From now on the Arkansas Derby will always be known as the last prep race that American Pharoah ran before he went on to win the Triple Crown. It's a worthy distinction for a great race, but it isn't the only thing that has made this race remarkable over the last dozen years or so. Smarty Jones won the race in 2014 then won the Derby and Preakness. The next year Afleet Alex won, inexplicably bombed in the Derby, then won the Preakness and Belmont handily. The great Curlin won this race in 2007. More recently, Bodemeister was the 2012 winner and the runner-up in both the Derby and the Preakness. This is now the last major prep race, and it is definitely one of the more important.
After a Blue Grass Stakes field last weekend that was pretty underwhelming and far from deep and a Wood Memorial field that vaporized under pressure, we have a deep and very interesting field here. There are at least eight horses that wouldn't be an embarrassing part of the Kentucky Derby field. Only Cupid currently has the points to make the field regardless of how this race turns out, but a first- or second-place finish would give any horse enough points to make that race, and for several runners the 20 points for third would supplement what they already have enough to get into the field, too. This is a very high-pressure situation for these horses and their connections, then. There are 12 entrants, but we'll stick to the eight most interesting in this analysis:
Cupid, Martin Garcia, 2/1: Bob Baffert has won this race twice in the last four years, and he's back with another impressive horse here. His win in the Rebel Stakes on this same track last time out was the most impressive win in any prep race we have seen so far, by my eyes. He led the way that race, but he doesn't need to. His breeding is sound, and he is in top form. He's the horse to beat and a very legitimate favorite in my eyes. He'll be a Derby consideration for me regardless of what happens here, but a win would make him a strong betting horse - the likely second favorite behind Nyquist. I'm a believer.
Whitmore, Irad Ortiz Jr., 9/2: This horse has been second to two other runners in this race in two nice prep stakes this spring - behind Suddenbreakingnews in the Southwest and then Cupid in the Rebel. This is the first time in his career that he has had the same rider twice in a row - and a very good rider, at that. Can he take a step forward over either of his previous rivals, though? I'm not convinced. His breeding makes me nervous about the distance here. I'll look elsewhere.
Suddenbreakingnews, Luis Quinonez, 5/1: This horse was impressive in that Southwest win we already mentioned. But then he came back in the Rebel, had a lousy day, and was flattered by his fifth-place finish. He's a deep closer, so there is a risk that things won't go his way on any given day. I really love the breeding for this horse, but at this price I can't justify a big bet on him.
Gettysburg, John Velazquez, 6/1: Todd Pletcher has more wins in this race, four, than any other trainer. He already has two horses that are Derby-bound, though Outwork's underwhelming win in the Wood Memorial doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. This is his last chance at getting a third entrant this year. I'm not a fan of this one. He has run in two stakes this year and has disappointed both times. I just don't think that he's good enough.
American Pioneer, Rafael Bejarano, 8/1: This horse made his debut in January. He broke his maiden second time out less than a month ago. Both races were here at Oaklawn Park, so he likes the track. He's taking a massive step up in class, though, and he's very raw. It feels like too much too soon against a field this solid.
Creator, Ricardo Santana Jr., 10/1: This is a son of Tapit like Cupid is, but a less-impressive one at this point. After needing six attempts before finally breaking his maiden in February, he made his stakes debut in the Rebel. He was third that day and looked solid, but the race set up well for him. He's another deep closer, and I just don't like him enough in this spot.
Unbridled Outlaw, Corey Lanerie, 10/1: Lanerie has had a rough prep season with some boneheaded rides, and that's almost enough to make me question this horse. More than that, I just don't think he's quite good enough. After a solid and troubled third in the Iroquois at Churchill in September he was a disastrous and very disappointing 12th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. His only race since then was a March allowance that he led throughout but was passed convincingly at the end and finished second.
Dazzling Gem, Joe Talamo, 12/1: In my search for a longer shot to take on the bottom of a Cupid-led exacta I keep coming back to this horse. He's very raw - he has run only three times, his debut was in mid-January, and he has just one stakes appearance. After two nice wins at Oaklawn he headed to the Louisiana Derby. He was a respectable third in a solid race there. He has had an upgrade in jockeys for this race, and experience will only help him tap into his talent. He's a factor here.
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