2017 Arkansas Derby Preview – Classic Empire vs Malagacy

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April 14th 2017 – Updated April 15th 2017

On Saturday, we get the final piece of the Kentucky Derby trail’s puzzle in the Arkansas Derby. A great matchup between the undefeated Rebel Stakes winner Malagacy and the 2-year-old Eclipse Male Champion Classic Empire.

Aside from its $1 million dollar purse and the 170 Kentucky Derby points that are up for grabs, this race race deserves your full attention as the Arkansas Derby has served as an important springboard for racing greatness in recent years.  Since 2004, in nine out of the last thirteen runnings, the Arkansas Derby produced either a winner of a Triple Crown race or the Breeders Cup Classic:

2016 – Creater finished 1st – Won the Belmont Stakes
2015 – American Pharoah finished 1st – Won all three Triple Crown races plus Breeders’ Cup Classic
2014 – Bayern finished 3rd – Won the Breeders’ Cup Classic
2013 – Oxbow finished 5th – Won the Preakness Stakes
2010 – Super Saver finished 2nd – Won the Kentucky Derby
2009 – Summer Bird finished 3rd – Won the Belmont Stakes
2007 – Curlin finished 1st – Won the Preakness Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic
2005- Afleet Alex finished 1st – Won the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes
2004- Smarty Jones finished 1st – Won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes

In this same time frame, the Arkansas Derby has also produced five 3-Year-Old American Male Champions: American Pharoah (2015), Summer Bird (2009), Curlin (2007), Afleet Alex (2005) and Smarty Jones (2004).  Plus two International Horses of the Year in American Pharaoh in 2015 and Curlin in 2008.  And a Triple Crown winner and the very first Grand Slam of Thoroughbred racing in American Pharoah.

Derby Scenario

As far as Derby points, the only horse in the year’s field who is assured a starting spot in the Kentucky Derby is Malagacy who has 50 points. Untrapped has 34 points and Classic Empire 32. Both will need a fourth place finish or better to assure themselves a shot in the 143rd Run for the Roses. The rest of the field will need a first or second place finish.

Below are the entries, post-position, jockeys and morning line odds for the 81st running of the Arkansas Derby.

The Arkansas Derby  – 1 1/8th Mile – Race #11 at Oaklawn Park – Post-Time: 6:18 PM CST. Televised by TVG

Post/Horse/Jockey/Trainer/Odds
1. Rockin Rudy – Gutierrez/O’Neill – 12/1
2. Classic Empire – Leparoux/Casse – 8/5
3. Silver Dust – Lanerie/Morse – 20/1
4. Petrov – Santana Jr/Moquett – 12/1
5. Grandpa’s Dream – Canchari/Hartman – 30/1
6. Lookin At Lee – Contreras/Asmussen – 15/1
7. Sonneteer – Desormeaux/Desormeaux – 15/1
8. Rowdy The Warrior – Quinonez/Von Hemel – 30/1
9. Untrapped – Smith/Asmussen – 6/1
10. One Dreamy Dude – Franco/Van Berg – 50/1
11. Conquest Mo Money –  Carreno/Hernandez – 15/1
12. Malagacy – Castellano/Pletcher – 2/1

Race Commentary: In preparation for this race, I created my own expected morning line odds and they turned out fairly close to the track handicapper’s version. I had Classic Empire at 7/5, Malagacy at 9/5, Sonneteer at 12/1 and Lookin At Lee at 20/1. However, one morning line odd that totally surprised me was Rockin Rudy at 12/1.

I had the Doug O’Neill-trained Rockin Rudy at 30/1 and have a hard time understanding the shorter odds for a horse that has primarily raced turf sprints. Especially one who also drew the dreaded rail. This is coming from someone who remembers 41-1 Danza winning the 2014 Arkansas Derby from the #1 post. Rockin Rudy has nice speed numbers in his last two starts on turf but he finished 2nd both times. He will also be stretching out from 6 1/2 furlongs for the very first time. I think he will probably be the early speed in this race much like Uncontested was in the Southwest and Rebel Stakes. 

