Eleven 3-year-olds are set for Saturday's $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) led by the Bob Baffert-trained duo of Bodemeister and Secret Circle as the top two betting choices, with the latter looking to sweep Oaklawn's major prep races after wins earlier this season in the $250,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) and $500,000 Rebel Stakes (G2).
The marquee race will anchor a 12-race card, that also features the $250,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3) and $400,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2). First post is 12 noon and the Derby will be at 5:45 p.m. (CDT). It is part on a one-hour national broadcast from 5 – 6 p.m. (CDT) on CNBC.
Zayat Stable's Bodemeister, named in honor of the trainer's son Bode, enters the Arkansas Derby off a narrow loss to the highly regarded Creative Cause in the San Felipe Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita March 10. That strong effort came just one race after breaking his maiden by 9 ¼ lengths in his second career start. He will have to call on all his talents after drawing post 11 under Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith, who became the newest member of the 5,000-win club last weekend.
Secret Circle, owned by Mike Pegram, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman, drew post 5 and will have regular rider Rafael Bejarano back on board. He will vie for favoritism from his stablemate after his earlier wins this season. In the Rebel, he showed a new dimension when he sat off the early pace and held off the late charge by Optimizer to win his first race over one mile.
“Secret Circle has been getting the distance so far,” said Baffert. “He hasn't shown me he can't get it – they can all get it until they show you they can't.”
“This'll be a good race with some nice horses in there,” he continued. “I think Bodemiester will be tough. These are two really good horses and even though I don't like to get ahead of myself, it's always special just to have a horse that has a chance in the Kentucky Derby, so hopefully we wind up with one of those on Saturday.”
Arriving from the east coast were Stat and Raconteur from the barn of Todd Pletcher and Cozzetti from the barn of Dale Romans. Pletcher won the 2000 and 2001 Arkansas Derby with Graeme Hall and Balto Star, respectively and won his first Kentucky Derby with 2010 runner-up Super Saver.
Leading the local contingent is Bluegrass Hall's Optimizer, out to continue his momentum shown at the end of the Rebel. He would give jockey Jon Court his third straight Arkansas Derby victory following Line of David and Archarcharch.
Two other colts who could get overlooked in the wagering, but have legitimate credentials are Jake Mo and Najjaar. Jake Mo will be the only colt to compete in all four of Oaklawn's 3-year-old races having already finished fourth in the Smarty Jones, second in the first division of the Southwest won by Secret Circle's stablemate Castaway and fourth in the Rebel. Najjaar won two straight allowance races, including one over older horses prior to finishing sixth in the Rebel after a poor break. He drew post 3 and will have the services of jockey Calvin Borel.
“We'll just let him run his race,” said trainer Danny Peitz of Najjaar. In 2006, he trained Steppenwolfer to a runner-up finish in Arkansas and a third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. “Calvin knows the horse, he's ridden him enough times. We just want an honest pace, that's all we're looking for. We have no wiggle room here. With Steppenwolfer, I thought if we were second, we'd make the Kentucky Derby. But we need to win, so we've gotta go out and get it done. It's always tough – a million dollars, a grade one race, they don't give those kind away – but I'm expecting a big race. The farther, the better. I think the mile and an eighth is just what we've been waiting for.”
The complete field for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1), in post-position order, with riders and morning line odds: Cozzetti, Jose Lezcano, 15-1; Stat, John Velazquez, 10-1; Najjaar, Calvin Borel, 15-1; Jake Mo, Cliff Berry, 30-1; Secret Circle, Rafael Bejaraon, 5-2, Isn't He Clever, Robby Albarado, 6-1; Optimizer, Jon Court, 30-1; Atigun, Terry Thompson, 30-1; Sabercat, Corey Nakatani, 15-1; Raconteur, Chris DeCarlo, 15-1, and Bodemeister, Mike Smith, 9-5.
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