Arkansas Derby Analysis

Wesley Hitt

Admittedly, I follow the Kentucky circuit the most being a native. New York and California the next most. But Oaklawn is a track I'd love to attend if I could. My dad's been twice (1974, 1979). The Arkansas Derby has seen some stout winners in its past. Balto Star, Afleet Alex, Curlin, and Bodemeister are a few names that come to mind. All of these horses were either Grade 1 winners or in Bode's case, a hard luck runner-up in the Derby and Preakness. Not bad. Here's the preview and such for Oaklawn's premier race of the meet on their closing day.

Oaklawn, until this week, has been obscenely slow for most of the meet. The track played a little faster on Friday. Here's hoping for a safe, not sundial timed, feature race on their best and last card of the meet.

1. Carve (Santana Jr./Asmussen) 20-1

The good: Has two wins and got in trouble its last start in the Rebel. Has the advantage of running well at Oaklawn with 2 wins there. Getting a top trainer and the leading rider helps, too. Should figure to take advantage of a fast early pace to close. Speed looked decent on Friday, but this race looks ripe for an off-the-pace winner. Carve could be the answer as a longshot.

The bad: Lost to several rivals in his last start, even with the trouble. Four jockeys in four starts is a bit puzzling as well, especially for a 2-time winner. Numbers are a bit light, though Beyer figures should be taken with anywhere from a grain to a silo full of salt, as margins and pace self fulfill the numbers. Oaklawn has played slow most of the meet, so the numbers are light accordingly. My longshot play.

2. War Academy (Smith/Baffert) 2-1

The good: Also a multiple winner that can pass, though sitting second in this race might soften him up in the lane. Baffert has had a high success rate with shippers the past few years. Smith and Baffert are 2/2 at Oaklawn, thanks to Bodemeister, since 2012. More of the same in this race would get War Academy to Louisville comfortably.

The bad: Lost his lone stakes race and will be bad value for a horse sans stakes victories. If hurried early, could be pinned on the rail. This horse doesn't have the raw potential of Bodemeister, and this field looks more wide open than that one did. I'll look elsewhere for the win, but won't completely toss him in exotics.

3. Divine Ambition (Hernandez, Jr./Miller) 20-1

The good: Might control the pace early, and most in here are raters as opposed to pure speed horses. Rushaway is historically an underrated race for finding talented 3-year-olds. Figures to be a good price, but could be running at Keeneland instead if he draws into the body of the field.

The bad: Both wins were at sprints. This is 1 1/8 miles. Darrin Miller is just 2/30 on dirt since 2012. Not exactly a top number to look for in a Grade 1 race. It's also arguable he's better on synthetic. He could win, but I'd like him a little better at Keeneland, even if he's more likely to run here.

4. Falling Sky (Garcia/Terranova) 10-1

The good: Ran against Verrazano and Java's War last out. Verrazano may be your Derby favorite, and Java's War could be with a good race at Keeneland right before this one runs. Has the pace to be close or up front. Tampa Bay can produce good horses, as the 2007 edition saw Street Sense win the Derby and Any Given Saturday win the Haskell after good races in Tampa. Daddy was second in the '04 Derby and granddad Sea Hero won the '93 Derby.

The bad: Might be caught in a speed duel, even if to the outside of the 2 and 3. Last time he had a bullet drill, he faded to third in the Tampa Bay Derby. Did he leave it out on the track before the race then and will it happen again at Oaklawn?

5. Den's Legacy (Albarado/Baffert) 6-1

The good: A proven off-the-pace runner with breeding to handle 2 turns with ease, he ran a hard luck third in the Rebel and ran good seconds against Flashback (get well soon, please) and Goldencents (yay Rick Pitino winning Grade 1s). Bob runs well when sending horses East on the dirt, though this effect was stronger when all the tracks were synthetic. Might get let go with the 2, 9, and 10 in the field on the tote.

The bad: Has 5 seconds, 2 thirds, and a fifth. Which means passing the last horse can be an issue. His wins were on synthetic (Del Mar) and a turf stakes (Betfair Hollywood) at 2. West Coast horses haven't done much, save for Super Ninety Nine running off in the mud, outside of California yet. Presence of Baffert could drive down the price.