I rewatched the Rebel Stakes (shown below) several times, with the current post-positions in mind, to envision how this race might play out.

Classic Empire is starting from the #2 post–the winningest post this year at Oaklawn for distance races. Todd Pletcher’s Malagacy had the #6 post in the Rebel Stakes but this time gets the far outside post #12. I think this hurts his chances but he does have the speed to overcome a bad post-position. However, he will need to get off to a good start. In the Rebel Stakes, Malagacy did not get out of the gate well and he will have a further trip and have to deal with more traffic from the far outside post. 

Untrapped finished 2nd in the Risen Star and 3rd in the Rebel Stakes with Blinkers off. For this race, he will race with Blinkers On.  I think this equipment change is a bit of a risk. Blinkers On didn’t work well for any horse in the Rebel Stakes. 

Overall, I will say that this race sets up well for Classic Empire if run on a dry, fast track. However, he is a bit of a risk due to unpredictable demeanor. This field has six runners from the Rebel Stakes. Many criticized the quality of the Rebel field when 112-1 Sonneteer finished 2nd. But Sonneteer used a closer strategy in the Rebel and he ran a very good race. Whether that was a good one-off performance remains to be seen. Sonneteer should get the pace he needs and will have an additional 1/2 furlong to work with. 

I feel that Petrov is a pretty consistent horse who has shown a willingness to battle. I like his chances of finishing in the superfecta whether it is wet or dry. Steve Asmussen’s Lookin At Lee finished 3rd in the Southwest Stakes and 6th in the Rebel. He is a closer, who if pressed up to mid-pack sooner, could surprise. He was 11th and dead last in the Rebel Stakes at the 3/4th mile mark but finished 6th and within 4 lengths of race winner Malagacy.

Conquest Mo Money is coming off a second place finish in the Sunland Derby. Grandpa’s Dream is coming off a maiden win at Oaklawn Park in his last start. Trainer Randy Morse’s Silver Dust is a Tapit colt who finished 4th in the Southwest Stakes and 5th in the Rebel Stakes. He is a horse who may benefit from the added distance.

Donnie Von Hemel’s Rowdy the Warrior finished 9th in the Southwest Stakes and is coming off a third place finish in his last start–a one mile race at Oaklawn Park. Jack Van Berg’s One Dreamy Dude is winless in six career starts. He is coming off a sixth place finish at Oaklawn and is a very deserving of his 50-1 morning line odds.

My Prediction: Rain doesn’t appear like it will be a factor. So in a field of twelve horses, I narrowed half of the field down to the ones that I think has a chance of finishing in the Superfecta. Drum roll, these six horses are: 2) Classic Empire, 4) Petrov, 6) Lookin At Lee, 7) Sonneteer, 9) Untrapped and 12) Malagacy.

There are many questions here: 1) Will this be just like the Rebel Stakes except with Classic Empire added to field and just a reshuffling of the deck of cards? 2) According to trainer Mark Casse, Classic Empire has gained some weight but supposedly acting happy again. Is he fat and happy…fit enough physically and mentally to bounce back in form?

If we get a mature, well-conditioned Classic Empire who is ready to rumble, there is little doubt that he is the fastest horse in this field and perhaps the most talented colt in this entire class.

I would watch the lives odds. Usually three of the top four favorites with bettors in the Arkansas Derby finish in the Superfecta. Also pay attention to how Classic Empire looks and acts in pre-race.  If he acts up or doesn’t seem relaxed, this is Malagacy race to lose. That being said, I like 2, 12 over 2, 7, 12, over 2, 4, 7, 9 over 4, 6, 7, 9. A 10 cent Superfecta of this type would cost $2.90, a $1 bet would cost $29. Don’t spend more than $50 on this one, too many mysteries and uncertainties. Save your Benjamins for another day. This year’s 3-year-old races have been as unpredictable as 2-year-old races.

But if you really like longshots, Sonneteer is a closer who should get the early speed to do his thing. Last year, a closer won the Arkansas Derby in Creator. The difference this year is that there this is a faster field than last year. Last year, Creator’s winning time in the Arkansas Derby was 1:50.14. I expect this year’s winning race time will be in the 1:49 range.


