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Is this the final race for our Derby Handicappers already? Past Oaklawn winners return to run for the big bucks while a few invaders spice up the mix as the distance gets a bit longer. No doubt Bob Baffert is hoping to cash in once again with Secret Circle, who has been unstoppable thus far at Oaklawn, or promising prospect Bodemeister. Can he keep the fire going for another sixteenth, or will the tables finally turn? Let’s not forget The Factor, who had a similarly sensational time last year at Oaklawn with Baffert, finished an unfortunate 8th.
This race is the opposite of fellow Saturday feature, the Blue Grass (II), in the sense it’s full of stretch runners with no real speed being present. Weather looks to be very nice so the track should be dry and fast.
$1 million Arkansas Derby (I) - 3-Year-Olds. 1 1/8 miles on dirt at Oaklawn Park. Post Time: Saturday, April 14 at 5:45pm CST
[Post Position, Horse - Jockey, Trainer - Summary, Opinion in italics]
1) Cozzetti - Jose Lezcano, Dale Romans - The Cozzene colt is designed to go the distance, and is on the improving scale for sure since his good third in the Tampa Bay Derby (II) after swinging wide to close from 10th to 3rd. 1:00 and change 5-furlong breezes have kept him in gear for the race. The rail is always a tricky spot, but I don’t see it as a problem so long as he breaks well. He benefited from a speedy pace in the Tampa Bay, which I don’t think he’ll get here so it’s a really tough guess figuring how he’ll run.
2) Stat - John Velazquez, Todd Pletcher - I don’t normally embrace Unbridled’s Songs, but I do find Stat to be a pleasing kind of horse. He was great as a juvenile last year at Saratoga, and after some slow progress, impressed me again in a recent Gulfstream allowance which he won by 6 lengths. Good consistent breezes and strong connections make this one a possible threat, but he has a lot of hurdles fitness-wise to clear to beat this field.
3) Najjaar - Calvin Borel, Daniel Peitz - The horse I feel like everyone likes but me! By Jazil, distance isn’t considered a problem for this colt who has finished on the board 5 of 7 times with 2 wins, both this year and at Oaklawn. He ran very belatedly in the Rebel, but rallied in the stretch from 12th to 6th while taking the widest path to do so. Sharp bullet works over 5 furlongs will have him tuned up for the race. I think he’ll be “up there” at the end, but I don’t feel like he has enough cred to make a case for the board.
4) Jake Mo - Cliff Berry, Allen Milligan - Close but not close enough is an accurate description for this Giacomo colt, who comes back after an uninspired 4th in the Rebel Stakes (II). The weird thing about his running style is that he hangs out near the back, works his way up, gets picked off by a few passing runners, THEN will come again for a late run. He’s beaten plenty while not at his best, and is keyed up for the test with a 1:00 flat 5-furlong breeze. Jake Mo is an entry strictly for the believers, making consistent efforts but ultimately falling a bit short. He’ll need to be at his best Saturday.
5) Secret Circle - Rafael Bejarano, Bob Baffert - It’s no secret that this Eddington colt has one of the best records in the Triple Crown prep season, conquering all of what Oaklawn had to offer him while doubters dismissed his ability beyond a mile or so. He was almost certainly all-out to catch Scatman and hold off Optimizer last out in the Rebel (II) where he drifted out to just barely win. He’s logged his standard 5-furlong breeze to warmup, but more questions wait at the wire. I doubted Secret Circle last out, but now I’m pretty sure he won’t make 1 1/8 miles as this distance tends to start separating the pretenders from the real deal concerning classic capability. I wouldn’t be surprised if he fell off the board with all these late guns in the final furlong.
6) Isn’t He Clever - Robby Albarado, Henry Dominguez - Classic brawn dots this humble Smarty Jones gelding’s pedigree, and despite his modest New Mexican roots, he’s proven worthy of a late TC nomination and a ride to Arkansas. He was beaten just barely by Daddy Nose Best last out in the Sunland Derby (II), where he was much the best of the rest by nearly 8 lengths. His usual stalking spot might be threatened by the lack of real speed here, but I like his consistency and the fact he has 1 1/8 mile experience.
7) Optimizer - Jon Court, D. Wayne Lukas - After his crazy closing move in the Rebel, I can no longer afford to discount this English Channel colt. He hasn’t won a race since his first one in August and has been working steady. I’m sensing they’re preening him for another move similar to the one seen in the Rebel and hoping for a win here. The added distance will give Optimizer some extra running room should he feel like running again, but overall I’m still pretty lukewarm about him.
8) Atigun - Terry Thompson, Ken McPeek - The Istan colt I liked for the Rebel appeared to be not quite ready, hanging in the stretch to finish a non-threatening 11th. Normally I would toss him out, but I do like McPeek trainees and he’s been romping in his works, the last being a bullet move in :57 3/5 over 5 panels. One for the believers.
9) Sabercat - Corey Nakatani, Steve Asmussen - One of my faves, the Bluegrass Cat colt was a bit fuzzy heading into his first start as a sophomore, inappropriately placed right into the heated contention of the Rebel Stakes where he ran far behind nearly the whole way before making up room to finish 8th. Breezed a slow :50 4/5 over 4 furlongs. He doesn’t need earnings power, but Sabercat does need a good race to instill confidence as well as get him back up to peak condition for the first Saturday in May. A better start in this race may be all he needs.
10) Raconteur - Chris DeCarlo, Todd Pletcher - The Dogwood entry is this A.P. Indy colt, who took a short break from running in the gradeds to win the Private Terms at Laurel Park by a head over Hakama. While his last 4 races resulted in 3 wins, he was a dusty 7th in the Gotham and really hasn’t beaten much so far. Breezing just okay over an all-weather track at Keeneland may not be enough. Pletcher may have moved him from Keeneland’s own Blue Grass to avoid competing with heavier company.
11) Bodemeister - Mike Smith, Bob Baffert - I feel a little cuckoo for having the Empire Maker colt so high on my mental Derby hopeful list with so few graded earnings so far, but he could be just that good. An odd but revealing multi-horse workout at Santa Anita that looked closer to a mock race than a breeze showed he can move as well as negotiate traffic in the stretch. After his close loss to Creative Cause in the San Felipe, I don’t consider the far outside post a major hurdle and I think he could very well win.
Predicted Trifecta - 1) Bodemeister 2) Cozzetti 3) Isn’t He Clever
Value Picks - Cozzetti, Najjaar, Optimizer