Head to Head: Handicapping the Arkansas Derby

Head to Head: Handicapping the Arkansas Derby
Photo: Coady Photography

The Arkansas Derby (G1) marks the last major Kentucky Derby prep, and in the past several years, colts who factored in this race often went on to do big things on the first Saturday in May. Unless we see an upset Saturday at Oaklawn Park, the same should hold true this year with a field of 11, including the winners of both Rebel Stakes (G2) divisions, returning.

Before getting to the handicapping, not that front-running speed rarely holds up in the Arkansas Derby. In the last 20 years, 10 horses won either on the lead or while pressing the pacesetter. In the last five years, only American Pharoah and Magnum Moon won on the lead.

Rain is in the forecast, with Smarty Jones' 2004 victory the last time the Arkansas Derby ran over a muddy track. He broke from post 11, pressed the pace and took over at the 3/4 pole. Balto Star also caught a muddy track in 2001 and led them gate to wire. Something to think about.

So will the Arkansas Derby provide a new contender for the Kentucky Derby, or will a colt that’s already in make a big statement heading into May? Laurie Ross of Pedigree Power and I take a look at the field:




Improbable — Things were against this big chestnut colt in the Rebel. He was making his first start of the year and sat wide the entire way. Despite this, he just missed by a neck to a horse who skimmed the rail. Trainer Bob Baffert responded by giving Improbable two stamina-building breezes. Will the colt regress slightly from flying into Oaklawn for the second time. He could. But Improbable's talented enough to beat most of these, even on an off day. He also sports a nice pedigree for an off track. Win contender.

Improbable — The good news is that he now has a race under his girth for the year, and his training has not been further interrupted by happenings at Santa Anita Park. Additionally, Baffert is sending Improbable out with blinkers for the first time. His best dirt speed is the fastest in the field, and having drawn the rail, he shouldn’t have to deal with an underrated aspect of Oaklawn Park's biggest race day: a massive crowd. Contender.

Six Shooter — He hasn’t won beyond a mile, and pedigree says 1 1/8 miles is too far. He's also winless at Oaklawn against lesser. I expect he’ll be firing blanks in the stretch. Pass.

Six Shooter — While this son of Trappe Shot has not embarrassed himself on the track, he also has not proven he can hang with the big boys when the running gets serious. Pass.

Omaha Beach — The son of War Front handed Game Winner his first defeat by a nose in the second division of the Rebel. Now he takes on the champ's stablemate. His speed figures have improved in each start, and he has the pedigree to love nine furlongs. As a winner over the track, Omaha Beach also sees Mike Smith return to ride. Win contender.

Omaha Beach — In addition to a local victory, Omaha Beach owns a wet track win by open lengths back home at Santa Anita. Between races, he fired two bullet five-furlong works. Thankfully the trip from California to Arkansas is a lot less perilous than crossing the English Channel to take Normandy. A repeat effort would see this invader conquer Oaklawn’s top Derby prep. Win contender.

Tikhvin Flew — Listed and Graded 3 horses at Aqueduct are too tough for him, so why not take on top company at Arkansas? Maybe 30 or 40 years ago this would have been a good move. Is Steve Asmussen just trying to stuff the entry box? Pass.

Tikhvin Flew — Normally I would not question Asmussen, but I'm doubting this colt's fit in the Arkansas Derby. He'd factor more in allowance company. Pass.

Laughing Fox — He had a little trouble at the start of the Rebel Stakes, but not enough to warrant his finish. Laughing Fox should handle the distance. His sire won the Belmont Stakes, and his dam is multiple stakes placed between 1 1/8 to 1 1/2 miles. Maybe he needs a do-over. If there’s a hot pace up front, he’ll be running late. His pedigree for mud is average, but he worked a bullet breeze over a wet track entering. Exotics.

Laughing Fox — I’m really not sure what to do with this one. I agree with Laurie that the trouble he found in the Rebel (G2) should not have warranted a seventh-place finish given the pre-race hype. Maybe he just gave up? Asmussen does still have his go-to jockey, Ricardo Santana Jr., aboard this colt. Definitely consider for exotics.