On the docket…

My next blog will recap the Arkansas Derby and I will provide my updated Kentucky Derby contender rankings. I will have this out by Sunday evening.

–Michael

2017 Rebel Stakes Preview

2017 Kentucky Derby Logo

March 17th 2017

Coming up tomorrow (Saturday March 18th) is another big race on the 2017 Kentucky Derby trail at Oaklawn Park. The Rebel Stakes offers 85 Derby points and a purse of $900,000. At this stage of the 2017 Kentucky Derby trail prep races, this is the 3rd highest paying purse to date and the largest since the Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes on November 19th. The Rebel Stakes always attracts some of the top young thoroughbreds in the sport. Notable winners of the Rebel Stakes since 2004 include:

  • American Pharoah (2015) – The 13th Triple Crown champion and the first Grand Slam Champion of thoroughbred racing.
  • Curlin (2007) – 2007 Preakness Stakes and Breeders Cup Classic winner who went on to win the 2007 Eclipse 3 Year Old Male Champion award, the 2008 Eclipse Older Dirt Male Champion award and Horse of the Year honors in 2007 and 2008.
  • Smarty Jones (2004) – who went on to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and the 2004 Eclipse Male 3 Year Old Champion award
  • Lookin At Lucky (2010) – 2010 Preakness Stakes winner who went on to win the 2010 Eclipse 3 Year Old Male Champion award
  • Lawyer Ron (2006) – who won the 2007 Eclipse Older Dirt Male award
  • Will Take Charge (2013) – 2013 Eclipse 3 Year Old Male Champion

Other notable Rebel Stakes runners: Afleet Alex who finished 6th in 2005 Rebel Stakes went on to win the 2005 Preakness and Belmont Stakes and the 2005 Eclipse 3 Year Old Male Champion award. Oxbow finished 2nd in the 2013 Rebel Stakes and went on to win the Preakness Stakes that year. Creator finished 3rd in last year’s Rebel Stakes went on to win the 2016 Belmont Stakes.

Below are the entries, jockeys and morning line odds:

The Rebel Stakes  – 1 1/16th Mile – Race #10 at Oaklawn Park – Post-Time: 6:06 PM CST. Televised by TVG

Post/Horse/Weight/Jockey/Trainer/ Odds
1. Silver Bullion (115) – Vazquez/Lukas – 30/1
2. Uncontested (122) – Hill/Catalano – 10/1
3. Sonneteer (115) – Eramia/Desormeaux – 301
4. Petrov (115) –  Ortiz/Moquett – 9/2
5. Untrapped (115) – Santana Jr./Asmussen – 8/1
6. Malagacy (115) – Castellano/Pletcher – 4/1
7. American Anthem (115) – Smith/Baffert – 2/1
8. Silver Dust (115) – Lanerie/Morse – 15/1
9. Appalachian Gem (115) – Stevens/Van Berg – 30/1
10. Royal Mo (122) – Espinoza/Shirreffs – 9/2 
11. Lookin At Lee (117) – Santana Jr./Asmussen – 15/1

Race Commentary: Trainer Bob Baffert has won six out of the last seven Rebel Stakes. He brings American Anthem, the morning line favorite, from California to be ridden by jockey Mike Smith. American Anthem will be stretching out from 8 furlongs to 8 1/2 furlongs for the first time of his career. Trainer Todd Pletcher shipped in Malagacy who will be making the first two-turn start of his career. He is stretching out from 6 1/2 furlongs to 8 1/2. Normally I don’t like horses making two-turn debuts but it worked out wonderfully for Pletcher’s One Liner in the Southwest Stakes. Oaklawn Park stablemates Uncontested and Petrov hope to stave off the shipped-in competition.

Uncontested starts in the #2 post which has been the winningest post for distance races this year at Oaklawn Park. Uncontested impressed in the muddy 1-Mile Smarty Jones Stakes but has faded down the stretch in both of his starts at 8 1/2 furlongs. He will have no excuses this time. This race may determine if he is a legitimate Derby prospect or better suited for sprint races and the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. He likes to get out into the early lead. If he has gained stamina since his Southwest Stakes start, he could win this race especially if he gets an off track like he did in the Smarty Jones Stakes.

