Saturday’s $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park is the last major prep race for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands three weeks later. It will be a make-or-break race for several contenders who need additional qualifying points for the May 6 classic.
The Arkansas Derby, which has in recent years been arguably the most important prep race in determining Kentucky Derby winners, offers qualifying points on a 100-40-20-10 scale to the top four finishers. Classic Empire, who easily won the Eclipse Award as 2016 champion 2-year-old male but has only raced once this year and has had training issues, headlines a competitive field in the Arkansas Derby, which has a post time of 7:18 p.m. ET and will be televised by TVG.
Pedigree: Midshipman – Ruthie the Rocket, by Confide
Color: Gray or Roan
Running style: Pace
Notable achievements and interesting facts: He’s shipping in from California with the goal of becoming the second 2017 Kentucky Derby starter for the J. Paul Reddam-Doug O’Neill tandem, who earned a shot at winning their third run for the roses together last week when Irap scored an upset win in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. Rockin Rudy won his career debut last August in a 5 ½-furlong maiden claiming race on dirt at Del Mar and then did not race until February, when he returned to make his next two starts on turf. He’s posted runner-up finishes in both of those races, which were sprints contested on Santa Anita Park’s downhill turf course, and also earned triple-digit Equibase Speed Figures in those starts. He’s flashed early speed in all three of his career races, and should be a pace factor in the early stages of Saturday’s Arkansas Derby at the least.
2. Classic Empire (8-5)
Jockey: Julien Leparoux
Trainer: Mark Casse
Owner: John Oxley
Career record: 6 starts – 4 wins – 0 seconds – 1 third
Career earnings: $1,520,220
Earnings per start: $253,370
Pedigree: Pioneerof the Nile – Sambuca Classica, by Cat Thief
Running style: Press
Notable achievements and interesting facts: Last year’s champion 2-year-old male enters the Arkansas Derby currently ranked 21st on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 32 qualifying points. All eyes will be on Classic Empire given his lackluster third-place performance in the Feb. 4 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes and the fact that he refused to train shortly after that. He seems to have rebounded in his training since then, posting three solid works in a row at Winding Oaks Farm, and if he’s back to his top form will be a major threat on Saturday as he has shown the ability to rate just off of the pace in two-turn races and make a punishing move to take command at just the right time. Owner John Oxley won the 2001 Kentucky Derby with Monarchos, and he has teamed up with Mark Casse to win stakes races with several top-class horses in recent years, including Grade 1 winner Noble Bird.
Notable achievements and interesting facts: Earned a career-high 101 Equibase Speed Figure in his most recent start, when he made up some ground late in the stretch to finish fifth in the Rebel Stakes. Has posted two sharp workouts at Oaklawn Park since that race but faces a major challenge on Saturday. He will need a top-two finish in the Arkansas Derby to solidify his Kentucky Derby spot as he currently has exactly one qualifying point, earned when he ran fourth in the Southwest Stakes. Trainer Randy Morse is based at Oaklawn and ranks 11thin earnings and 10th in wins at the Hot Springs, Ark., track through April 11. This colt brought the highest price at auction among the Arkansas Derby starters, as owner Tom Durant spent $510,000 to acquire him at the OBS March sale of 2-year-olds in training. 4. Petrov (12-1)
Jockey: Ricardo Santana Jr.
Trainer: Ron Moquett
Owners: Rialto Racing Stables, Southern Springs Stables, et al.
