The road to the Kentucky Derby wraps up Saturday with the final race that awards qualifying points, the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby. While last week’s prep races provided some much-needed clarity to the 3-year-old landscape, the Derby dreams of a few top runners still hinge on this final steppingstone. Chief among those are the two favorites in this race, Improbable and Omaha Beach, who exit separate divisions of the Rebel Stakes.
The TimeformUS Pace Projector is predicting that both of these colts will require some help from their riders to negotiate favorable trips in this Arkansas Derby. Both have some speed, and the Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace. Gray Attempt (#6) appears to be the most likely early leader as he stretches out off a gate-to-wire sprint victory. Yet Omaha Beach (#3), One Flew South (#9), and Jersey Agenda (#10) should all be chasing from very close range. Improbable’s (#1) early placement is more difficult to pin down since he is making his first start in blinkers and may be keener than usual. Country House (#8), whose 110 Late Pace Rating is the highest in the field, would benefit most from a fast early tempo.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, IMPROBABLE (8-5): Once considered by many to be the leader of this division, this colt will be attempting to revitalize his reputation in the aftermath of his first loss in last month’s Rebel Stakes (Div. 1). Improbable had an air of invincibility about him as a 2-year-old, handling everything thrown at him with ease. He inevitably came back down to Earth in his 3-year-old debut, where a wide trip and an overconfident ride proved to be his undoing. But his neck loss to Long Range Toddy was far from a disaster. He repeated his top TimeformUS Speed Figure of 116, and many anticipate that that return effort has set him up to deliver an improved performance in this final prep.
There is no denying Improbable’s obvious talent, but he still has some questions to answer as a leading Kentucky Derby prospect. As a son of City Zip, concerns about his stamina will follow him wherever we goes. Like stablemate Game Winner, there is a strong foundation of stamina breeding through his female family. His dam is by A.P. Indy and excelled as a turf router, running as far as 1 3/8 miles during her career. His second dam was a stakes winner going one mile and 70 yards on dirt. It would hardly be a shock if Improbable handled the nine furlongs of this Arkansas Derby without issue. I’m more concerned about his potential trip. Improbable is a pace presser who can sit as far back as midpack if need be. However, Bob Baffert has chosen to add blinkers for this start, and that the equipment change may cause him to race closer to the pace than in prior starts. That could be an issue given the amount of speed drawn to his outside. He’s arguably the most likely winner, but I believe the top three or four contenders are more evenly matched than the odds board will indicate. A likely winner, but a potential underlay.
#2, SIX SHOOTER (30-1): He was very much with the race flow when he finished fourth in the Southwest two starts back, and I would be surprised if he’s able to achieve a better result against tougher competition this time. Pass.
#3, OMAHA BEACH (2-1): Some accused Game Winner of hanging in the late stages of the Rebel (Div. 2), but I believe this colt just dug in and refused to yield. The evidence supports that theory. These two drew clear of the third-place finisher by more than eight lengths and came home in slightly faster closing fractions than the first division of the Rebel. Game Winner validated the form of that race with his reliably strong showing in the Santa Anita Derby last weekend. There was a time when I would have been concerned about Omaha Beach’s ability to negotiate the Arkansas Derby distance, but he put those qualms to rest with his steady Rebel performance. Progeny of War Front can be quite versatile, and this colt’s female family is all classic dirt-route pedigree.
The major issue is his running style. The Pace Projector is predicting that he will be vying for the early lead with sprinter Gray Attempt and longshot One Flew South. One of Mike Smith’s greatest strengths as a rider is his capacity to trust his mounts and not get in their way. However, that freewheeling style of riding can also be a liability when there is the possibility of a fast pace. It’s rare to see Smith restrain a horse who wants to race up toward the front. Therefore, Omaha Beach will likely have to win this race the hard way. He certainly is talented enough to defeat Improbable and all the rest. His Rebel TimeformUS Speed Figure of 117 is the highest in the field, yet only by a single point. While I’m not inclined to take a strong stand against him, he’s another contender – like Improbable – whose price is unlikely to be commensurate with his actual chances of winning. A contender, but unlikely to offer value.
#4, TIKHVIN FLEW (30-1): He had his chance to make a splash in the Gotham after spending the entire winter in New York and was unable to capitalize. If he did not find success against a softer field that day, it’s hard to envision him running well here. Pass.
#5, LAUGHING FOX (20-1): The moderate pace of the Rebel (Div. 2) did not suit his running style, but he also should have made more of a late impact. There was a wide gap between the top two finishers and the rest of the field, and this colt could not even come close to catching the longshot Market King for third. Pass.
