Photo: Benoit Photo
With $1 million in purse money up for grabs and coveted points for a berth in the Kentucky Derby to be earned, 10 tough and talented 3-year-olds from across the country will line up in the gate at Oaklawn Saturday for the 77th edition of the prestigious Arkansas Derby (G1).
The Arkansas Derby is the highlight of the Racing Festival of the South as well as the featured 10th of 12 live races on Saturday’s card, which also includes the $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2), the $250,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3) and the $100,000 Northern Spur Stakes.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who is seeking his second straight Arkansas Derby, is sending Den’s Legacy, third in Oaklawn’s $600,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) March 16, back from California for the Arkansas Derby and will add firepower to his arsenal with War Academy, a lightly raced but rapidly improving colt, who was made the 2-1 morning line favorite on virtue of his flashy allowance win at Santa Anita March 15 and his similarities to last year’s winner Bodemeister.
Baffert trains Den’s Legacy for Westrock Stable LLC, which is owned by the father and son team of Scott and Joe Ford from Little Rock, AR. Den’s Legacy has earned 20 points in the new system to qualify for the Kentucky Derby and could vault up the ladder with the 100-40-20 points at stake for a top three finish based on Churchill Downs’ system to select the Kentucky Derby starters. War Academy, with last year’s Arkansas Derby winning jockey Mike Smith in the irons, has no points currently and would almost need a win in order to secure his place in the Kentucky Derby.
Todd Pletcher has dispatched Overanalyze, a two-time Grade 2 winner in New York, from the East Coast and Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who has been based here for the meet, will saddle Oxbow, the second place-finisher in the Rebel when stable mate Will Take Charge bested him by only a head.
Oxbow, owned by historic Calumet Farm and currently standing with 36 points, could give Lukas his third Arkansas Derby victory but first since he took back-to-back editions with the filly Althea (1984) and Tank’s Prospect (1985). Gary Stevens, who was aboard Tank’s Prospect, is jetting from California to partner with Oxbow for the first time now that he has come back from retirement.
Oxbow, the 5-2 second choice, has never traveled farther than 1 1/16 mile but the son of Awesome Again and grandson of Cee’s Tizzy is bred to relish the 1 1/8 mile distance as he stretches out. Breaking from the far outside, Stevens will have the opportunity to let the field settle as they make their run into the first turn.
Overanlayze, who has already won a Grade 2 race at the exact distance, is also getting a new rider. Pletcher, who is going after his third win in the race after Graeme Hall (2000) and Balto Star (2001) collected the trophy in consecutive years, gave the call to Rafael Bejarano after John Velazquez was injured in a spill last weekend and sidelined.
Overanalyze has been overshadowed of late by stable mates Verrazano and Revolutionary. He disappointed as the short-priced favorite last time out in the $400,000 Gotham Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct as he faded to fifth, but the colt has every reason to step up on Saturday. He currently has earned 10 points and needs a top three finish to punch his ticket to the Kentucky Derby.
“Overanalyze seems to have moved forward in his training since the Gotham,” said Pletcher. “We expect improvement in his second start after the layoff. Rafael has had a lot of success at Oaklawn Park and we were lucky to get him on short notice.”
Steve Asmussen, currently the third leading trainer in North America behind Pletcher and Baffert, will walk Carve over from his barn on the backside, and Divine Ambition, Falling Sky, Frac Daddy, Heaven’s Runway, Looking Cool and Texas Bling complete the highly competitive field.
Falling Sky, with 20 points, is another who needs a big effort on Saturday to advance to Churchill Downs. The 10-1 shot will break from post 4 and is expected to contest the pace as New York-based trainer John Terranova starts his first horse at Oaklawn.
Texas Bling, the most experienced runner in the field with 13 starts, is 20-1 in the line but he may have a bit of home field advantage with new jockey Calvin Borel since Danele Durham has sent him out over the Oaklawn strip his last three times out.
Another horse which may prove to be a wild card is 15-1 shot Frac Daddy, who didn’t show much in either of his starts this year in the $400,000 Holy Bull Stakes (G3) and the $1 million Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park. Nonetheless, the son of Scat Daddy has had a tough go of it as he suffered a throat ulcer and then a hoof injury that impeded his progress.
“That’s an understatement,” said trainer Ken McPeek. “But he seems to be doing fine now. We figured why not give him one more chance? I have Java’s War running in the Blue Grass (at Keeneland on the Polytrack) and I didn’t want to switch him to the Poly. The (track) surface at Oaklawn is comparable to that at Churchill.”
Frac Daddy, who will break from post 8 under Victor LeBron, suggests that his running style will have him poised right behind the leaders and be poised to make a bold move when the running gets serious. “That’s what we hope for. He’s got a chance,” said McPeek, who also sends out Atigun and Unstoppable U in the Oaklawn Handicap on the under card. The complete Arkansas Derby field, in program order, with riders and morning line odds is: Carve, Ricardo Santana, Jr., 20-1; War Academy, Mike Smith, 2-1; Divine Ambition, James Graham, 20-1; Falling Sky, Martin Garcia, 10-1; Den’s Legacy, Robby Albarado, 6-1; Heaven’s Runway, Israel Ocampo, 30-1; Texas Bling, Calvin Borel, 20-1; Frac Daddy, Victor Lebron, 15-1; Overanalyze, Rafael Bejarano, 4-1 and Oxbow, Gary Stevens, 5-2.