Racing Festival Shippers Stretch Legs

Close Hatches Azeri 615 X 400
Photo: Coady Photography

The Racing Festival of the South participants from the stables of Bill Mott, Todd Pletcher and Mark Casse went out on the Oaklawn Park racing strip Wednesday morning to stretch their legs and are all acclimating nicely to their surroundings.

Azeri Stakes winner Close Hatches, the 3-5 morning line favorite for Friday’s Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) seemed as though she took Tuesday’s flight from Florida in stride and she never turned a hair.

“She’s an easy shipper. She’s settled in beautifully and is wonderful,” said Katie Caddel, Mott’s assistant. “She went one-turn around this morning and couldn’t be doing better.”

Juddmonte Farms’ striking 4yo dark bay daughter of First Defence will carry top weight of 121 pounds, including Joel Rosario, in the short but talented field of five fillies and mares traveling 1 1/16 miles for the $600,000 purse.

Commissioner and Danza, Pletcher’s pair for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1), and stable mates Golden Lad and Revolutuionary, who will run in the $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) also on Saturday, were on the same plane and also handled the trip without incident.

“Everybody shipped just fine and they all seem to be enjoying the colder weather here,” said Adele Bellinger, Pletcher’s assistant. “All four went out and galloped an easy mile this morning. Everything is right on schedule with each of them.”

Mrs. Paul Robsham’s homebred Golden Lad, the impressive 6 ¾ winner of the Razorback Handicap (G3) here Mar. 15, looks for his fifth consecutive win in the Oaklawn Handicap, and the multiple graded stakes winning Revolutionary most recently ran seventh in the Donn Handicap (G1), behind reigning champion Will Take Charge, who was second that day.

Commissioner, who took third in the Sunland Derby (G3) in his last race after breaking badly and then reportedly throwing a shoe, tries to earn enough points in the Arkansas Derby to propel him into the Kentucky Derby field. The WinStar Farm homebred, who has 10 points and is in 33rd place, can only get there with a big effort on Saturday when 170 (100-40-20-10 for firth through fourth) are there for the taking. Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners’ Danza also needs a top notch effort as the lightly-raced son of Street Boss has yet to compete in any of the Kentucky Derby qualifying races and consequently, has not earned any points to date.

Casse’s two Arkansas Derby runners, Conquest Titan and Thundergram, each galloped 1 ½ miles on Wednesday in preparation for their test at 1 1/8 miles and Conquest Titan was scheduled to school in the paddock on Thursday afternoon.

“Conquest Titan and I flew in from Louisville and the trip was uneventful,” said Norman Casse, who is his father’s top assistant. “Thundergram has been here for the meet and stayed behind for the Derby after we shipped the rest of our division to Kentucky.”

Conquest Stables’ Conquest Titan stands in the 36th spot for the Kentucky Derby with nine points and Saturday will also be his last chance to qualify for one of the 20 starting berths.

“Obviously, we’d love to run in the Kentucky Derby and this race presents that opportunity,” said Casse.

John Oxley’s Thundergram, who gets blinkers for the first time, broke his maiden here two starts back and then was second in a first level optional claiming race on Mar. 16 so he’s taking a significant class hike into Grade 1 company. Conquest Titan already has a stakes win on his resume.

“When he first came into serious training, I knew he was pretty special,” Casse said of Conquest Titan. “What that means is that he was playing a different game than the rest of our 2-year-olds. We were disappointed when he didn’t run well (4th) in the Tampa Bay Derby in his last start, but he broke his maiden by five-and-a-half lengths in a stakes (the Sywnford) in only his second start, so we think he’s really a special horse.”

Conquest Titan, who will be ridden by Hall of Famer Calvin Borel, will come from the back of the pack in a race that figures to have a lively pace that should involve Thundergram.

“I know that the Arkansas Derby will be a dog fight,” said Casse. “I hope that both Conquest Titan and Thundergram show up and run a good race. If so, we’ll be right there at the end.”

The field for the $1 million Arkansas Derby was drawn on Wednesday and from the rail out, with riders and odds,  is: Danza, Joe Bravo, 15-1; Knock Em Flat, Luis Quinonez, 20-1; Tapiture, Joel Rosario, 9-5; Ride on Curlin, Jon Court, 12-1; Thundergram, Norberto, Arroyo, Jr., 30-1; Commissioner, Mike Smith, 8-1; Conquest Titan, Calvin Borel, 10-1; Bayern, Gary Stevens, 2-1; String Mandate, Luis Saez, 9-2.

The flight carrying the contingent of California horses competing in the Racing Festival of the South arrived on the grounds Wednesday afternoon at 2:45 p.m.. Among those aboard were Bayern, who comes from Bob Baffert’s barn and Apple Blossom candidates Let Faith Arise, the Santa Margarita (G1) winner, and Stanwyck, who is trained by John Shirreffs, who is returning to Oaklawn for the first time since winning the Apple Blossom with 2010 Horse of the Zenyatta. 


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