’ve won so many stakes in the past – races period – when I get back, I look at the program and I’ll ask: ‘What was that worth? I just don’t ever look. There ain’t sense looking until after you win.”
Birzer, Oaklawn’s fifth-leading rider this year with 29 victories, rode Cutacorner to a ninth-place finish in the $900,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) March 19 in his last start.
The Rebel is the final local prep for the Arkansas Derby.
Cutacorner has the highest program odds (50-1) of the 12 Arkansas Derby entrants. Birzer said he believes Cutacorner can beat the odds.
“He is training really, really good,” Birzer said. “Even Jack said he’s training better. He might be a long shot, but he is on top of his game.”
Birzer will head to Prairie Meadows in Iowa after Oaklawn’s meet ends Saturday.
Suddenbreakingnews cleared one hurdle during Wednesday’s post position draw for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1).
The sudden breaking news was Suddenbreakingnews drew better than he had in his two previous starts at Oaklawn, the $500,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Feb. 15 and $900,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) March 19. He overcame post 13 to win the Southwest and finished fifth in the Rebel after breaking from the extreme outside (post 14).
“As far as the post position, we’re happy,” trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel said Thursday morning. “Just wanted to be in the middle somewhere.”
Suddenbreakingnews was among 12 horses entered in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby, which, at 1 1/8 miles, is a sixteenth of a mile longer than the Southwest and Rebel. Von Hemel said the added distance, and better post, should benefit Suddenbreakingnews, a gelded son of 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft.
“The longer the run to the first turn, the less post position becomes an issue,” Von Hemel said. “You go to a mile and a quarter at Churchill, and everybody wants to be outside. They don’t want to be inside because it’s a quarter of a mile to the turn.”
The Arkansas Derby offers 170 points to the top four finishers, including 100 to the winner, toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby May 7 at Churchill Downs.
APPLE BLOSSOM UPDATES
Full sisters Forever Unbridled and Unbridled Forever might have a little sibling rivalry going on in trainer Dallas Stewart's barn.
Forever Unbridled, Charles Fipke's homebred 4-year-old filly who contests Friday's $600,000 (G1) Apple Blossom with John Velazquez aboard, is seeking her first Grade 1 win. Last August, her 5-yrear-old big sister captured hers with an upset win in the Ballerina (G1) at Saratoga while piloted by the same Hall of Fame rider.
“A lot of class is what they have in common, and now, too, with their 3yo younger half-brother, Forever D'Oro. Unbridled Forever and Forever Unbridled practically even look identical. It would sure be nice for Forever Unbridled to get her grade one," said Bentley Coombs, the assistant trainer to Dallas Stewart.
This is definitely a family affair. Like her big sister, Forever Unbridled is by Unbridled's Song out of Lemons Forever, who was also trained by Stewart and was a huge upset winner of the Kentucky Oaks
Perhaps this will be Forever Unbridled's day. She has won her last two races, the (G3) Comely at Aqueduct in November and the (G3) Houston Ladies Classic at Sam Houston in January.
“Hopefully, this will be her grade one. Knock on wood. We'll see on Friday,” said Coombs. “I feel great about the way she's coming in to this race. She's galloped three days over the track and handled it well, and she's fresh. She's coming into form and it seems to be the right time for her. If she runs her race, it will be a good race. There's not really much to say until you put them in the gate and let them loose, but I feel really good about this filly.”
Forever Unbridled will have to be at her best.
The Apple Blossom field contains defending winner and champion Untapable, who has scored in a quintet of Grade 1 events, and Tara's Tango, who is at the top of her game with wins in the (G2) Santa Maria and the (G1) Santa Margarita at Santa Anita in her last two starts. Call Pat, who was victorious in the (G3) Bayakoa and the (G2) Azeri Stakes here in her last pair of efforts, and Streamline, second and third, respectively, in the Bayakoa and Azeri, absolutely love this track. Theogony, fourth in the Azeri, rounds out the field.
They have not scared away Forever Unbridled.
“She's impressed the hell out of me in her last two races. She's been real tactical, and really good at everything she's been doing," said Coombs. "She's a good filly to train. She has no problems, no issues, no health problems, nothing. She likes her job and is all you could want in one.”
Not only has Streamline been consistent at this year’s Oaklawn meeting, the 4-year-old daughter of Straight Line has been durable. She is scheduled to complete the grand slam of Oaklawn’s series of two-turn stakes races for older females this year in Friday’s $600,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1). No other horse can make that claim in 2016.
“That’s something,” trainer Brian Williamson said Thursday morning. “She’s doing great, and we’re looking forward to it.”
Streamline won the $100,000 Pippin Jan. 17 before finishing second in the $100,000 Bayakoa (G3) Feb. 14 and third in the $350,000 Azeri (G2) March 19. She was beaten just a half-length in the Bayakoa and three-quarters of a length in the Azeri.
“Actually, there wasn’t an allowance race for her and that’s kind of why we ran her in that first stake,” Williamson said of the Pippin. “Then she wins, then she runs second, then she runs third. It’s been a nice ride.”
This year, and throughout her career. Streamline has finished first, second or third in 10 of 11 lifetime starts and earned $200,276. Williamson’s mother-in-law, Nancy Vanier, bred and co-owns Streamline.