Head to Head: Handicapping the 2023 Arkansas Derby

Head to Head: Handicapping the 2023 Arkansas Derby
Photo: Ted McClenning / Eclipse Sportswire

Oaklawn’s Grade 1, $1.25 million, 1 1/8-mile Grade 1 Arkansas Derby attracted a salty field of 11. Sham (G3) winner Reincarnate, Holy Bull (G3) winner Rocket Can, Risen Star (G2) winner Angel of Empire and Grade 1 placed Red Route One will duke it out for the lion’s share of the purse and 100 of the 200 available Kentucky Derby points.

The Arkansas Derby has become a prominent final prep for the run for the roses in recent years, particularly from 2010 onward. Triple Crown hero American Pharoah made Oaklawn’s signature race for 3-year-olds his final Kentucky Derby prep in 2015.

In 2019, Arkansas Derby runner-up Improbable was awarded fourth in Kentucky after the disqualification of Maximum Security. The 2017 winner Classic Empire was fourth at Churchill Downs, and third-place finisher Lookin At Lee was second in the Kentucky Derby. 2014 winner Danza was third in the Kentucky Derby, 2012 winner Bodemeister was second in the Kentucky Derby, 2011 runner-up Nehro also was second in Kentucky, and 2010 runner-up Super Saver won the Kentucky Derby.

Although rain is expected in Hot Springs, Ark., through Friday, Saturday will be sunny and windy with a high around 68 degrees and gusts up to 25 mph. Post time for the race, which is the 12th on the card, is 7:24 p.m. EDT.

Via Pedigree Power and From Coast to Coast, here are our selections for Oaklawn’s final Kentucky Derby prep.



1. Bourbon Bash (15-1)

Bourbon Bash has one win in nine tries but has hit the board four times. His worse finishes have been in graded stakes, and he lost ground in all starts at a mile and farther. Pass.


Bourbon Bash has not visited the winner’s circle since breaking his maiden back in August at Saratoga with a career-best 95 Brisnet Speed Rating. In three starts at Oaklawn, he has been off the board only once, and that was last out in the Rebel (G2) on a sloppy track. Even still, he ran fifth, beaten by just six lengths. If the track dries out enough, he’ll run his race, but I don’t think he’s good enough to beat the top contenders in this field. Pass.


2. Interlock Empire (20-1)

Interlock Empire’s speed ratings have improved in each start, culminating in a five-length, maiden victory in his last start. By Classic Empire out of a Curlin mare, Interlock Empire should enjoy running nine furlongs. Additionally, Ken McPeek has 29 percent win and 42 percent in-the-money rates with the last-out-maiden-winner-to-stakes angle. A further speed rating improvement could put this one-run closer in the bottom of the exotics, but there are others I like better. Pass.


Interlock Empire just graduated last out in his fourth career start. He’s run only at Oaklawn and is 4: 1-0-1 overall. His speed ratings have improved with each start, but I don’t think he’s ready for the big time yet. Pass.


3. Harlocap (15-1)

Harlocap hit a wall in the stretch of the 1 1/8-mile Risen Star (G2) and faded to 9 1/2 lengths out of it behind Angle Empire. Justify’s son is bred to go long but may not have the mindset. Or maybe he lost that special something he had in California. Pass.


Harlocap will be making his second start for trainer Steve Asmussen, who wins at a 13 percent clip with that angle and is 39 percent in the money. Last out Harlocap finished sixth in his stakes debut in what was a weird running of the Risen Star (G2). Two Phil’s, who was third in the Risen Star, just won the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) over the synthetic last weekend. However, Sun Thunder in second, Tapit’s Conquest in fourth and Single Ruler fifth, all of whom finished ahead of Harlocap in the Risen Star, ran back in the Louisiana Derby (G2) and finished fifth, seventh and 12th of 12, respectively. Harlocap was part of the average pace but could not resist the onslaught of the closers. Ricardo Santana Jr. hops aboard for the first time. Exotics.


4. Two Eagles River (10-1)

Two Eagles River has hit the board in all five starts and galloped home a four-length winner in his last outing. Who did he beat? Disarm, who returned to finish second in the Louisiana Derby. By second-crop sire, Preakness winner Cloud Computing out of a Majestic Warrior mare, Two Eagles River could handle the stretch-out. Live long shot. 