Petrov has finished 2nd in the last two Oaklawn preps to Uncontested in the Smarty Jones and One Liner in the Southwest. Petrov has the fastest estimated time through 8 1/2 furlongs in this field. He will battle to the end. Just like Steve Asmussen’s Untrapped did in his 2nd place finish to Girvin in the Risen Star Stakes. Then there Asmussen’s super consistent Lookin at Lee who finished 4th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and 3rd in his first start back for his 3 year-old campaign in the Southwest Stakes.

Finally among the serious threats to win the Rebel, there is the Robert B. Lewis Stakes winner Royal Mo, same owner (Jerry and Ann Moss) and trainer (John Shirreffs) combination as Zenyatta, 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo and this year’s Derby hopeful Gormley.

Overall, this is most talented field for 2017 Kentucky Derby hopefuls that we have seen since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile race last fall. With so much talent it will be hard to hit exotic bets. Silver Dust is a Tapit-colt who can’t be overlooked because he finished 4th in the Southwest Stakes and will get the early speed he needs. I like Royal Mo but I think he is hurt a bit by his starting gate position. Malagacy seems to be a more accomplished Pletcher colt than One Liner was entering the Southwest Stakes. But this is a deeper, more talented field. It is hard to go against a Baffert colt with his success in the Rebel so I like American Anthem for the win. The rest of the finishing order is anybody’s guess but I generally like Petrov finishing somewhere in the Superfecta. If his odds go south, Petrov could be a nice option for those looking for a sleeper pick for the win because his #4 starting gate position has been the 2nd most winningest gate position for distance races at Oaklawn Park this season.

At any rate, this is must-see-TV and a real star will emerge in this year’s Rebel Stakes. And don’t give up on any of the other top finishers as history suggests. Below are the top Beyer Speed Figures for horses in the Rebel Stakes field: 

Petrov –  96 BSF in 8.5F Southwest Stakes 2nd place finish
Uncontested – 96 BSF in 8F Smarty Jones Stakes win
Malagacy – 95 BSF at 6.5F Gulfstream Park win
Untrapped – 94 BSF in 6F James F. Lewis win
Royal Mo –  94 BSF in 8.5F Robert B. Lewis Stakes win
American Anthem – 94 8F BSF in Sham Stakes 2nd place finish

–Michael


Mastery brilliant in the San Felipe but off the Derby trail. Updated 2017 Kentucky Derby contender rankings

2017 Kentucky Derby Logo

March 13th 2017

Mastery performed brilliantly Saturday in the San Felipe Stakes (shown below) with an excellent time of 1:42.28 and 105 Beyer Speed Figure. However, he suffered a condylar fracture to his left front leg and will have surgery today. These are repairable and a horse can usually come back racing depending upon the severity. If not, they will have to be retired to stud. At any rate, Mastery is off the Derby trail and if all goes well, we could see him back racing in the 2nd half of the season.

I am almost afraid to have a Kentucky Derby favorite. My early Kentucky Derby Not This Time had to be taken off the Derby trail and retired back in November due to a soft tissue injury to his right front leg. My next Derby favorite, Classic Empire, has had foot abscess and back issues. Now this unfortunate news for Mastery who I briefly had as my #1 after Classic Empire’s 3rd place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes and One Liner’s Southwest Stakes performance.

In the grand scheme of things, the 2017 Kentucky Derby is so wide open at this point that it might be best to draw names out of a hat. Injuries and inconsistency have kept every handicapper on their toes. This has been kind of a weird year and it appears that the best Derby contenders aren’t on the West Coast this year. We will have a better handle on who the Kentucky Derby favorite will be after the three major final prep races on April 8th. But for now, here are my Top Six Kentucky Derby contenders.

