Photo: Coady Photography
It could be easily argued that in the 21st century, no Kentucky Derby prep has carried more importance than the Arkansas Derby. The bustling resort town of Hot Springs, Arkansas has consistently drawn quality horses, and in turn, Oaklawn Park’s signature race has been a great identifier of the crop’s top horses. In the past nine years alone, the Arkansas Derby has crowned future champions, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Lawyer Ron, and Curlin, but perhaps none of them roared down the Oaklawn stretch with as much authority as the most recent winner. Proving that you do not need to be old to be a legend, Bodemeister is the subject of today’s Arkansas Derby Legend.
Bodemeister’s career may have flashed across the national racing landscape much too quickly, but what he accomplished in a matter of four short months cannot be soon forgotten. Not making it to the races as a juvenile, the powerful son of Empire Maker finally started for the first time on January 16. Out of a Storm Cat mare named Untouched Talent, Bodemeister was bred in Virginia by Audley Farm and was sold as a yearling for $260,000. Purchased by Ahmed Zayat, the new Zayat Stables colt was sent to three-time Kentucky Derby winner, Bob Baffert to train. That debut performance turned out to be a loss, as the bay colt finished second to eventual stakes winner, American Act, in a fast 5 ½ furlong maiden race at Santa Anita, but it would be last time that the name Bodemeister was not familiar to most racefans.
Bodemeister took care of that by setting the Santa Anita track on fire with an inspired maiden breaking performance on February 11. The 9 ¼ length drubbing of a field full of well-liked youngsters going a mile created quite a stir from coast-to-coast. All of a sudden, Bodemeister was a hot new star on just about everyone’s Kentucky Derby list. On March 10, he continued his speedy ascent up the three-year-old division with a game second to one of the most highly regarded sophomores in the land, Creative Cause. In finishing within three-quarters of a length against the much more experienced foe, Bodemeister cracked the 100 point Beyer barrier for the second time in his brief career. It also confirmed the belief that this young horse was indeed Kentucky Derby material.
Baffert decided to send his new star out of town to best prepare for the Run for the Roses, and Hot Springs would be the destination. Sent off as the 2-1 favorite in a full field of eleven, Bodemeister would scorch the Arkansas earth that April afternoon. Leaving his rivals with nothing to do but search for their former egos, the Zayat runner, piloted for the first time by Mike Smith, sprinted under the wire a 9 1/2 length winner of the Arkansas Derby.
After his Arkansas magnum opus, the question was no longer whether Bodemeister was good enough, but rather if he could carry his high cruising speed successfully the full ten furlongs of the Kentucky Derby. Many thought he could, and Bodemeister was sent off the Derby favorite despite trying to become the first horse since 1882 to wear the roses after not having started as a two-year-old.
Last year’s Kentucky Derby did not exactly set up well for Bodemeister, what with eventual sprint champion Trinniberg hounding him through fractions thought to be too fast to last in the Derby. But Bodemeister kept cruising along and at the head of the stretch; he actually kicked clear to a sizable advantage. Finally those grueling fractions caught up with him and so did I’ll Have Another, who swooped by for the win in the closing stages of America’s most prestigious race.
Nothing but impressed with the performance, his connections brought him back two weeks later for the Preakness. With a more reasonable pace behind him, Bodemeister looked stronger in mid-stretch of racing’s Middle Jewel. But the outcome would be the same, as I’ll Have Another dug deep, in what I have no problem calling the race of the year, to win in the last few strides.
I would love to keep going with the recounting of excellent performances by Bodemeister, but of course, I cannot. First a fever sent him to the sidelines, and then a shoulder injury forced his ultimate retirement. He now stands for $30,000 at WinStar Farm in Kentucky, and is seeing his first group of broodmares this spring.
All in all, Bodemeister accomplished an awful lot in only four months, and six lifetime races. He never finished worse than a runner-up, including thrilling second place finishes to I’ll Have Another in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. In both of his wins, Bodemeister crossed the finish line like something very special in winning by more than nine lengths. The maiden win was a dazzler, but it was at Oaklawn Park and in the Arkansas Derby, that Bodemeister transformed himself from a horse with big potential into a true superstar. It was a performance that sent him to Louisville as the Kentucky Derby favorite after only four starts. It was a performance that made him an Arkansas Derby legend.