Omaha Beach (right, nearest rail) prevailed over Game Winner in the Rebel Stakes and runs next against Improbable in the Arkansas Derby. | Courtesy of Coady Photography

Don’t forget the Arkansas Derby. The last, but maybe far from least, of the springtime parade of prep races leading to the Kentucky Derby comes up Saturday evening at Oaklawn Park, in Hot Springs, Ark.

Eleven three-year-old colts are entered in the $1 million, 1 1/8th miles race. Three are considered top betting choices. And two will be contending for what looks like the final available starting slot in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.

That’s a nice storyline setup, but a battle between Improbable and Omaha Beach could amount to more than qualifying one horse or the other — maybe both — to run in the Kentucky Derby. This observer feels that if Omaha Beach runs big and puts on a strong show, he would vault right into consideration as an elite contender for the Kentucky Derby, May 4 at Churchill Downs. He’d be one of the ones.

Don’t know if that will happen. The other horse, Improbable, might very well win. He’s well-intended, owned by WinStar Farm and Starlight Racing, trained by Bob Baffert — and the connections are bringing in Jose Ortiz to ride. If Improbable gets into the Kentucky Derby, Baffert would have three starters. All live chances. The trainer has already won five Kentucky Derbys, and a sixth would tie him for the all-time lead with Ben Jones, of Calumet Farm fame.

Or, the Arkansas Derby could go in some other way entirely. It could be that Long Range Toddy might come along again late as he did in the Rebel Stakes when he surprised Improbable in the final strides. Or maybe some other horse.

But we don’t think so.

We’ve got the radar homed in on Omaha Beach, thinking ahead to the first Saturday in May. The horse has electricity about him. Got a vibe. He’s trained by Hall of Fame trainer Dick Mandella, who has not won the Kentucky Derby. And ridden by Mike Smith, who got his second Derby riding Triple Crown winner Justify last year. Of course, Smith is also the rider of Roadster, the current Derby favorite. So that could be another story.

The Arkansas Derby goes at 7:34 p.m. Eastern Time Saturday, April 13, and will carried live in programming that begins at 7 on NBC SN. TVG and Twinspires.com also air the race, as well as the Horse Racing Radio Network on Sirius, and ESPN 680 AM, in Louisville.

Baffert pair runs one-two in California
Roadster scoots along the outside to pass stablemate Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby. | Courtesy of Benoit Photo

It’s funny to be all excited about the Arkansas Derby because last Saturday had a definite feeling of finality to it.

Well-regarded contenders ran strongly to take three traditional Kentucky Derby prep races, in New York, Kentucky and California, gathering sufficient points to nail down starting spots in the 20-horse Derby field. Especially Roadster and Game Winner, finishing one-two for trainer Bob Baffert in the Santa Anita Derby, and the possible one-two betting choices now for the Kentucky Derby.

Roadster made a big splash winning the Santa Anita Derby, getting rolling late to run down stablemate Game Winner. The latter was the 2018 two-year-old champion, winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile convincingly last fall at Churchill Downs. Both will be in the Kentucky Derby and both will be bet. And bet hard.

My first thought on the race was that Game Winner did all the work, parked three to four horses wide on both turns fighting the pacesetters, while Roadster merely came along the easy way — hanging back in a comfortable gallop under jockey Mike Smith (that man again), and simply swooping home to pick up the pieces.

On the other hand, Roadster, who is owned by the Speedway Stable from the Raise a Native line stallion Quality Road sure looked good. He’s a charcoal gray. Looks like a runner. And obviously can rate and then roll, which would seem to be perfect for 1 ¼ miles at Churchill Downs.

Trainer Bob Baffert | Photo by Bill Doolittle

Then again, you’ve got to give it Game Winner. He’s hickory. Fast. Game. And also descending from the Derby-preferred Raise a Native sire line.

“When Game Winner turned for home, I thought he was going to win for sure because he likes company,” Baffert told commentator Michelle Yew. “But then when I saw Roadster coming, I was thinking I hope that’s my other horse. Those two are really good horses.”

