Another year, another Arkansas Derby program favorite for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
Improbable, who races for WinStar Farm, China Horse Club International and Starlight Racing, was installed the 8-5 morning line choice for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) Saturday at Oaklawn.
Post positions for the 1 1/8-mile race were drawn Wednesday afternoon, with Improbable receiving post 1 for Baffert and new jockey Jose Ortiz in the projected 11-horse field.
“I just got a call from Elliott Walden and he told us about our wonderful draw,” Baffert said, referring to WinStar’s president/CEO and racing manager. “I think I’ve drawn the rail seven out of eight times in the last week. Unbelievable.”
Improbable represents the seventh Arkansas Derby program favorite in the last nine years for Baffert. He won the race in 2012 with Bodemeister and again in 2015 with American Pharoah, who would go on to sweep the Triple Crown, Breeders’ Cup Classic and be named Horse of the Year.
Improbable won his first three career starts before being beaten a neck in his 3-year-old debut, the first division of the $750,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) March 16. The 1 1/16-mile Rebel is the final major local prep for the Arkansas Derby. First-division winner Long Range Toddy is the 5-1 third choice in the program for the Arkansas Derby.
Omaha Beach is the early 2-1 second choice after beating Game Winner, the Baffert-trained previously unbeaten champion, a nose in the second division of the Rebel. Omaha Beach is scheduled to break from post 3 Saturday under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith.
“It’s a good draw to begin with, but any draw would have been fine,” Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella said. “We’re happy to be here.”
No worries, Mandella said, when asked if he was surprised Omaha Beach wasn’t the program favorite.
“I didn’t come to bet,” Mandella said. “I came to do my job.”
Probable post time for the Arkansas Derby, which goes as the 11th of 12 races, is 6:41 p.m. (Central). Racing begins at 12:35 p.m.
The projected Arkansas Derby field from the rail out: Improbable, Jose Ortiz to ride, 8-5 on the morning line; Six Shooter, David Cohen, 30-1; Omaha Beach, Mike Smith, 2-1; Tikhvin Flew, Tyler Baze, 30-1; Laughing Fox, Ricardo Santana Jr., 20-1; Gray Attempt, Stewart Elliott, 8-1; Galilean, Flavien Prat, 10-1; Country House, Joel Rosario, 12-1; One Flew South, Calvin Borel, 50-1; Jersey Agenda, Ramon Vazquez, 30-1; and Long Range Toddy, Jon Court, 5-1.
The Arkansas Derby offers 170 points to the top four finishers (100-40-20-10) toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby.
Also on Saturday’s card is the $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for older horses at 1 1/8 miles and the $500,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3) for older horses at 6 furlongs.
A Test Run
Less than 24 hours after being flown to Arkansas, Fox Hill Farm’s Omaha Beach galloped approximately a mile Wednesday morning for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella in advance of Saturday’s $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) at 1 1/8 miles.
The Southern California-based Omaha Beach returns to Oaklawn after winning the second division of the $750,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) March 16, the final major local prep for the Arkansas Derby.
In addition to Mandella, barn foreman and exercise rider Taylor Cambra is overseeing Omaha Beach’s Arkansas Derby preparations. The 6’1”, 145-pound Cambra said he began galloping Omaha Beach, a son of War Front, about two months before the Rebel.
“He’s definitely impressive,” Cambra said Wednesday morning. “You get on so many nice horses in Mandella’s barn, but he definitely sticks out more than the other ones.”
In the 1 1/16-mile Rebel, Omaha Beach – in his stakes debut and first start outside California – opened a clear lead in midstretch and held off champion and previously unbeaten Game Winner to win by a nose. Omaha Beach was exiting a nine-length maiden victory Feb. 2 at Santa Anita.
“The first day I got on him, my first impression was, ‘Wow! – this horse is nice,’ ” Cambra said. “He just floats over the ground. He’s grown up a lot. He’s maturing mentally, as well as physically. He’s growing up, he’s getting bigger, he’s filling out. He’s so confident in himself. He just walks around like he knows he’s the best.”
Omaha Beach was made the 2-1 second choice in the program for the Arkansas Derby.
On the Road Again
Canadian star Escape Clause arrived Monday night after a 21-hour van ride from her base at Turf Paradise in Phoenix to run in Sunday’s $750,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) for older fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles.
Owner-trainer Don Schnell said Escape Clause left Sunday morning and the lengthy trip, approximately 1,300 miles, was broken up with an overnight stop in Odessa, Texas.
Escape Clause, a 5-year-old Canadian-bred daughter of Going Commando, will represent the first Oaklawn and Grade 1 starter for Schnell, 66, a trainer for 45 years.
“It seems like the older she gets the better she gets,” Schnell said Wednesday morning. “People thought I was crazy to bring her down to Del Mar to run her in a stake there and at Santa Anita. I always had faith in her. I’m used to training $3,000, $4,000 horses. I don’t get the chance to train good horses and she developed into a good one. Maybe we’re crazy, but I’m going to give her a try at one Grade 1.”
Escape Clause has been a win machine in Canada and the Pacific and Mountain time zones, capturing 20 of 30 career starts, including the $100,000 Harry Henson Handicap March 24 at Sunland Park in her last start when she set a track record (1:34) for a mile. Escape Clause is an 18-time stakes winner, owns track records for 6 ½ furlongs and 7 furlongs at Century Downs in Canada and finished second against males in the $75,000 Manitoba Derby in 2017 at Assiniboia Downs in Canada.
Schnell said Tyler Baze, a recent addition to the Oaklawn jockey colony, will ride Escape Clause in the Apple Blossom, among the country’s biggest events for older fillies and mares. Baze has ridden Escape Clause in her last three starts, including a 5 ½-length victory in the $100,000 La Canada Stakes (G3) at 1 1/16 miles Jan. 12 at Santa Anita. Escape Clause won the Harry Henson by 7 ¼ lengths.
Schnell said Escape Clause had been under consideration for the $400,000 Beholder Mile (G1) March 30 at Santa Anita before racing at the Southern California track was suspended following a spike in equine fatalities. The Beholder Mile was originally scheduled to be run March 16.
“I wasn’t sure whether they’re going to race or when they’re going to race and things were put off,” Schnell said. “I didn’t want to run against Marley’s Freedom, especially going a flat mile Although she did get beat, she did run second. We looked at this race and distance is more suitable to her. The farther we go, the better she is. Thought we would give it a shot here in the Apple Blossom.”
Escape Clause was assigned 117 pounds for the Apple Blossom, 5 less than high weighted and expected starter Midnight Bisou, a multiple Grade 1 winner. Other probable starters include multiple Grade 1 winner Elate (120 pounds), Canadian champion Wonder Gadot (118) and Grade 2 winner Chocolate Martini (116).
Post positions for the Apple Blossom will be drawn Thursday.