Wisener: Arkansas Derby day proves wet but worthwhile

By Bob Wisener, Special to HRN
April 17, 2019 10:26am
Mitole is so incredibly handsome, so extraordinarily fast that an Arkansan tends to forget certain things about the colt's heritage -- that its owners met at the University of Texas (Austin branch) and that his jockey wears burnt orange and white Texas-starred silks.

Bill and Corinne Heiligbrodt, married 55 years, are orangebloods to the core, which should bother only hardcore Arkansas Razorback fans who saw him race to a telling win in last weekend's Count Fleet Handicap at Oaklawn Park. Leading thoroughbred owners for more than 30 years, in the same decade that they dispersed their stable to devote time to family and other business interests, the Houston couple have a horse to see them into their golden years.

Mitole, a 4-year-old bay colt, proved as magnificent on a sloppy Oaklawn surface as inside the paddock before the biggest race of his career. Although a previous Oaklawn winner, Mitole was clearly intruding upon sacred ground insofar as horses are concerned. This was the Count Fleet, after all, and Whitmore looked to establish himself as the mightiest sprinter in Oaklawn history with a third straight win.

Though Whitmore did not make history, finishing second, his reputation was not diminished much. In a virtual match race, as this one was, a horse with speed from the gate wields a tremendous advantage over a come-from-behinder. Whitmore, on a track that he had won seven consecutive sprints and had not lost in three years, could not duel the faster Mitole into submission without sacrificing his greatest asset, a tremendous stretch kick.

At the wire, it was Mitole over Whitmore by 2 3/4 lengths after six furlongs in 1:09.36. There have been faster Count Fleets -- closer ones also -- but this one, the first meeting between Mitole and Whitmore, fulfilled its promise. We can only hope that both stay sound and meet again, perhaps with an Eclipse Award on the line in November's Breeders' Cup Sprint at Santa Anita Park in California.

Oaklawn got no break in the weather on its biggest day of the season, which an estimated 45,000 attended in the rain, but the racing did not suffer any for the wet conditions. April showers bring May flowers, we have heard since childhood, and whether for mothers on the month's second Sunday or the Kentucky Derby winner on its first Saturday, May's flower of choice is the rose.

To that end, the Arkansas Derby is sending some fine candidates to Churchill Downs for Derby 145 on May 4. A 3-year-old crop that has produced some unlikely stakes winners lacks a clear favorite, although perhaps the winner might come from meaningful renewals of Oaklawn's two major preps.

On class alone, Omaha Beach might rate an edge after sweeping the Grade 2 Rebel and Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, defeating a Bob Baffert-trained Grade 1 winner both times. After nosing out champion Game Winner in the Rebel and holding off Improbable by a length in the Derby, Omaha Beach might face in Louisville a third budding Baffert star in Roadster, the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby winner.

Game Winner and Improbable were both unbeaten before the Rebel, which Oaklawn graciously split into $750,000 divisions to accommodate horses displaced with the closure of Santa Anita. Both colts now have two losses, although a blinkered Improbable may have gained in stature after testing Omaha Beach in an 11-horse field, while Game Winner was collared in the stretch by stablemate Roadster in the Santa Anita Derby in a field of six.

Long Range Toddy, the Rebel first-division winner over Improbable by a neck with a peek-a-boo ride from Jon Court, did not threaten in the Arkansas Derby. But as for others with their tickets already punched to Louisville, the Oaklawn race was not the main objective. Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen is the best trainer not to win the Kentucky Derby -- unless it's Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who has two chances this year with multiple stakes winner Tactitus and Arkansas Derby show horse Country House.

Oaklawn patrons considered these options on a rare day-after-Derby at the races Sunday. There was even Preakness talk in the air with the winner of the May 4 Oaklawn Invitational qualifying for the second leg of the Triple Crown.

The racing Sunday could not have been better, Midnight Bisou gallantly winning the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap (Asmussen and Smith again) and Fight On, trained by Doug O'Neill, the Fifth Season. Jockey Tyler Baze won the Fifth Season by a nose and lost the Apple Blossom by the same margin. Someone described it once as the difference between a race and racing. 

 

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