The Arkansas Derby (Grade I)

4/15/2017 Oaklawn Park-Race 11

The Arkansas Derby-$1,000,000—Grade I

1 & 1/8th Miles on Dirt for Three-Year-Olds

Post Time: 3:18 P.M. PST

Analysis by Michael Patricks

Racing from the Festival of the South concludes on Saturday with the 81st running of the Arkansas Derby from Oaklawn Park.  There are 12 action packed races to be set down for decision with the final major three-year-old Kentucky Derby prep serving as the penultimate race on the program.  A dozen have passed the entry box to compete in Arkansas’ prestigious Grade I affair.  The 8 to 5 favorite in this race is Classic Empire and he arrives in Hot Springs sitting squarely on the fence in terms of the requisite number of points needed to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.  Classic Empire needs at least a fourth place finish based on my calculations to guarantee himself a place in the starting gate on May 6th.  Can the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner redeem himself and sway believers back into his camp?  Let’s take a look.

1-Rockin Rudy 15/1 ML- Owned by Reddam Racing LLC and trained by Doug O’Neill, it’s impossible to look at this colt on paper and not think about Irap last week taking down the Toyota Blue Grass for the same connections.  Inasmuch as Irap was valiant and proved best in his front running heist, the popular conclusion emerging from the Blue Grass is that the main players simply didn’t fire.  Give Irap credit for doing what he needed to do to win but Practical Joke seems to want no part of anything beyond a mile, McCraken was undoubtedly a short horse heading into the Blue Grass, J Boys Echo bounced like a rubber ball off his big Gotham win and Tapwrit didn’t handle the track at all after breaking dully and never got into the race.  Rockin Rudy has been facing some tough sophomores on the So Cal lawn and likes to be forwardly placed.  O’Neill had success in shedding the Blinkers with Irap and he does the same with ‘Rudy in the Arkansas Derby.  ‘Rudy has not been headed early at any point of call so you have to think he’ll be on the front end pushing the tempo with Classic Empire, Petrov, Grandpa’s Dream, Conquest Mo Money and Malagacy close in tow.  Going from sprint-to-route, turf-to-dirt, and shipping away from California for the first time should be enough to cause his undoing ultimately when the piper needs paid; ‘Rudy will have his admirers after last week but I prefer others for top honors—he may hang in there for a piece of it, however.

2-Classic Empire 8/5 ML- Mercurial son of Pioneerof the Nile has had little go his way in 2017 after a brilliant 2016 campaign which saw him capture the Breeders’ Futurity and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in successive starts on his way to becoming 2016’s two-year-old champion.  His lone start at Gulfstream Park in the Holy Bull was truly dismal and it’s well documented that he had his struggles shipping in before completely melting down before the race.  Mark Casse has put five workouts into Classic Empire in an attempt to sharpen him up for the Arkansas Derby since the chips are undoubtedly down this time around.  Unquestionably, he needs the points and a bounce back effort.  Have a feeling that Classic Empire will handle things better on Saturday and that should lead to an exacta finish but whether he can keep it together on May 6th when they get to Louisville amidst the cacophonous crowd of over 100,000 remains to be seen. He’s going to be a handful when they turn for home on Saturday–you can bet on that.

3-Silver Dust 20/1 ML- Here’s another head case who coincidentally will stand right next to Classic Empire in the starting gate and that should have favorite backers holding their breath.  Earlier this week, Silver Dust dumped his exercise rider en route to being schooled at the gate in anticipation of Saturday’s big race.  It’s no stretch to envision this fella being his own worst enemy when the gates open for the Arkansas Derby. In half of his races, Silver Dust has had problems at the start so it’s easy to imagine Classic Empire getting into his head leaving the starting gate given his prior antics.  The Blinkers are added and perhaps that’s to get him to sharpen his focus out of the gate and obviously should put him into the race earlier than usual.  In the Southwest and Rebel, Silver Dust was able to pass a few tired ones but he’s still got a lot of making up to do on several of these if he’s to carry the day.  He’s raced evenly to the wire over the last quarter mile of late and the mere addition of Blinkers isn’t enough to get my blood pumping and therefore he’s left on the cutting room floor; rank outsider.

