Oaklawn Barn Notes
John Oxley’s champion Classic Empire tested the Oaklawn surface for the first time Thursday morning, jogging and mile and galloping a mile in preparation for Saturday’s $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1), according to assistant trainer Norm Casse.
Classic Empire was flown from Ocala, Fla., to Arkansas Wednesday and rolled into the Davona Dale barn at approximately 4:30 p.m. (Central). He was the country’s champion 2-year-old male after winning 4 of 5 starts, including the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) Nov. 5 at Santa Anita. But his 2017 season features just one start – a third in the $350,000 Holy Bull Stakes (G2) Feb. 4 at Gulfstream Park – reportedly refusing to work twice at Palm Meadows Training Center in south Florida, foot abscess and a back issue.
“I think probably a month, a month and a half ago when he was continuing some of his antics we kind of had thrown our hands up and been like, ‘Well, what are we supposed to do?’’ said Casse, the son of the colt’s trainer, Mark Casse. “Last-ditch effort, we send him back to Ocala where it all started for him and said if he trains there, good, if not we’ll take a step back and will wait until the summertime. So, he’s earned his right here. We feel like we’re kind of playing on house money.”
Classic Empire was installed the 8-5 program favorite for the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby. He is scheduled to break from post 2 under regular rider Julien Leparoux.
“We really like the post position,” Casse said. “I feel like this racetrack suits him. He’s got speed. His best races have been over really tight surfaces similar to this one. I think he’ll appreciate this racetrack.”
Classic Empire trained about 7:30 a.m. (Central) Thursday, some 30 minutes after the track opened. He schooled in the paddock before Thursday's first race.
If Rebel Stakes longshot runner-up Sonneteer was in another stable, a rumor might have swept through the barn area when Calumet Farm’s nearly black colt did not go to the track Thursday at Oaklawn Park. But, Sonneteer is trained by Keith Desormeaux, so in this instance the unusual is the norm. As opposed to most operations, where horses train two days before a race barring something such as bad weather, Desormeaux generally doesn’t take his horses to the track on Thursdays and Sundays. It’s a method that worked swimmingly with 2016 Preakness winner Exaggerator and 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red.
“It’s so funny. When we first started going to some of the big races, when we wouldn’t go to the track, all of the press would flock to you like, ‘What’s wrong?’” said Julie Clark, Desormeaux’s assistant trainer and significant other who is the point person when the barn sends a horse on the road. “Like you’re hiding something. And I’m like, ‘It’s just a Thursday.’ Thursdays and Sundays.”
In fact, the situation becomes weird if a horse does train on Thursday, she acknowledge.
“Say if we’d shipped in Wednesday, he’d have gone to the track Thursday,’” Clark said. “But that would have messed up Keith’s brain, for sure. He likes to give them a nice, relaxing day.
“I love when we ship on Tuesdays. Because we go to the track Wednesday, and get all this energy out of them — they’re usually high as a kite. Thursday is when the trip seems to hit them. They’re so stimulated the first day getting here, then they’re all sleepy and just race all day. Then you get one day to train before the race.”
Calumet Farm’s homebred Sonneteer has three seconds, two thirds and a fourth in seven maiden races, along with a fourth place in the California Derby in his sixth start. After he was a rallying second in a Feb. 25 maiden race at Santa Anita, Desormeaux shipped him to Oaklawn, where at 112-1 odds son of Midnight Lute won a three-horse photo for second, with Malagacy the two-length winner.
Sonneteer schooled in the indoor paddock and infield grass, where the jockeys will get on their mounts, with other festival stakes horses at noon Thursday. Clark said Sonneteer will stand in the gate Friday morning as part of his training session.
After arriving from South Florida Wednesday afternoon, the Todd Pletcher-trained Rebel winner Malagacy and Oaklawn Park Handicap contender Madefromlucky, went out for a gallop under assistant trainer Adele Bellinger. Both horses schooled in the indoor paddock and on the infield grass at noon, well before the first race.
Malagacy, who won the Rebel by two lengths over Sonneteer, also was sent to the starting gate during his morning training session.
“He’s such a relaxed gallop; he doesn’t just drag you,” Bellinger said. “Some horses, two days out, they know they’re going to run and they drag you around there. They’re a little rude and obnoxious. That’s not how he is.
“He was better behaved in the gate this time. Last time when we brought him for the Rebel, he was so rude, throwing his head. And the gate crew kind of got after him a little bit and he kind of realized he wasn’t the boss. This time, he walked right in. They loaded horses on either side of him. And he didn’t love it, but he dealt with it well. I guess that would be where I’d say he’s maturing, and hopefully he continues to.”