#6, GRAY ATTEMPT (8-1): It’s unfortunate that Gray Attempt’s connections are not satisfied to merely have a talented sprinter in their stable. This colt is clearly best around one turn and therefore has no business in this race other than to force the pace. Know him early.
#7, GALILEAN (10-1): He ran better than I expected in the Rebel (Div. 1) following a pair of impressive, though relatively slow, wins against inferior California-bred competition. He did not work out the most comfortable trip that day, as Flavien Prat allowed him to rush up in the early going after a somewhat tardy start. While he didn’t have any discernable trouble, he was put into an uncomfortable spot between horses when Extra Hope ranged up on his outside for the run down the backstretch. That said, he had his chance in upper stretch and just could not match strides with the top two finishers. This son of Uncle Mo is not the most likely candidate to improve with added ground, so I don’t see how he is going to turn the tables on his Rebel rivals. Using underneath.
#8, COUNTRY HOUSE (12-1): It’s somewhat surprising to see Bill Mott chasing Kentucky Derby points with this late-developing colt. Normally, these connections would be perfectly content to skip the first Saturday in May and set targets for later in the year. However, Mott and the owners seem intent on securing a position in the Derby. Based on Country House’s two performances at Fair Grounds, I can understand some of the frustration. This colt made an eye-catching far-turn move and loomed a major threat to War of Will in the Risen Star before his own antics appeared to derail him. Then, last time in the Louisiana Derby, he again tried to make that same far-turn blitz but could not sustain that momentum in the stretch.
When I saw this colt’s name in the entries again, I was ready to write him off. However, upon closer inspection, I believe this rider switch to Joel Rosario could make a big difference. Luis Saez made the same tactical error in both of those Fair Grounds performances. He rode that track as if it were Gulfstream, where it is essential to start moving on the far turn to compensate for a short stretch. However, at Fair Grounds, it is important to save ground on the turns and utilize the length of the stretch when riding a closer. Not only was Country House against the race flow of the Louisiana Derby, he lost significant ground. Rosario is unlikely to make the same mistakes. He is as patient as any rider in the game and will let Country House settle at the back before launching a stretch bid. It remains to be seen if this colt is fast enough to actually win a race of this magnitude, but I am confident that he can do better than his prior stakes attempts. His 110 TimeformUS Late Pace Rating is the highest in the field, and he undoubtedly is the best closer in a field loaded with speed. He’s been overbet in some starts, but he’s probably going to be a square price this time. The selection.
#9, ONE FLEW SOUTH (50-1): The Pace Projector is predicting that he will be vying for the lead in the early stages, but it’s hard to envision him sticking around when the real running begins. Pass.
#10, JERSEY AGENDA (30-1): He seems likely to be a pace casualty given the expected dynamics of this race. He was cooked in a duel with Gray Attempt in the Southwest, and that foe is back in the lineup here. Pass.
#11, LONG RANGE TODDY (5-1): Many regard him as a lucky winner of the Rebel (Div. 1), considering that his main rival, Improbable, went wide around both turns and moved too soon. Whereas Drayden Van Dyke displayed some impatience, John Court was as cool as can be aboard Long Range Toddy, sacrificing early position to avoid a speed duel while saving every inch of ground. It may be difficult for Long Range Toddy to work out the same kind of perfect trip from this outside draw, but I wouldn’t just dismiss this improving colt. He arguably should have won the Southwest since he lost significant momentum when caught in behind tiring rivals at the quarter pole. It’s conceivable that with a bit more luck, he could have come into this Arkansas Derby on a six-race winning streak.
Long Range Toddy has a way of making his own good trips. He routinely breaks from the gate very sharply, giving his riders options, and he’s comfortable being placed anywhere in the pack. Regardless of his position, he comes with a reliable kick in the stretch. I get the sense that he is capable of rallying from farther back than either Improbable or Omaha Beach, and that versatility could seriously benefit him in a race predicted to feature such an extreme pace scenario. He seems just as likely to win as the two favorites drawn inside, and he is guaranteed to offer better value. Don’t underestimate.
The main players are Improbable (#1), Omaha Beach (#3), Country House (#8), and Long Range Toddy (#11). I believe all four have solid chances, but I want to focus on the two longer prices. Country House is my top selection given his advantageous running style, but I have the utmost respect for Long Range Toddy and will use him prominently in all of my exotic wagers.
Exacta Key Box: 8 with 1,3,11
Trifecta: 8,11 with 1,3,8,11 with 1,3,7,8,11
Trifecta: 8 with 7 with 1,3,11
Trifecta: 8 with 1,3,11 with 2,5