By Cloud Computing, Two Eagles River positively sparkled on debut, earning a 104 Brisnet Speed Rating for his 2 3/4-length win in a five-furlong, maiden race. He was second in his next two outings, losing by a neck and a head, and earning a 95 speed rating for each. Two starts back, he ran uncharacteristically poorly for him, finishing third, eight lengths behind the winner. He redeemed himself last out, however, taking a mile, optional claimer gate to wire, earning a 96-speed rating. Trainer Chris Hartman is just 5 percent in graded stakes and 21 percent in the money, but he’s 20 percent in routes, 51 percent in the money and 25 percent with last-race winners and 58 percent in the money. Certainly worth playing. Exotics.


5. Airtime (15-1)

Claimed two races ago for $50,000, Airtime stepped up to the $100,000 optional-claiming level for Robertino Diodoro and won by 1 1/4 lengths. Although his speed ratings are on the low end, the meet’s leading rider Cristian Torres retains the mount. Diodoro has a good claiming-to-stakes angle, hitting the board 50 percent of the time in the last five years. Live long shot. 


Airtime enters off two straight victories, both over this very track. He has previously lost to Angel of Empire in an allowance race. He earned a career-best 93 speed rating two starts back when he won a mile, optional claimer in the mud by 10 lengths, but he regressed in his last race. This will be his stakes debut, and trainer Robertino Diodoro is just 9 percent in graded stakes and 40 percent in the money. Pass.


6. Angel of Empire (9-2)

Angel of Empire didn’t get any respect in the Smarty Jones or Risen Star stakes. Classic Empire’s son has matured this year, and while his late-pace figures are low, he has my respect now. Contender.


Angel of Empire is not getting the respect he deserves at this point. While I do think he deserves some, it’s hard to take the Risen Star (G2) finish seriously when you look at the results of the Louisiana Derby (G2). By bad boy Classic Empire, this colt has only been out of the exacta once, and that was on the turf. He took second in the Smarty Jones and turned it into a win in the Risen Star, receiving a career-high 97 speed figure to boot. Granted, the pace inexplicably collapsed, but that is not a scenario this colt needs. I don’t think I need to expound on trainer Brad Cox’s stats. Flavien Prat is up for the first time and, paired with Cox, is winning at a 56 percent clip and is 67 percent in the money. Contender.


7. Rocket Can (4-1)

Rocket Can had his can handed to him by Forte in the Fountain of Youth (G2) and is searching for less formidable foes. Despite finishing second, the speed rating for the son of Into Mischief increased five points. When Bill Mott trainees fire consecutive bullets, pay attention. Contender.


Holy Bull (G3) winner and Fountain of Youth (G2) runner-up Rocket Can ships in from Florida seeking glory for Arkansas native Frank Fletcher. The son of Into Mischief had a rocky start to his career when sprinting at Saratoga, but since stretching out, he’s 4: 2-2-0. He absolutely ran his race in the Fountain of Youth but was just no match for Forte, who headlines Saturday’s Florida Derby (G1). He received a 98 in defeat, the highest last-race speed rating in the field. This will be his first start at Oaklawn, but Junior Alvarado remains aboard. Contender.


8. Reincarnate (5-2)

Reincarnate had a tough trip in the Rebel Stakes (G2). First, he was shuffled back at the start, and then he was cut off and had to steady at the eighth pole. However, he didn’t let it deter him, and the Tim Yakteen trainee kept going and earned third place, beaten just 2 1/2 lengths. Good Magic’s son never has finished out of the money and could win it with a good trip. Contender.


Reincarnate upset the Bob Baffert apple cart in the Sham (G3), winning as the longest shot of his stablemates. He ran a respectable third in the Rebel, closing from the back of the field along with winner and runner-up Confidence Game and Red Route One. This son of Good Magic typically runs on or near the lead, however, so that was a good showing of versatility on his part. I anticipate another good showing from this colt, who will be making his second start for Tim Yakteen. Contender.


9. King Russell (30-1)

Is King Russell an off-track specialist, or did Creative Cause’s son mature with racing? King Russell didn’t show much in his first two starts, but after some time off, he responded with two seconds and a win, all over off tracks. The Ron Moquett trainee graduated in his fifth start and picked a tough spot to face winners. Moquett has a 9 percent win rate with last-out maidens facing winners. Pass.


King Russell is another last out graduate, finally getting his picture taken in his fifth start. He lost a maiden event to Risen Star (G2) runner-up Sun Thunder on New Year’s Eve. He does seem to relish the Oaklawn oval, never having been out of the exacta in Hot Springs, even though he has notched fifth- and 10th-place finishes at Churchill Downs and Keeneland. This is his first foray into stakes company, and this is a solid field. Pass.


10. Red Route One (3-1)

Red Route One has recorded steady, speed-figure improvement in his last four starts. The one-run closer placed second in both the Southwest (G3) and the Rebel. Gun Runner’s son runs like he wants more distance and gets first-time blinkers. Contender.