Top Six 2017 Kentucky Derby Contenders

1) One Liner – The undefeated son of Into Mischief. His win in the Southwest Stakes earned him a triple digit 102 Beyer Speed Figure, tied for 2nd best of this class in their 3 year-old campaign. I wrote a Kentucky Derby profile on him for US Racing that you can read by clicking HERE. There are questions regarding how he will take to added distance but for now, he’s my #1 for now. Next Start:  Undecided at this point. Todd Pletcher may opt to run him in one more race before the Kentucky Derby. My guess is that it will be the Florida Derby on April 1st.

Career: 3 Starts 3-0-0-0   Grade 1 Stakes Wins: 0
Last 3 starts: 1st–>1st–>1st
Sire: Into Mischief
Trainer: Todd Pletcher (2010 Kentucky Derby Winning Trainer)
Jockey: John Velazquez (2011 Kentucky Derby Winner)
Fastest 1 1/16th Mile Time: 1:41.85 2017 Southwest Stakes
Career Best Beyer Speed Figure: 102 – 2017 Southwest Stakes

2) Classic Empire – The 2-year-old Eclipse champion disappointed in the Holy Bull Stakes with a third place finish. Later it was found that he was suffering from an undetected foot abscess. He is American Pharoah’s half-brother. I was very high on the Pioneerof the Nile colt and wrote about him back in July (SEE).  Classic Empire had a minor issue in a previous workout and refused to run. However, he ran 4 furlongs in 48.95 yesterday (March 12th) at his Palm Meadows training center. If Classic Empire is 100% healthy, he’s probably the most talented colt in this class. Next Start: The Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 8th. 

Career: 6 Starts 4-0-1-0   Grade 1 Stakes Wins: 2
Last 3 starts: 1st–>1st–>3rd
Sire: Pioneerof the Nile  (Finished 2nd in 2009 Kentucky Derby)
Trainer: Mark Casse
Jockey: Julien Leparoux
Fastest 1 1/16th Mile Time: 1:42.60 – 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile
Career Best Beyer Speed Figure: 102 – 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile

3) McCraken – The son of Ghostzapper is undefeated in 4 starts. One of his big wins was in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. So there are no concerns of how he will take to the track surface at Churchill Downs. Next Start: The Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 8th.

Career: 4 Starts 4-0-0-0   Grade 1 Stakes Wins: 0
Last 3 starts: 1st–>1st–>1st
Sire:  Ghostzapper
Trainer: Ian Wilkes
Jockey: Brian Hernandez
Fastest 1 1/16th Mile Time: 1:42.45 – 2017 Sam F. Davis Stakes
Career Best Beyer Speed Figure: 95 – 2017 Sam F. Davis Stakes 

4) Tapwrit – The Tampa Bay Derby winner. He finished 2nd to McCraken in the Sam F. Davis Stakes back in February. His pedigree suggests that he will like added distance. And he has a greater trainer in Todd Pletcher behind him. Next Start: The Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 8th.

Career: 5 Starts 3-1-0-0   Grade 1 Stakes Wins: 0
Last 3 starts: 1st–>2nd>1st
Sire:  Tapit
Trainer: Todd Pletcher (2010 Kentucky Derby Winning Trainer)
Jockey: Jose Ortiz
Fastest 1 1/16th Mile Time: 1:42.36 – 2017 Tampa Bay Derby
Career Best Beyer Speed Figure: 96 – 2017 Tampa Bay Derby

5) Girvin – The Risen Star Stakes winner. His sire, Tale of Ekati, won the 2008 Wood Memorial and finished 4th in the Kentucky Derby. He has excellent closing speed. His Risen Star stakes time of 1:43.08 was 0.86 seconds faster than what Gun Runner accomplished the previous year (1:43.94). And Gun Runner finished 3rd in the Kentucky Derby. Girvin is probably not a Kentucky Derby winner but one to keep an eye on and on your early radar for your Derby Day exotic bets. Next Start: The Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds on April 1st.