6. Heaven's Runaway (Ocampo/Martin) 30-1

The good: His back class is strong, as Uncaptured, Goldencents, and Mylute figure to be top 3-year-olds going forward. Has the same owners as Summer Bird, the 2009 top 3-year-old and Belmont winner. Should figure to be the longest price on the tote board, though Texas Bling probably deserves that honor. Ocampo may seem obscure to most, though he wins more than you'd think at Oaklawn.

The bad: His two fast dirt races were flat sevenths. Even if the winners are Derby contenders at 3. No one really ran on in the Rebel but Super Ninety Nine, who ran a distant 3rd in the SA Derby last week. Summer Bird showed signs of making the leap in this race 4 years ago. He might do the same, though his breeding on the sire side shows King's Bishop more than Kentucky Derby to me.

7. Texas Bling (Borel/Durham) 20-1

The good: He has Calvin Borel aboard, which means if he gets to Louisville, he's live. He has experience above the others in the field with 13 starts, so seasoning isn't an issue. Has shown ability to rate and to make one run, something many contenders have yet to prove. Daddy was known as an Ohio-bred sprinter above all else, though.

The bad: Both wins came at Retama Park. Kip Deville won there early on before winning the BC Mile in 2007, but not many big names come from there. Many rivals in this race have beat him before; can he make up the gap here? If he does win, it's a given he'll be 1/3 his true price on Derby Day because Calvin Borel.

8. Frac Daddy (Lebron/McPeek) 15-1

The good: He has ran against East Coast horses, where most of the contenders are running well, this year. Has a win at Churchill should he get to the gate on the first Saturday in May. His breeding suggests 9 furlongs is within his scope, and Lebron opted for him over local horse Carve.

The bad: Has looked flat in both preps, though Gulfstream is a hit-or-miss track. Clearly missed for Frac Daddy so far. Form of the Jockey Club from last year hasn't held up well so far. Keep an eye on Uncaptured before reading too closely into him. Would need to step up from current 2013 efforts to win this one.

9. Overanalyze (Bejarano/Pletcher) 4-1

The good: Todd Pletcher wins prep races in his sleep. Bejarano is probably one of the best jockeys not to win a Triple Crown race around. He was a contender at 2 and is still in the picture now. Came from 7th to win the Futurity at 2, though that was a sprint. Figures to make his own trip from wide with a good clean trip rider. Good thing there aren't trainer entries anymore, or the Pletcher entry would be odds-on in Louisville.

The bad: Ran a bit flat in the Gotham, and Vyjack lost his last start, albeit to a top horse. Pletcher usually doesn't beckon Bejarano to ride, and is only 1/6 when they team up since 2012. Might get overbet for the Pletcher effect. Not too crazy about his peers' form from his back class lines.

10. Oxbow (Stevens/Lukas) 5-2

The good: No, the jockey/trainer is not a misprint, though they both won the Derby in 1988 and 1995 together. This is Lukas' most live Derby contender he's had since Proud Citizen. Not a high bar since 2003, granted, but he has a shot here. He could and should have done more his past two starts. I always question any race won by a 100-1 shot; his Risen Star was an empty stretch run. A repeat of his LeComte would do the trick here. Can he win without leading all the way around the track? He'll need to here, unless he's the next Bode or Curlin.

The bad: Might be the favorite, so value is lacking. His last two races should have seen at least one win to feel better about his 3 year old form since running away in the LeComte. Did he leave it all out on the track that January day? He is well bred, as his sire won the 1998 BC Classic and Stephen Foster, and is a rare well spotted Lukas 3 year old in the past decade. I'd like to see Coach have a live horse in May, especially for memories of Charismatic, but his value won't be great in Arkansas. My third pick after the 1 and 4.

Overall, I'm not crazy about the favorites, though I won't toss them from exactas and such. Local starts help, and that's why I like Carve. Falling Sky ran against the Wood winner (Verrazano) and Blue Grass contender Java's War last out. 9 and 10 are the favorites I'd use in exotics. 7 might be worth a flyer as a bomb with Calvin aboard with a hot pace, too. Anything could happen here. Three year olds can jump off the page like that. Look at Mine That Bird for proof. Good luck!

My top 5 for the race: 1-4-10-9-7

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