Red Route One has run two consecutive seconds at Oaklawn, in the Southwest (G3) and Rebel. Trainer Steve Asmussen adds blinkers for the first time, an angle at which he wins at a 17 percent clip and is 41 percent in the money. The slop at Oaklawn has been no issue, and the Gun Runner colt earned a career-best 94 speed rating in defeat in the Rebel. Asmussen is also 16 percent with runners third off the layoff and 52 percent in the money. Contender.


11. Kolomio (30-1)

Keith Desormeaux got Kolomio from a $50,000 optional claimer in a turf-mile contest at Santa Anita. Kolomio had every chance to pass the winner but didn’t. Desormeaux trained Constitution’s son for his first two starts on dirt, but the colt was transferred to Vladimir Cerin soon after. Then he hit the board 3 of 4 turf starts. This is an odd placement for Kolomio, whose dam is a full sister to graded-stakes winning turf mare Holiday for Kitten. Pass.


Kolomio began his career by sprinting on the dirt to no avail and was switched to the lawn, where he broke his maiden in start four. He is back with Keith Desormeaux, who is 24 percent with turf-to-dirt runners. In his previous attempt in graded company, he finished eighth in the turf mile Cecil B. DeMille (G3). I don’t think the switch back to dirt is going to help this gelding. Pass.


Final thoughts

Laurie: In the last decade, no Arkansas Derby winner finished worse than fourth in his final prep. Most prepped in the Rebel, the Holy Bull or an allowance event, and most were pace pressers. Seven gained ground in their last race.

Nine of 10 favorites hit the board; seven won, and two placed third.

This is the kind of race that makes me want to hang the past performances on the wall and throw darts. I see four who should hit the board. Two of them, Two Eagles River and Airtime, are live long shots.

Reincarnate impressed me with his ability to overcome trouble in the stretch of the Rebel Stakes. Rocket Can couldn’t be working any better, and although he wasn’t a match for Forte in the Fountain of Youth, he finished a clear second.

Ashley: I’ve liked Red Route One in his last two races, so I’m not hopping off the wagon now. The addition of blinkers really could elevate his game and get him across the wire first rather than settling for second. Reincarnate ran well on this track last out, so I anticipate much of the same from him. Rocket Can and Angel of Empire are obvious threats.

Look for Harlocap to go for the early lead with Two Eagles River and Rocket Can to go with him. Reincarnate also could be in the mix early, but as we saw in the Rebel, he has proven he can run a good race from off the pace.

Reincarnate is the tepid, morning-line favorite off his Rebel loss. He was shuffled back early and then encountered traffic, including being checked. Although he had to take up and regain momentum, Red Route One was able to go right on by to get second, while Reincarnate had to settle for third. That was a crucial moment to have to take up, but I think Red Route One would have gone on by anyway.

Initially, he was not in my top four, but I talked myself off Angel of Empire just because none of the colts who finished immediately behind him in the Risen Star ran well in his next outing except for Two Phil’s, who won over a synthetic track.




  7. Rocket Can (4-1)

10. Red Route One (3-1)

  4. Two Eagles River (10-1)

  7. Rocket Can (4-1)

  8. Reincarnate (5-2)

  6. Reincarnate (5-2)

10. Red Route One (3-1)

  4. Two Eagles River (10-1)

Meet Ashley Tamulonis

Despite growing up in a non-horse racing state, Ashley has been a fan of the sport since a young age. Her love for horse racing was fostered through the kids’ book series Thoroughbred by Joanna Campbell, which led her to educate herself on the ins and outs of the sport. Since becoming actively involved in the industry just a few years ago, Ashley has had the opportunity to meet many important players in the industry, attend the Eclipse Awards, see personal favorite Mucho Macho Man race twice in person, and befriend many of the fantastic fans and horsemen involved in the sport.

Ashley began her time with Horse Racing Nation covering racing in South Florida but also blogged about nationwide racing, industry issues and, from time to time, offered her opinion on how various changes could be beneficial to the industry. A move North to New Hampshire began both a new chapter in both Ashley's personal life and professional life. She currently pens the From Coast to Coast blog for HRN. Ashley also participates as a voter in the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Polls.

An alumni of Macon State College, Ashley is from Central Georgia but is currently living in New Hampshire with her husband, Chris, and their two sons Charlie and Michael. A stay-at-home mom, Ashley juggles parenting with blogging and her other passions. Aside from horse racing, Ashley is a fervent football fan, enjoys reading and studying history, and hopes to someday author a historical work covering the Tudor period as well as biographies of horse racing’s stars, equine and human alike.

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