The millionaire Madefromlucky finished second in the 2015 Rebel and fourth in the Arkansas Derby, both won by American Pharoah before his historic Triple Crown feat. The 5-year-old horse finished third — a nose out of second — in Oaklawn’s March 18 Essex Handicap. The winner that day, Mor Spirit, did not return from California for Saturday’s $750,000 race.
“He’s one of my favorites because he’s been around for so long,” Bellinger said.
UNTRAPPED AND LOOKIN AT LEE
Both of trainer Steve Asmussen’s Arkansas Derby horses have new riders for Saturday’s race. Mike Smith will be aboard Untrapped, and Luis Contreras rides Lookin At Lee.
Ricardo Santana had ridden Untrapped in four of his five starts, with Irad Ortiz aboard for the colt’s third in the Rebel. Santana also rode Rebel sixth-place finisher Lookin At Lee in his five prior starts, including a second in Keeneland’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity and fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Santana had been Asmussen’s main rider much of the year, including at Oaklawn, but the Hall of Fame trainer severed their business relationship weeks ago. Asmussen called the Hall of Fame jockey who is arguably the best money-rider in the game today to seek his services Saturday on Untrapped, explaining cheerfully, “Because I’ve seen him in the winner’s circle in a significant race recently” — an apparent reference to the Smith-ridden Arrogate rallying to defeat the Asmussen-trained Gun Runner in the $10 million Dubai World Cup.
“Mike has always been a great talent, tremendous,” said Asmussen, who has known the 51-year-old Smith “since he galloped horses for Bob Arnett in New Mexico.”
Smith is committed to Louisiana Derby winner Girvin for the Kentucky Derby, but Asmussen’s only concern now is trying to win a $1 million, Grade I race before then. “There are so many things that will change, for all of us,” he said.
Contreras has replaced Santana as Asmussen’s first-call rider at Oaklawn. “Luis has done an excellent job here, riding the course really well,” he said. “We’ll try to take advantage of that.”
Asmussen’s Friday (including Apple Blossom contender Terra Promessa) and Saturday stakes horses were out for routine gallops Thursday morning, with Untrapped, Lookin At Lee and Count Fleet contender Holy Boss schooling beforehand in the indoor paddock. They also school on the infield grass, where they’ll go after being saddled inside for their races.
Santana, who has maintained his lead in the jockey standings while riding for more outside outfits, picked up the mount on Petrov, the Rebel fourth-place finisher.
ROWDY THE WARRIOR
One of the surprise Arkansas Derby entrants was Rowdy the Warrior, who finished third, beaten 5 ¼ lengths, in a first-level allowance/optional claimer March 18 for trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel. the Warrior was re-routed to the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby, Von Hemel said, after another entry-level allowance race didn’t fill.
“Look to run him farther than a mile, and not many opportunities,” Von Hemel said.
Bred and owned by Robert Zoellner, Rowdy the Warrior ran in Oaklawn’s first two major Kentucky Derby preps, finishing third in the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes and ninth in the $500,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Feb. 20.
Oaklawn’s other major Kentucky Derby prep was the $900,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) March 18.
Petrov is the only horse to run in the Smarty Jones, Southwest and Rebel. He is also entered in the Arkansas Derby.
ONE DREAMY DUDE
One Dreamy Dude, a 50-1 the longest shot in the Arkansas Derby’s field of 12, has not only never run in a stakes race, his best finish in six maiden races was losing by a nose four races ago. He also has a trio of fourth-place finishes.
The son of First Dude is out of the mare Dreamy Dream, hence the name. But owner Mike Waters of Seattle said he also named the colt after his Hall of Fame trainer, Jack Van Berg.
“If we win this race, it would just be a dream come true,” Waters said. “It would be 30 years since Alysheba won (the Kentucky Derby) with Jack Van Berg. I know we’re a long-shot, and big odds. But you know what? It’s horse racing and anything can happen.
“When we bought this horse in Ocala in June, we only paid $25,000,” Waters said. “But Jack likes to wink at me when he likes a horse. I never got more than three winks every out of Jack, and Jack gave me four winks on this horse. I bought this horse, we brought him back to Churchill Downs to train, and Jack told me he hasn’t had a horse like this since Alysheba. Said he’s got a reach from here to Timbuktu, a stride you just can’t believe. He’s still just growing into himself. He’s such a big horse, he’s growing every day. We’re pushing the envelope with him. But if his best race shows up, you never know.”
