by Johnny D
April 11, 2019
Last Saturday’s sophomore action was torrid. From coast-to-coast. Right to left. Big Apple to Hollywood with a brief Lexington layover. Wood to Blue Grass to Santa Anita Derby. Or, if you prefer, Tacitus, Vekoma to Roadster. The big gamble for starting berths in the Kentucky Derby is nearly complete—33 down, 1 cancelled and 2 to go—Lexington Stakes at Keeneland and Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn. The former is worth just 34 total points toward a coveted seat at the final table below the Twin Spires. The latter is a high-stakes affair worth 170 total points. What makes matters even more interesting is that most of those seated at the table really need the money.
No 3-year-old has dominated this season. So, as dust clears, 2-year-old champ Game Winner remains the one at the table holding tall stacks. He’s called every raise, so far, but hasn’t frightened anyone into folding. He’s had some bad beats. Close calls. Where a different card here or there would have made the difference between victory or defeat. With two losses in as many tries, this time around Game Winner’s clearly not holding ‘the nuts.’ However, rest assured that he won’t back down from a fight, either. Most recent to outdraw the champ was stablemate Roadster Saturday in the Santa Anita Derby. Before that Omaha Beach, a fellow California resident trained by Hall-of-Famer Richard Mandella, successfully called his bluff in Oaklawn’s Rebel Stakes.
Among leading chip-holders also is Xpressbet Florida Derby winner Maximum Security. He’s got dangerous early speed in a Kentucky Derby scenario that might find the commodity in short supply. Amazingly, Maximum Security and Game Winner share common ownership in Gary and Mary West. Since Maximum Security came out of nowhere—successful in a $16k maiden race--some feel he may be bluffing. However, those he clobbered last out in the Xpressbet Florida Derby regret calling his raise.
Looking to improve his hand on the river this weekend at Oaklawn is Improbable, another colt that shares Baffert’s shedrow with Game Winner and Roadster. He may be the best player seated at this weekend’s tables. Then again, maybe not. Previously mentioned Omaha Beach, a bit of a slow learner that broke maiden in his fifth attempt, now knows how to play the game.
Riveting poker hands, especially those awarding seats at the final table in the Kentucky Derby, come down to the ‘river.’ The final card. Omaha Beach and Improbable enter the Arkansas Derby with the most ‘outs.’ Fourth-best or better probably puts the former in the main event. The latter must finish first or second to join the party. In Kentucky, Anothertwistafate or Sueno must win the Lexington or they’ll watch the Kentucky Derby on television.
Below is one man’s horse-by-horse analysis of the Arkansas Derby with Selections.
Arkansas Derby—11th at Oaklawn 7:43 pm ET
1. Improbable (Baffert/Ortiz) - 8/5
Three wins in four starts—all at less than even-money odds--including a neck defeat last out by Long Range Toddy, make this one a legit favorite. That he’s trained by Bob Baffert, the unofficial king of Oaklawn sophomore stakes races, doesn’t hurt. Blinkers and jockey Jose Ortiz go on for this race. The blinkers hopefully will keep the colt focused in the lane, correcting an issue that may have contributed to his defeat. Drayden Van Dyke, who had ridden the colt in all four previous races, will sit this one out. Baffert’s not averse to switching to top jocks for big races, so the change isn’t a criticism of Van Dyke as much as homage to multiple Eclipse Award-winner Ortiz. Since his loss in the Rebel Improbable has worked two bullets at Santa Anita—March 30, best-of-24 1:12 4/5 and April 5, best-of-8 1:14. From the rail with blinkers on Improbable should show more speed and be in the thick of things from the start. He’s not a favorite I’m eager to attempt to beat.
2. Six Shooter (Holthus/Cohen) - 30/1
Here’s a durable son of Trappe Shot that’s raced 10 times with 3 wins and 4 thirds. He’s raced at least once a month since a September debut where he was claimed for $20k. He tries, but he appears to lack the talent to outrun these. He does have a bullet, best-of-46 in 1:00 2/5 over the Oaklawn surface.