Notable achievements and interesting facts: This horse has put forth good efforts in his last four races – all stakes – without a win. He currently has 13 Kentucky Derby points and needs to finish at least third in the Arkansas Derby to move forward. At Oaklawn, he’s finished second to Uncontested in the Smarty Jones Stakes, second to One Liner in the Southwest Stakes, and fourth (in a three-horse photo) behind Malagacy in the Rebel Stakes. Trainer Ron Moquett currently ranks second in earnings at Oaklawn behind Steve Asmussen and fifth in wins (through April 11). Last year, he trained Whitmore to a third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby, and his Far Right finished second behind American Pharoah in the 2015 renewal. Jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. leads the current Oaklawn meet by both earnings and wins through April 11 and is shooting for his fifth consecutive leading rider title at the track. He won his first Arkansas Derby last year aboard Creator, the eventual Belmont Stakes winner. 5. Grandpa’s Dream (30-1)
Jockey: Alex Canchari
Trainer: Chris Hartman
Owner: Wayne Scherr
Career record: 4 starts – 1 win – 0 seconds – 1 third
Career earnings: $55,766
Earnings per start: $13,942
Pedigree: Shackleford – Haylie Brae, by Bernardini
Running style: Pace/Press
Notable achievements and interesting facts: Will test the deep Arkansas Derby waters after breaking his maiden in his fourth career start on March 25 at Oaklawn. In that 1 1/16-mile race, he dueled for the lead throughout before winning by a head with Alex Canchari aboard for the first time. In his three previous starts, all during the Oaklawn meet, he was defeated by a combined margin of 42 lengths. This colt is the second Arkansas Derby entrant by young sire Shackleford, joining Malgagacy. His second dam (maternal grandmother) is a full-sister to the great Hall of Famer Dance Smartly, who won the Canadian Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Another notable member of this family is the late leading sire Smart Strike. 6. Lookin At Lee (15-1)
Jockey: Luis Contreras
Trainer: Steve Asmussen
Owner: L and N Racing
Career record: 8 starts – 2 wins – 2 seconds – 1 third
Career earnings: $352,795
Earnings per start: $44,099
Pedigree: Lookin At Lucky – Langara Lass, by Langfuhr
Running style: Closer
Notable achievements and interesting facts: This one-run type will need a swift pace to make any impression in the Arkansas Derby, and with 12 current qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby, he’ll also need to finish no worse than third to move on to Louisville. He must recapture the form he showed in his career-best race – when he closed stoutly to finish second behind Classic Empire in last October’s Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland – to have any chance Saturday. Leading Oaklawn Park trainer Steve Asmussen has won the Arkansas Derby three times – with Private Emblem in 2002, with eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin in 2007, and last year with Creator. 7. Sonneteer (15-1)
Notable achievements and interesting facts: He shipped in from California to light up the toteboard as the 112.30-1 runner-up to Malagacy in the Rebel Stakes on March 18. That gave him 20 Kentucky Derby qualifying points, so he would need to finish at least third, and ideally better than that, for his connections to feel good about their chances to advance on the Triple Crown trail. He’s still a maiden but has knocked heads with several highly regarded Southern California horses since last fall, including a good second behind recent Santa Anita Derby third-place finisher Royal Mo at Del Mar in November. Trainer Keith Desormeaux won the Preakness Stakes and two other Grade 1s last year with Exaggerator, with brother Kent riding. Owner-breeder Brad Kelley’s rebooted Calumet Farm is also represented on this year’s Road to the Kentucky Derby by Sunland Derby winner Hence and by Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby runner-up Patch.
Pedigree: Warrior’s Reward – Lovely Sage, by Gentlemen
Color: Dark Bay or Brown
Running style: Closer
Notable achievements and interesting facts: He has hit the board in seven of nine career starts but hasn’t been much of a threat as a win candidate since shipping from Remington Park to Oaklawn Park over the winter. Since then, he’s run third in the Smarty Jones Stakes, ninth in the Southwest Stakes, and third again in a one-mile allowance-optional claiming race in his most recent start on March 18. Trainer Donnie Von Hemel has been a fixture on the Midwest circuit for years, and his horse Suddenbreakingnews made some waves on last year’s Kentucky Derby trail by winning the Southwest Stakes, finishing second in the Arkansas Derby, and then checking in fifth in the Kentucky Derby. Another Oaklawn veteran, Luis Quinonez, was aboard Suddenbreakingnews for all three of those races and will ride Rowdy the Warrior on Saturday.