4-Petrov 12/1 ML- My selection in the Rebel, Petrov had a perfect trip that day and couldn’t make any real headway on the embattled pace setters when it mattered most and that was quite frustrating on a personal note. Understandably, Jose Ortiz fleas the scene and Petrov gets a new rider to try and shake things up a bit.  Horse racing is a bottom line business and the bottom line with him is that he continues to lose ground in the stretch when it matters most.  His morning line price has risen indeed so there is punting value with him but I’m not lured into his temptation this time around.  When your wife leaves you for the second time at some point you stop sending her flowers and that’s exactly where I’m at with him.  The divorce papers are signed, served and delivered and there’s no turning back for me.  I’ll let some other fool hearted horse players toss flowers at this one’s hooves, ornamentally trying to adorn him with flattery, all in the hopes he will fulfill his fruitless promise of prosperity; pass.

5-Grandpa’s Dream 30/1 ML- Aptly named, perhaps “Grandpa” saw him winning this race in his dreams and that’s why he shows up in this toughie on Saturday.  Off at 21 to 1 last time against maiden specials, ‘Grandpa was life and death to prevail by a head.  By Shackleford, not surprisingly he’s done his best running on the front end so off the mere maiden victory you can expect a send mission to be in the forecast.  ‘Grandpa should find the front end quite contested in the Arkansas Derby and it’s reasonable to believe he will be the first one to call it a day as the field approaches the far turn.  His trainer is very solid and is a proven horsemen but this endeavor is a very tall order and it seems like ‘Grandpa will be going from dreams to reality after just a few furlongs; house of cards built on a fault line.

6-Lookin at Lee 15/1 ML- Price continues to creep up on Lookin at Lee as the gap to his last victory continues to widen as well.  Has had a bad habit of drawing and/or breaking poorly and that typically eliminates any real chance at winning, especially at this level of competition.  Santana opts for Petrov and Asmussen grabs Contreras to ride.  Most Asmussen followers will be looking at Untrapped since Mike Smith ends up there and that’s more than fair since Smith is the sport’s big money rider.  While I admit I’m chasing this horse a bit, I’m not ready to give up on him just yet.  The pace figures to be quite hot, ‘Lee draws much better while getting an extra 110 yards of ground, and Contreras has done well with Asmussen in recent history (took down the Grade I Fantasy at Oaklawn on Friday). Lookin at Lee worked quite well two back (in company with Untrapped presumably).  Is he good enough to win if Classic Empire fires?  Doubtful.  But is he the spice in vertical tickets for the Arkansas Derby?  I believe that’s quite possible; giving him one last chance to run into my open arms and play spoiler for value seekers in the process.

7-Sonneteer 15/1 ML- Remarkably, (or unremarkably depending on how your point of view) his morning line price slashes by about 90 per cent from his odds of 112 to 1 in the Rebel where he rode the rail through the stretch in garnering Grade II black type.  Credit goes out to him for that performance but it may also serve as a bit of an indictment on the field he was competing against.  Many will be encouraged by Kent Desormeaux flying in to ride him since he knows him so well but truth be told he’s 0-for-5 atop his back.  The 89 Beyer speed figure seems to be a bit of an anomaly given his track record plus he may have a little bit of the starch taken out of him this time around by being shipped back and forth so much between races. The April 9th bullet is noted, but so is the fact he’s been beaten by Kimbear, Reach the World, and So Conflated this year who are all essentially B-list sophomores that are underperforming to this point.  Put it to you this way: If Classic Empire fires, he will blow him right off the track; comes back to earth today.