3. Omaha Beach (Mandella/Smith) - 2/1
There’s an old racing adage that says, ‘Once the light goes on (in a horse’s head) anything can happen.’ For Omaha Beach the switch was flipped in his next-to-last race when he finally won his fifth maiden attempt by 9 lengths. Before that he had finished a close second in 3 of 4 starts. After the win he returned to take the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes over 2-year-old champ Game Winner. For a maiden winner to bag a Grade 2 next out over a champion suggests that more than a mere light went on. That’s closer to a high-beam! Can this son of War Front land another top effort? Like Improbable he’s worked two bullets at Santa Anita since the Rebel: March 29, best-of-25 :47 4/5 and April 6, best-of-45 1:00 3/5. He’s got enough speed to be in the mix from the break, and the 3-hole draw seems ideal. Hall-of-Fame rider Mike Smith returns in the saddle. The colt’s talented, doing well, no doubt, but he’ll need to keep improving to win this.
4. Tikhvin Flew (Asmussen/Baze) - 30/1
In stakes races nationwide, no trainer throws more against the wall hoping for something to stick than Steve Asmussen. It’s understandable that owners want to get to the Kentucky Derby and that funny things happen in horse races, but the Hall-of-Fame trainer sometimes really pushes the envelope. He’s entered four in here, three with little chance and contender Long Range Toddy. What’s notable is that, Asmussen’s best shot, is marooned on the far outside in the 11-hole—with better inside postings occupied by barn-mates.
5. Laughing Fox (Asmussen/Santana Jr.) - 20/1
Dispatched at 9.20-to-1 in Omaha Beach’s division of the Rebel, Laughing Fox had trouble at the start and never recovered. Before that he had won two races at Oaklawn—a maiden and first-level allowance. He boasts a muddy bullet, best-of-22, :48 1/5 at Oaklawn April 8. If things get too hot up front he’s got a closing style that might work to pick up a piece of the exotics.
6. Gray Attempt (Fires/Elliott) - 8/1
Here’s the speed of the field. He’ll go the front and dare anyone to run with him. He’s won 4 out of 6 and is 2-for-3 at Oaklawn, but that loss came in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at a mile and one-sixteenth. At this level there’s a question about how far he can capably run. He’s got a muddy track bullet, best-of-8, April 5 at Oaklawn in :58 3/5.
7. Galilean (Hollendorfer/Prat) - 10/1
Here’s an interesting runner. He’s won 3 of 5 races and was third beaten less than 3 lengths in Long Range Toddy’s Rebel. He was 3.60-to-1 contender’s odds in there. Before that in his first 3-year-old start he absolutely crushed fellow state-breds in the Cal Cup Derby at Santa Anita. He’s trained by Hall-of-Famer Jerry Hollendorfer and ridden by rising star Flavian Prat. Blinkers come off for this. Expect him to be near the early pace. At anywhere near morning-line price of 10-1 he’s worth a exotics look.
8. Country House (Mott/Rosario) - 12/1
Second in the Grade 2 Risen Star this son of Lookin At Lucky has no speed and will need to navigate a path home. He has only a maiden race win on his resume and was a well-beaten fourth in the Louisiana Derby last out while wide. He could pick up pieces in exotics at a price.
9. One Flew South (O'Neill/Borel) - 50/1
There’s nothing on paper to suggest that this son of Giant’s Causeway can handle these.
10. Jersey Agenda (Asmussen/Vazquez) - 30/1
At nearly 31-1 Jersey Agenda had some trouble in Omaha Beach’s Rebel. Before that he encountered some difficulty on the first turn of the Southwest Stakes at contender-odds of 5.10-to-1. Both his maiden and first-level allowance successes came on or near the lead and that position will be occupied in here. Expect an early fade for this one.
11. Long Range Toddy (Asmussen/Court) - 5/1
He was a mild surprise when defeating Improbable by a neck in the Rebel. Before that he was third in the Southwest, second by a neck in the Smarty Jones and winner of Remington Park’s Springboard Mile. Clearly, he’s durable and talented. The major question in here is can he repeat that last effort or was it a one-off? His running style and this post position suggest that he will be forced wide on the first turn. That won’t help his chances. From where we sit he’s not worth the chance at a short price.
The One to Beat: 1. Improbable
Next Best: 3. Omaha Beach
Price Play: 7. Galilean
For Exotic Lovers Only: 2. Six Shooter 5. Laughing Fox 8. Country House