Asmussen’s Tapiture the favorite at Arkansas Derby

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) Steve Asmussen isn’t answering questions at the moment about allegations that he and a former top assistant mistreated horses under their care.

The trainer, however, looks as relaxed as ever overseeing morning workouts at Oaklawn Park. Off-the-track concerns aside, Asmussen has reason to feel good about Saturday’s Arkansas Derby, where he’ll run Tapiture in the $1 million Kentucky Derby prep.

The colt, who won the Southwest Stakes before finishing second in a contact-filled Rebel Stakes, is the 9-5 early favorite after drawing the third post position Wednesday.

The Triple Crown hopeful leads a field of nine horses in the 1 1/8-mile race. The winner earns 100 points in the standings that determine the 20-horse field at Churchill Downs on May 3.

But for all of the promise surrounding Tapiture, much of the focus Saturday is on Asmussen. His nomination to the Racing Hall of Fame was put on hold last month after an animal rights group alleged mistreatment by Asmussen and former assistant Scott Blasi.

Asmussen ranks second among trainers with more than 6,700 wins. He served a sixth-month sentence in 2006 after a filly he trained tested 750 times over the legal limit in Louisiana for a local anesthetic used to deaden pain in a horse’s legs.

On Thursday, the trainer would answer only those questions about his horse. He did, however, respond when asked when would be the right time to speak about the allegations.

”Right now, I think that our responsibility is the preparation for an opportunity like this,” Asmussen said. ”We take that very seriously. Hopefully, though, it will have a time and a place that our responsibilities allow it.”

Tapiture was the favorite at the Rebel Stakes last month. But he finished second after being blocked behind the lead pack and collided with eventual winner Hoppertunity down the stretch. Asmussen said the colt has trained well since and he’s excited to see how he runs Saturday following a week of training in clear, warm weather.

Jockey Joel Rosario, who won the Kentucky Derby last year on Orb, will replace Ricardo Santana Jr. on Tapiture. Asmussen says the switch provides ”the best possible chance at the Kentucky Derby, which is a once in a lifetime chance for all horses.”

He adds: ”We’re dreaming the dream like everybody else.”

Bayern, trained by Bob Baffert, is the 2-1 second choice. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas will saddle Strong Mandate at 9-2.

Hoppertunity, also trained by Baffert, will skip Saturday’s race after finishing second in the Santa Anita Derby last week. The colt already qualified for the Kentucky Derby.

The rest of the field includes Danza, Knock Em Flat, Ride on Curlin, Thundergram, Commissioner and Conquest Titan.

Ride on Curlin finished third in the Southwest Stakes and Rebel Stakes, and trainer Billy Gowan believes the colt is on track for a spot at the Kentucky Derby. First, however, he’ll have to handle a third run against Tapiture along with a strong field.

”Tapiture’s a nice horse, but we’ve been right there within a length of him,” Gowan said. ”So I think we can run with anybody.”

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