Career: 3 Starts 2-1-0-0   Grade 1 Stakes Wins: 0
Last 3 starts: 1st–>2nd>1st
Sire: Tale of Ekati
Trainer: Joe Sharp
Jockey: Brian Hernandez
Fastest 1 1/16th Mile Time: 1:43.08 – 2017 Risen Star Stakes
Career Best Beyer Speed Figure: 93 – 2017 Risen Star Stakes

6Royal Mo The winner of the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. A son of Uncle Mo like his half-brother Mo Town and last year’s Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist. Same owner/trainer combination as Zenyatta (Moss/Shirreffs) and his Derby trail rival Gormley. Next Start: The Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on March 18th. 

Career: 4 Starts 2-2-0-0   Grade 1 Stakes Wins: 0
Last 3 starts: 2nd–>1st–>1st

Sire: Uncle Mo
Trainer: John Shirreffs (2005 Kentucky Derby Winning Trainer)
Jockey: Victor Espinosa (2002, 2014 & 2015 Kentucky Derby Winner)

Fastest 1 1/16th Mile Time: 1:43.48 – 2017 Robert B. Lewis Stakes
Career Best Beyer Speed Figure: 94  – 2017 Robert B. Lewis Stakes

On my radar:  J Boys Echo, Gunnevera, Practical Joke, Petrov, American Anthem, Uncontested, Irish War Cry, Iliad, Untrapped, Malagacy, El Areeb and Unique Bella although I haven’t heard anything to suggest she will skip the Kentucky Oaks in favor of the Derby. 


Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park – March 18th

Coming up this Saturday at Oaklawn Park is another key race on the Derby trail that carries a $900,000 purse and 85 Derby points. The Rebel has historically spawned some great champions the past 15 years. Below are the rumored entries for the Rebel Stakes with notable Beyer Speed Figures (BSF). Royal Mo or American Anthem will probably be the early morning line favorite.

Royal Mo – Victor Espinoza/John Shirreffs  – 94 BSF in Robert B. Lewis Stakes win
American Anthem – Mike Smith/Bob Baffert  – 94 BSF in Sham Stakes 2nd place finish
Petrov –  Jose Ortiz/Ron Moquett  – 96 BSF in Southwest Stakes 2nd place finish
Malagacy – Javier Castellano/Todd Pletcher – 95 BSF at Gulfstream Park win
Uncontested – Channing Hill/Wayne Catalano  – 96 BSF in Smarty Jones Stakes win
Untrapped – Ricardo Santana Jr./Steve Asmussen  – 92 BSF in Withers Stakes win
Lookin At Lee – ?/Steve Asmussen – 83 BSF in Breeders Cup Juvenile 4th place finish
Silver Dust – Corey Lanerie/Randy Morse  
Silver Bullion – Ramon Vazquez/D. Wayne Lukas 

Notable winners of the Rebel Stakes since 2004

  • American Pharoah (2015) – The 13th Triple Crown champion and the first Grand Slam Champion of thoroughbred racing.
  • Curlin (2007) – 2007 Preakness Stakes and Breeders Cup Classic winner who went on to win the 2007 Eclipse 3 Year Old Male Champion award, 2008 Eclipse Older Dirt Male Champion award and Horse of the Year honors in 2007 and 2008.
  • Smarty Jones (2004) – who went on to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and the 2004 Eclipse Male 3 Year Old Champion award
  • Lookin At Lucky (2010) – 2010 Preakness Stakes winner who went on to win the 2010 Eclipse 3 Year Old Male Champion award
  • Lawyer Ron (2006) – who won the 2007 Eclipse Older Dirt Male Champion award
  • Will Take Charge (2013) – 2013 Eclipse 3 Year Old Male Champion

Other notable Rebel Stakes runners: Afleet Alex who finished 6th in 2005 Rebel Stakes went on to win the 2005 Preakness and Belmont Stakes and the 2005 Eclipse 3 Year Old Male Champion award. Oxbow finished 2nd in the 2013 Rebel Stakes and went on to win the Preakness Stakes that year. Creator finished 3rd in last year’s Rebel Stakes went on to win the 2016 Belmont Stakes.


Who’s in the Kentucky Derby? Gunnevera (64), Tapwrit (54), J Boys Echo (53), Girvin (50) and Practical Joke (34). All have enough Derby points historically to earn a starting spot in the Run for the Roses.

–Michael