9. Untrapped (6-1)
Jockey: Mike Smith
Trainer: Steve Asmussen
Owner: Michael Langford
Career record: 5 starts – 1 win – 3 seconds – 1 third
Career earnings: $256,800
Earnings per start: $51,360
Pedigree: Trappe Shot – Exit Three, by Giant’s Causeway
Color: Dark Bay or Brown
Running style: Press/Stalk
Notable achievements and interesting facts: He’s accumulated 34 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby with three consecutive placings in graded stakes preps, but will need to show more to head to Churchill Downs with any credible shot at winning the run for the roses. He did earn a career-high 103 Equibase Speed Figure in his most recent start, when he loomed a threat to Malagacy at the top of the stretch in the March 18 Rebel Stakes, but he flattened out and lost second to longshot Sonneteer in a photo finish. Jockey Mike Smith has two Arkansas Derby wins on his résumé, scoring with Gayego in 2008 and Bodemeister in 2012.
10. One Dreamy Dude (50-1)
Jockey: Geovanni Franco
Trainer: Jack Van Berg
Owner: Muddy Waters Stables
Career record: 6 starts – 0 wins – 1 second – 0 thirds
Career earnings: $25,793
Earnings per start: $4,299
Pedigree: First Dude – Dreamy Dream, by Whitney Tower
Running style: Press/Stalk
Notable achievements and interesting facts: This colt lost to fellow Arkansas Derby starter Grandpa’s Dream by seven lengths in his most recent start, and has hit the board once in six career starts for Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg. He’s only been a factor in two of those races, finishing a close second in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Oaklawn on Feb. 4 and then pressing the pace before fading in another race at that distance on Feb. 20. Van Berg, best known for his stewardship of 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner and 1988 Horse of the Year Alysheba, is still going strong at his home track, ranking eighth in the trainer’s standings through April 11. Young rider Geovanni Franco has made a major push in the jockey’s standings during the current Oaklawn meet, where he ranks third.
11. Conquest Mo Money (15-1)
Jockey: Jorge Carreno
Trainer: Miguel Hernandez
Owner: Judge Lanier Racing
Career record: 4 starts – 3 wins – 1 second – 0 thirds
Career earnings: $308,900
Earnings per start: $77,225
Pedigree: Uncle Mo – Stirring, by Seeking the Gold
Running Style: Pace/Press
Notable achievements and interesting facts: Arrives to contest the Arkansas Derby from his home track of Sunland Park in New Mexico, where he won his first three career starts before finishing a clear second behind Hence in the Sunland Derby. He will be stepping up in class, but he’s yet to run a bad race and brings regular rider Jorge Carreno to Oaklawn. He should be a player in the pace scenario, as he’s either made or challenged for the lead through the backstretch in all four of his starts, which have all been two-turn races. Sire Uncle Mo already has a Kentucky Derby winner in last year’s victor Nyquist, and this colt has a good stamina pedigree on his dam’s (mother’s) side, as he’s a relative to Belmont Stakes winner Touch Gold and to Canadian Horse of the Year and Triple Crown winner With Approval.
Notable achievements and interesting facts: Will vie for post-time favoritism in the Arkansas Derby with Classic Empire, and jockey Javier Castellano will be tasked with finding a good early position from the outside post for this talented colt to use his early speed and sit just off of the pace, a tactic he used successfully in winning the Rebel Stakes. He’s undefeated in three starts and stretched out successfully in the Rebel, and sire Shackleford showed he could carry his speed a good distance as well in winning the Preakness Stakes and Clark Handicap. Trainer Todd Pletcher has won four Arkansas Derbys, the most in the race’s history. Those wins came in two back-to-back stretches: first with Graeme Hall and Balto Star in 2000 and 2001; and more recently with Overanalyze and Danza in 2013 and 2014.