8-Rowdy the Warrior 30/1 ML- Oklahoma-bred has lost whatever pep in his step he possessed when he shipped to Oaklawn from Remington Park.  The Beyer speed figures are on the decline and it’s now been six races since he’s tasted victory.  As for his owner, you only get so many chances to go to the Kentucky Derby and if he wakes up with an exacta finish somehow in the Arkansas Derby that will punch his ticket to enter the starting gate. On that level I kind of get it (look at what Sonneteer did last time).  In terms of practical realism (pragmatism) it’s inevitable that he’s about to take a real beating here.  He may pass a couple stragglers in deep stretch but as the makeshift casting director I can’t possibly endorse him as anything beyond the role of mid pack nibbler in this short film; the late and great Rowdy Roddy Piper will need to be smiling down upon him and then some if he’s to hit the board in here; I doubt Rowdy will be hearing the bagpipes played for him turning for home.

9-Untrapped 6/1 ML- Yet another entered where Blinkers go on after lacking the needed punch late to get the job done.  Noticeably, Untrapped attracts Mike Smith for the riding engagement for this Grade I and that will keep the price a bit low in terms of value.  He’s got a bad habit in terms of settling for minor awards and perhaps the Blinkers will keep him from looking around a bit when his mind needs to be focused on racing.  Smith will likely put him up a bit closer than usual and he should be prominent at each point in call.  Guess the question to be asked is if he couldn’t close out a Grade III and two Grade II’s, what makes you think he will be able to close the deal in a Grade I?  Believe he will find a way to take down a smaller share in the end as usual, but he could get the job done if the headliners in this race falter for some reason; don’t pigeonhole yourself with this guy at too low of a price.

10-One Dreamy Dude 50/1 ML- Name your price on the morning line…to 1.  O.D.D. is a maiden and for good reason.  He got out terribly three back while snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and then rewarded gullible backers at 2/1 with a step slow start and an off the board finish against maidens in his follow up effort.  In his last race, O.D.D. added Blinkers and got torched by Grandpa’s Dream and I am quite outspoken about his chances in this race (see above).  O.D.D. is owned by Muddy Waters Stables and ironically his entry into this race is precisely just that.  Don’t think anyone will confuse One Dreamy Dude for Brad Pitt or George Clooney when they turn for home in the Arkansas Derby.  Can I buy an “R”?  It’ll be much more like One Dreary Dude in the end; He’s odds-on to not get mentioned by the race caller past the ½ mile pole.

11-Conquest Mo Money 15/1 ML- On the one hand, he’s three out of four and has run quite well in each start.  He’s versatile, a new face, and for whatever reason Sunland shippers have had great success in follow up races after competing over the New Mexico surface.  He can boast that he handled Blue Grass winner Irap two back and he was ultra-game after suffering a wide draw in the Sunland Derby last time.  Furthermore, his regular rider follows him to Oaklawn for the mount today and that too is a very positive sign.  On the other hand, ‘Mo Money tasted defeat for the first time last out and now must ship for the first time while taking on Grade I runners as well as the two-year-old champ of 2016 in Classic Empire.  His post position seems to be uniquely compromising in this race, especially with the fleet-footed Malagacy drawn right to his outside who will undoubtedly be hell bent for leather on crossing over and getting to the front end as quickly as possible.  Perhaps tab the tote for more clues but this post is about as bad as it gets in my mind; mixed signals.

12-Malagacy 2/1 ML- Let’s call a spade a spade.  He got the dream trip in the Rebel and capitalized accordingly, sitting just off the front running leader before putting him and the rest of the field away by two conclusive lengths.  It’s difficult to argue with Pletcher and an undefeated horse, but 2 to 1 from the 12-hole has never been my brand of vodka and it’s not about to start now.  Perhaps his saving grace will be the extra run he has into the first turn to get over and save some ground but Rockin Rudy and a few others figure to be vying for the early lead and that could leave this guy parked the long mile, so lift a harness phrase.  If Classic Empire brings the heat then Malagacy will be getting out of the kitchen.  Also, Malagacy is safely in the Derby field with 50 Derby points.  He doesn’t need to win this race to move on to Louisville like many others do.  He’s a legitimate fit and makes sense but I refuse to jump head first into shallow water on Saturday; Just as General Custer did at Little Bighorn against Sitting Bull, I’ll be doing the same at Hot Springs against Malagacy and Pletcher– taking a stand.

Selections: 2-6-1-11