HOT SPRINGS, AR (Thursday, April 30, 2020) – Oaklawn has split three of its four Kentucky Derby prep races once during the last decade, and so far it’s a split decision for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
The Southern California-based Baffert swept both divisions of the $250,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) in 2012 with Secret Circle and Castaway. Baffert finished second in both divisions of last year’s $750,000 Rebel Stakes (G2), losing close decisions with Grade 1 winner Improbable and Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male Game Winner.
Saturday’s Arkansas Derby (G1) is split and, once again, Baffert has the program favorite in both divisions in unbeaten Nadal (5-2) and unbeaten Charlatan (even money).
“We’re just fortunate and just grateful that they split it and we get to run them there and keep them separated,” Baffert said. “I really did not want to run them together.”
That became official last Sunday when 22 horses were entered, leading Oaklawn to split its signature race for the first time since 1960. Originally scheduled to be run April 11, the Arkansas Derby now occupies the traditional date of the Kentucky Derby and has lured several high-profile 3-year-olds, including champion and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Storm the Court, Louisiana Derby winner Wells Bayou, Tampa Bay Derby winner King Guillermo, Southwest winner Silver Prospector, Grade 1 winner Basin and Baffert’s unbeaten duo.
The 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby anchors a 14-race program, the final day of the 57-day meeting. Racing begins at noon (Central). The $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for older horses will be sandwiched by divisions of the Arkansas Derby. Probable post time for the first division, race 11, is 5:29 p.m. The second division goes as race 13, with probable post time 6:43 p.m. Ideal weather is expected, with sunny skies and temperatures in the low 80s.
Each division of the Arkansas Derby is worth $500,000 and will award the full complement of 170 points (100-40-20-10) to the top four finishers toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby, which has been moved to Sept. 5 (Covid-19). Oaklawn responded by flipping the dates of the $200,000 Oaklawn Stakes for 3-year-olds – known last year as the Oaklawn Invitational – and the Arkansas Derby.
Charlatan (first division) has won his two career starts, both this year at Santa Anita, by a combined 16 lengths after leading at every point of call. Charlatan won his career debut sprinting by 5 ¾ lengths Feb. 16 and dominated entry-level allowance opponents by 10 ¼ lengths in his two-turn debut March 14. The son of Speightstown, a $700,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale graduate, drew the rail for his stakes debut and a new rider in Martin Garcia.
“I hate the 1 hole,” Baffert said. “I never do like it. He’s got to break. From the 1 hole, you’ve got to use them up a little bit harder early, just like you would if you were on the outside.”
Nadal (second division) returns to Oaklawn after a front-running three-quarter length victory in the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) March 14, the traditional final major local prep for the Arkansas Derby. Nadal – a $700,000 2-year-old purchase – passed his first-two turn test after being pressed through demanding fractions by No Parole and fellow Southern California shipper American Theorem to move to 3 for 3 overall.
Charlatan and Nadal each have multiple bullet workouts at Santa Anita in advance of the Arkansas Derby. Nadal earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 96 for his Rebel victory, while Charlatan received robust Beyers of 105 and 106 for his two victories.
“He ran a big number, so it gave him a little extra time,” Baffert said, referring to the Arkansas Derby’s new date. “They’re both doing fantastic. I think Nadal, for some reason, he doesn’t get the respect that he should be getting. He’s a really top horse.”
Nadal, a son of champion Blame, drew post 5 and is scheduled to carry equal top weight of 122 pounds, including jockey Joel Rosario. Nadal broke from the rail in the Rebel, which was run over a sloppy track.
“He’s in the middle there,” Baffert said. “Last time, we were on the inside and had to get away from there and go and then we got hooked up early by American Theorem. He came to us and they went fast. To me, I think he showed us that day what he’s really made of. And they came to him. He had every reason to stop and he just kept going. Jimmy Barnes (Baffert’s traveling assistant) said he was really tired when he came back. I feel pretty good. He’s got to get away from there. He’s fast. Does he have to be on the lead? I don’t know if he needs to be on the lead, but from the inside he had to get involved.”
Baffert is seeking his third Arkansas Derby victory after winning the race in 2012 with Bodemeister and 2015 with eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
Charlatan’s biggest threat could come from Gouverneur Morris, whose trainer, Todd Pletcher, has a record five Arkansas Derby victories. Gouverneur Morris, the early 9-2 second choice, exits a fourth-place finish behind Kentucky Derby points leader Tiz the Law in the $750,000 Florida Derby (G1) March 28 at Gulfstream Park. Gouverneur Morris is 2 for 4 overall, with his other loss a runner-up finish behind unbeaten Maxfield in the $500,000 Breeders’ Futurity (G1) Oct. 5 at Keeneland.
