We are down to the final moment before the biggest of moments. The Arkansas Derby, taking place on Saturday at Oaklawn Park, is the last of the major Kentucky Derby preps. A first- or second-place finish provides enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby field, and other horses with points already could earn enough from a lower finish to wind up in the field. After this race ends, all we have left to do is wait for the Kentucky Derby, watch the training, and second guess ourselves a hundred times before finally placing our bets.
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The Arkansas Derby has been run since 1936. It has had some success with winners going on to win Triple Crown races. Smarty Jones won here in 2004 before winning the Derby and Preakness. 1983 Derby winner Sunny's Halo also won here. Temperence Hill and Victory Gallop won the Belmont. They have had the most success, though, with the Preakness - aside from Smarty Jones, Elocutionist, Tank's Prospect, Pine Bluff, Afleet Alex and the great Curlin have all pulled off the Arkansas Derby-Preakness double. Since Curlin in 2007, though, we have seen some nice horses win this race - perhaps 2012 winner Bodemeister more than any other - but it has not been a hugely relevant race in recent years. Could this be the year that we return to glory at Oaklawn?
There were eight horses drawn into the Arkansas Derby this year. Really, though, it's all about one horse - overwhelming favorite and two-year-old champion American Pharoah. To get ready for this race, let's look at the champ and at his two most intriguing challengers:
American Pharoah (1/2): This will be just the fifth career start for this horse, but he has certainly made some noise in his limited appearances to date. He attempted to break his maiden in August at Del Mar, and it didn't go well - he finished fifth. Trainer Bob Baffert obviously saw things he liked, though, because instead of trying another maiden race he bumped him right up into the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity. That faith was rewarded - the horse made winning look very easy. He won again a month later at Santa Anita and was set to be the likely favorite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile before injury ended his season. The Juvenile was a mess, though, so his two wins were enough to get the Eclipse Award. He was off until the middle of March. He could have stayed at home in California, but Baffert had no interest in seeing this horse and his equally-impressive Dortmund clash before they have to, so American Pharoah made his first trip to Oaklawn for the Rebel - the major prep race for the Arkansas Derby. It was a dominating win. He clearly likes the track, and he has trained well since the Rebel - mostly at his home track at Santa Anita. He's ready to go.
Looking ahead to the Kentucky Derby, there is some concern about his running style - he runs on the lead and sets the pace, and that can be dangerous in the huge Derby field when horses with nothing to lose often set suicidal early fractions and hope to make their own luck. We'll worry about that later, though. For now, we have a fast horse that drew the six hole and should be able to set the pace before running away from the field. This is his race to lose - and I am not too worried about it. He is the obvious and overwhelming pick. The price is low. As with Dortmund and Carpe Diem last weekend, though, all we can really do is accept it and enjoy the spectacle of the race - and the spectacular Kentucky Derby that awaits us.
Far Right (9/2): Both of the horses left to discuss have enough points to perhaps get them into the Derby field right now, but they could be a lot more comfortable and secure with some more here. This horse won the first two of Oaklawn's Arkansas Derby prep races - the Smarty Jones and the Southwest - but then skipped the Rebel to train up to this race. He has not worked much since that last outing, so his readiness is a bit of a mystery. He's unquestionably the top local horse, though, and it's a good sign that, for the third time, Mike Smith has thought it worthwhile to fly from California to Arkansas for the mount. He's a deep closer, so his connections will be one of the few that hopes that American Pharoah gets the lead and is pushed to set fast early fractions. I don't know if he is good enough, and I really don't love his breeding for this task and beyond, but he'll factor into my exotics heavily.
Madefromlucky (6/1): Interesting little subplot here. This horse is trained by Todd Pletcher - Bob Baffert's big Triple Crown rival. It is a son of Lookin at Lucky - Baffert's 2010 Preakness winner. It will be looking to beat the star of Baffert's stable. American Pharoah is a son of Pioneerof the Nile, who Baffert trained to a second-place finish in the 2009 Derby. Baffert loved Lookin at Lucky and was very high on him, but you can be sure he'll be rooting against his offspring here. This horse knows what it's like to lose to the favorite already - he was second to American Pharoah in the Rebel. It was a mismatch, though - the horse was clearly second best, and the gulf between him and the champ was massive. I don't see how that will have shrunk since then, but this is another horse that is a factor in the exotics.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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