Baffert noted that lightly raced Roadster did not appear to appreciate dirt thrown back in his face in the early stages of the race, but settled into a sweet stride running alone down the backside.

Then the trainer looked up into the stands at Santa Anita, which has just reopened after shutting down for three weeks to examine a rash of injuries since the end of December. Twenty-three horses have been humanely destroyed after being injured in morning training or races.

It’s a problem that has rocked the racing world and drawn much attention beyond the sport. And it is curious because the spike in injuries has occurred only at Santa Anita, one of racing’s most famous venues. Not other tracks.

The picturesque racecourse at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains near Pasadena, in Los Angeles, opened in 1934 and has never had a similar problem. Most observers feel the probable cause is continuous winter rains and abnormally cold temperatures that may have affected the track’s base. The ground can be shaky in California, you know.

Baffert waved to the crowd. “You know what’s the best,” he said, “is after what we’ve been through the last month, and you see all these fans here. They showed up here today. It’s the best therapy that anybody could get because everybody knows we love our horses, and we love our game.”

Interestingly, Santa Anita’s problems brought an extra storyline to Arkansas. With Santa Anita closed, Oaklawn Park split its Rebel Stakes in February into two races to accommodate California horses on the Kentucky Derby trail, as well as those already slated for the Rebel.

Around the ovals and headed for Louisville

Looking at notable performances in other Derby preps, the Wood Memorial in New York went to Tacitus, which came from well back for youthful star rider Jose Ortiz and veteran Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. The gray horse looked pretty good.

Tacitus previously won the Tampa Bay Derby, making him the only major Kentucky Derby player in 2019 to win two prep races in a row. A horse named Tax followed Tacitus for second in the Wood and will also be in the Derby. The tax man followeth.

The Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland last Saturday saw favored Vekoma ridden to an easy triumph by jockey Javier Castellano. Second choice Win Win Win got tangled up in traffic but rallied under Irad Ortiz Jr. to get up for second and a spot in the Kentucky Derby, too.

Louisville native George Weaver, trainer of Derby-bound Vekoma | Courtesy of Keeneland Photo

Louisville native George Weaver, who prepped at Atherton High, trains Vekoma and was thrilled with the horse’s Blue Grass victory.

“My dad used to take us to Blue Grass Day every year,” said Weaver. “He’d take us out of school. It used to be nine days before the Derby. So Keeneland and this race is special to me. I grew up around it.”

Weaver came up as an assistant trainer with D. Wayne Lukas, then Todd Pletcher.

“All the good horses I’ve been around in Wayne’s barn, and Pletcher’s barn, I would say one of the traits that they almost all have is they’re very intelligent,” said Weaver. “And this horse is very intelligent. He knows what he’s here for.  He knows he’s a racehorse. He knows how to win. He’ll give you 110 percent. Those things I know about him. Very smart, and he’ll give you everything he has.”

Walking the dog
Nobody came close to jockey Luis Saez and Maximum Security, who strolled to easy early fractions and ran away late in the Florida Derby. | Photo by Leslie Martin

A week earlier in the Florida Derby, Maximum Security got loose on the lead and went wire-to-wire. Jockey Luis Saez shot his horse out of the gate, then slowed the pace to “walk the dog” along the backstretch. Turning for home, Saez hit the accelerator and Maximum Security strode away strongly.

Longshot Bodexpress followed Maximum Security all the way for second, with highly regarded Code of Honor and Bourbon War third and fourth, respectively.

Despite the favorable pace scenario, it was a strong race for Maximum Security, and we anticipate Saez will try the same tactics again in the Kentucky Derby.

Code of Honor was running hard at the end under jockey Johnny Velazquez, and one must believe the distance-bred colt trained by Shug McGaughey got plenty out of the race, wind-wise.

Code of Honor won the Fountain of Youth earlier in Florida and is a horse we hold as a possible top selection for the Kentucky Derby. Now that he’s a little out of the spotlight the son of Irish-bred Noble Mission could be a terrific odds play in the Kentucky Derby.

We’ll have binoculars focused on this horse as he trains through the next three weeks at Keeneland and Churchill Downs for the 145th Run for the Roses.

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