“He’s had three good breezes since he ran in the Florida Derby, so we’re happy with the progress he’s made,” Pletcher said. “This will be his third start off the layoff and we’re hoping for a good, honest pace. I think he’s a horse that’s looking to kind of settle and make a run. It was difficult to do that last time at Gulfstream, with the track being kind of speed favoring and not much pace on in the race. Kind of had to chase them a little bit the whole way. I thought he finished with good interest. He’s come back and done well since then, so we’re looking forward to it.”
Also entered in the first division are Anneau d’Or, second behind Storm the Court in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) Nov. 1 at Santa Anita, and Basin, winner of the $350,000 Hopeful Stakes (G1) Sept. 2 at Saratoga for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. Basin, in his 3-year-old debut, ran third in the Rebel and was fourth in the Oaklawn Stakes.
“We definitely haven’ gotten the best of Basin this year,” Asmussen said. “This is his third start off the layoff, so it’s time to get it done. The weather looks good this weekend after catching two off tracks. There’s a lot more there.”
Anneau d’Or and Jungle Runner, another first-division entrant for Asmussen, will remove blinkers Saturday.
Wells Bayou (7-2) is the early second choice behind Nadal in the second division. Trained by Brad Cox, Wells Bayou exits a front-running 1 ½-length victory in the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) March 21 at Fair Grounds.
Wells Bayou began his 3-year-old campaign with a sharp entry-level allowance victory in his two-turn debut Jan. 26 at Oaklawn before finishing second in the $750,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Feb. 17. The Southwest is Oaklawn’s second of four Kentucky Derby points races. A son of champion Lookin At Lucky, Wells Bayou drew post 11 for his return to Oaklawn. He will be ridden by Florent Geroux.
“I would have probably preferred to have drawn down to the inside with this horse,” Cox said. “He’s probably going to do something … it’s weird, this horse always draws down toward the inside, so this is going to be something different for him. I don’t think he’s going to be fast enough to break and clear. We’ll see how it unfolds. That will be Florent’s job. But I do know the horse is doing extremely well and he’s going to bring his ‘A’ race. But, once again, I don’t think he’s going to get the trip that he got in the Louisiana Derby. But I do know that he can get the distance and if he runs his race, he’s going to be a factor in the end.”
Storm the Court (6-1) is seeking his first victory since his front-running triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which secured an Eclipse Award as the country’s champion 2-year-old male. Storm the Court, who will be making his first start outside California, finished fourth behind Nadal in the $200,000 San Vicente Stakes (G2) Feb. 9 at Santa Anita and third behind Authentic, another unbeaten Baffert trainee, in the $400,000 San Felipe Stakes (G2) March 7 at Santa Anita.
“He’s got natural speed and he doesn’t have to be on the lead, which I don’t think he’s going to be,” trainer Peter Eurton said. “But he generally breaks pretty good and we’ll let him run out of there and see how it unfolds.”
King Guillermo (3-1) is coming off a sharp 4 ¾-length victory in the $400,000 Tampa Bay Derby (G2) March 7 at Tampa Bay Downs for trainer Juan Carlos Avila and owner Victor Martinez, a five-time MLB All-Star. Silver Prospector (10-1) won the Southwest for Asmussen before finishing sixth in the Rebel. Farmington Road and Taishan earned automatic berths in the Arkansas Derby by finishing second and third, respectively, in the Oaklawn Stakes.
Although 11 horses are entered in each division, connections of four horses – Shooters Shoot and Wrecking Crew (first division) and Saratogian and Fast Enough (second division) – have informed the Oaklawn racing department they will be scratched. At press time Thursday, official scratch cards for Shooters Shoot and Wrecking Crew had already been submitted. Cards for Saratogian and Fast Enough are expected to be submitted Friday.
The Arkansas Derby (first division) field from the rail out: Charlatan, Martin Garcia to ride, 118 pounds, even money on the morning line; My Friends Beer, Declan Cannon, 118, 20-1; Mo Mosa, Kendrick Carmouche, 118, 30-1; Gouverneur Morris, John Velazquez, 118, 9-2; Jungle Runner, Tyler Baze, 122, 30-1; Anneau d’Or, Juan Hernandez, 118, 6-1; Winning Impression, Julien Leparoux, 118, 15-1; Crypto Cash, Corey Lanerie, 118, 20-1; and Basin, Ricardo Santana Jr., 122, 8-1.
The Arkansas Derby (second division) field from the rail out: Finnick the Fierce, Martin Garcia, 15-1, 118; Storm the Court, Flavien Prat, 122, 6-1; King Guillermo, Samy Camacho, 122, 3-1; Nadal, Joel Rosario, 122, 5-2; Code Runner, Stewart Elliott, 118, 50-1; Silver Prospector, Ricardo Santana Jr., 122, 10-1; Taishan, David Cohen, 118, 15-1; Farmington Road, Javier Castellano, 118, 12-1; and Wells Bayou, Florent Geroux, 122, 7-2.
Jungle Runner and Code Runner, both campaigned by Asmussen and Calumet Farm, were supplementary nominees.