Even though the pace in the Grade 1, $1.25 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn might not collapse, the race contains enough speed to at least give the pacesetter and the few horses near him a stern test in the early stages. On paper, three specific horses have a chance to set the pace.
The speed horse most likely to lead is Harlocap, who makes his second start for trainer Steve Asmussen after chasing a fast pace in the Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds and fading to sixth. To show how fast the pace went, the pacesetter Determinedly led for the first two quarters and folded to last.
Harlocap previously ran for Bob Baffert in Southern California, but because Baffert still cannot earn Derby points, Harlocap needed a new trainer.
Under Baffert, Harlocap set the pace in two of three maiden starts. He ended up breaking his maiden in his third try Jan. 22 at Santa Anita by 4 1/2 lengths after enjoying an uncontested lead and opening up in the stretch.
Drawn right next to Harlocap in the gate at Oaklawn is Two Eagles River. For his first four starts, Two Eagles River competed as a stalker. He turned in good performances in those first four races, including a runner-up finish by a neck to Victory Formation in a Churchill Downs optional claimer and another runner-up finish by a head to Frosted Departure in the Renaissance Stakes at Oaklawn.
In Two Eagles River’s most recent start, he set the pace uncontested in a local one-mile optional claiming race and won by four lengths over Disarm, who went on to finish a good second in the Louisiana Derby (G2) and might start in the Kentucky Derby as a popular choice.
On the stretchout to nine furlongs, Two Eagles River is likely to contest the pace or even lead if the other speed horses end up breaking awkwardly. His trainer Chris Hartman shows high ratings across the board on TimeformUS, but this is a difficult task for his speed horse.
The third runner with good early speed is Reincarnate, another former Baffert-trained colt who needed to move to Tim Yakteen to earn Derby points.
In his one start under Yakteen, Reincarnate ran as a closer in the Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn after getting shuffled back in the initial quarter. But as shown in his Southern California races, Reincarnate does have good speed when he breaks well and avoids the traffic of a larger field.
In his Nov. 25 start in a one-mile maiden race at Del Mar, Reincarnate set the pace under pressure before prevailing by 3/4 of a length over stablemate Mr Fisk. Then in the Sham Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita on Jan. 8, Reincarnate contested the lead with Spun Intended and put him away before holding on and prevailing by a neck over his former stablemate Newgate, with his other former stablemate National Treasure in third.
Given Reincarnate’s traffic problems in the Rebel and his previous success as a speed horse, jockey John Velazquez is more probable to ask Reincarnate for his speed at the break in order to avoid traffic.
Those are the three main speed horses lined up in the Arkansas Derby. Harlocap runs as a naturally fast colt, and any horse who tries to go with him will feel the effects of the early pace. But at the same time, the pace probably will not completely collapse.
In all likelihood, the race will favor stalkers or mid-pack types, which means Rocket Can, Airtime and Bourbon Bash might secure the best spots to strike at the slightly compromised leaders. The two main deep closers Interlock Empire and Red Route One might find themselves in the mix late as well, but they will need to work harder from the rear.
Keep those thoughts in mind when handicapping the Arkansas Derby. This might end up as a race that gives all styles a shot. But the stalkers and mid-pack types still hold the edge over the front-runners and deep closers, if only because they get first strike at the leaders.