Asked when the decision was made to run in the Arkansas Derby, Waters said with a laugh, “I think Jack made the decision the day we bought him. The conversation really started occurring about two weeks ago. We were in that maiden special weight race three or four weeks ago, and we had a little issue with some mucous in the lungs. The jock said he had a ton of horse at the corner, and really thought he was going to win the race. He had a little mucous, and things happen in racing. He started training like a monster. Jack said, ‘Hey, he’s training too good not to give him a chance.’”
Waters was asked if Sonneteer finishing second as a maiden at 112-1 in the Rebel and Irap becoming the first previously-winless horse to capture Keeneland’s Blue Grass had any bearing on the decision to roll the dice.
“That might have had a little factor,” said Waters, who owns a commercial flooring company in Seattle, his clients including the NFL Seahawks. “Maybe the Derby trail isn’t what it was the last couple of years, and these maidens are just getting bigger and stronger. They’re so young, and coming into their own. There’s not an American Pharoah, not a Smarty Jones. Anything can happen. Why not us?”
Waters’ Muddy Waters Stables was 10 for 35 heading into Thursday’s Oaklawn card, putting him in second place, albeit 11 wins behind leader Danny Caldwell. He is also a partner in Chief of Staff, who runs in Saturday’s $400,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap.
Champion Stellar Wind took another step toward Friday’s $600,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) by galloping approximately 1 3/8 miles “at kind of a lively pace” Thursday morning, trainer John Sadler said.
Sadler said Stellar Wind “did great” and planned a paddock schooling session later Thursday for the 5-year-old daughter of Curlin, who will be making her first start since finishing a troubled fourth in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) Nov. 4 at Santa Anita.
Stellar Wind, who broke in the air, was beaten 3 ¾-lengths by champions Beholder and Songbird in the Distaff.
Stellar Wind had beaten Beholder in their previous two meetings last year and would have likely clinched another Eclipse Award (older female) with a Breeders’ Cup victory.
“It still stings,” Sadler said. “It doesn’t stop stinging. If you look at her record, she has such outstanding form. In this game, too, you learn to look ahead with horses. You don’t look backwards too much.”
Stellar Wind was named the country’s champion 3-year-old filly of 2015 and has a 7-2-1 record from 12 career starts.
Millionaire and Grade 1 winner Midnight Storm galloped an easy mile Thursday morning in advance of Saturday’s $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for older horses.
Trained by Phil D’Amato, Midnight Storm is the 1-2 program favorite for the Oaklawn Handicap and scheduled to carry top weight of 122 pounds.
In his last start, Midnight Storm led most of the way before finishing second, beaten three-quarters of a length, in the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap (G1) March 11 at Santa Anita. The 1 ¼-mile Santa Anita Handicap is one of the country’s most prestigious events for older horses.
“That was a heartbreaker,” said D’Amato’s assistant, Joshua Flores. “It was one of those where you look like you’re going to get there and just get run down.”
Midnight Storm schooled in the paddock and infield later Thursday.
Flores said the Southern California-based D’Amato will be in Hot Springs to saddle Midnight Storm, a winner of five of his last seven starts.
Multiple stakes winner Accelerate will miss Saturday’s $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for older horses after developing a “shipping fever” Wednesday, a day after being flown from Southern California to Arkansas, trainer John Sadler said.
Accelerate was coming off a third-place finish behind Hoppertunity and Mor Spirit in the $300,000 San Antonio Stakes (G2) Feb. 4 at Santa Anita.
Mor Spirit returned to win the $250,000 Essex Handicap March 18, the final major local prep for the Oaklawn Handicap.
Sadler said Accelerate looked “good and steady” Thursday morning after being treated with antibiotics.
“He was actually entered, then as the morning went on yesterday, called over there and took him out, because there was no way he could run,” Sadler said. “Looks like he’s going to be OK.”
Accelerate was a Grade 2 winner last year and also finished third in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) Nov. 4 at Santa Anita.
Trainer Miguel Hernandez will be looking to “Conquest” Oaklawn during the final two days of the meeting.
Hernandez is scheduled to send out Conquest Slayer in Friday’s $400,000 Fantasy Stakes (G3) and Conquest Mo Money in Saturday’s $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1).
Conquest Slayer, a 3-year-old daughter of Scat Daddy, is coming off a fourth-place finish in the $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks March 26 at Sunland Park.
“I thought, Well, if I bring one, why not two?’ Hernandez said. “I think she’s going to run good.”
Conquest Slayer is a 50-1 long shot in the program for the 1 1/16-mile Fantasy.