Gray Attempt — He has a sprinter/miler pedigree, and tired badly in his only start around two turns. While sporting a nice pedigree for the off going, he should help ensure a lively pace but looks up against it distance-wise. Could hold on for a minor award.

Gray Attempt — I just do not think Gray Attempt is going to want any part of 1 1/8 miles. I expect he’ll hit a brick wall at about the quarter pole. No thanks.

Galilean — The king of the California-bred circuit gave a good account in the Rebel. He was always in contention, but just couldn’t keep up with the top pair, finishing 2 1/2 lengths out of it. Jerry Hollendorfer takes the blinkers off this son of Uncle Mo. Galilean has a very good off-track pedigree, and another nice effort will see him picking up a check, but likely not for the win. Exotics.

Galilean — Though he did not win his division of the Rebel, Galilean did prove he could handle open company. The mud and blinkers off may move him up, but I like others in this field better. Use underneath.

Country House — He takes his sweet time coming out of the gate, which leaves him with too much to do later in the race. Zenyatta he’s not. Country House’s Brisnet Speed Ratings have improved in each race, but he got a wide trip in the Louisiana Derby and will likely get the same here, just going longer. His sire’s mud stats are average, but half siblings have hit the board in five of six off track starts. Maybe lower exotics, with a good trip.

Country House — Bill Mott is desperately seeking Derby points, as Country House just ran in the Louisiana Derby (G2) three weeks ago. A fast enough pace may help him get there, but I think I like him going longer in the future. Exotics.

One Flew South — Derby fever brings them out of the woodwork. Or in this case, California. Two lifetime starts, the last in February when he showed speed and fade in the Mine That Bird Derby. Instead of Flying to Oaklawn, he shoulda flown south, maybe to Lone Star for a nice allowance race. Pass.

One Flew South — So, Calvin Borel's still riding? One Flew South is definitely no Rachel Alexandra, regardless of equipment changes. He couldn’t hang in New Mexico, so he’s definitely not going to wow us here. Pass.

Jersey Agenda — This miler found trouble in the Southwest (G3) and Rebel stakes and finished 10 lengths out of it both times. A jockey switch to Ramon Vazquez is a step back from Ortiz and Santana. He did win on a sloppy track, so maybe he can hang on for lower exotics. 

Jersey Agenda — They could run an Asmussen division of this race. But it looks like quantity, not quality. This one belongs in the former category, at least at this distance. Pass.

Long Range Toddy — Known as the horse who handed Improbable his first defeat. The outside post guarantees a wide trip, but his pedigree is good for 1 1/8 miles and average for an off track. If he can settle off what may be a fast pace, he has a good shot. Contender.

Long Range Toddy — I liked this colt before he defeated Improbable, and that victory just made me like him more. The post position is far from ideal, but I believe he can overcome it with a nice, relaxed stalking trip. Contender.

Final Thoughts

If form holds, there’s a lot of early speed in the Arkansas Derby. The few times the Arkansas Derby was held over an off track, speed held. Gray Attempt, Omaha Beach and Galilean could be prominent early. Improbable will likely settle directly behind the pace setters unless Jose Ortiz can get him outside. I see it as a tossup between Improbable, Omaha Beach and Long Range Toddy. If all three run their race, it comes down to who gets the best trip.

Steve Asmussen is taking four shots in here, and I like Long Range Toddy best of them. I think he can get a good trip and stay out of trouble from the outside. Omaha Beach and Improbable are obvious contenders, but this is Toddy’s home track.


 Laurie Ashley
 #1 Improbable (8-5)  #11 Long Range Toddy (5-1)
 #3 Omaha Beach (2-1) #3 Omaha Beach (2-1)
 #11 Long Range Toddy (5-1)  #1 Improbable (8-5)
 #7 Galilean (10-1)    #8 Country House (12-1) 

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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