Bob Baffert already has two projected Kentucky Derby starters in Roadster and champion Game Winner. The Hall of Fame trainer can add a third when Improbable faces 10 scheduled rivals in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) Saturday at Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Ark.
Probable post time for the Arkansas Derby, which goes as the 11th of 12 races, is 6:43 p.m. CT. Thoroughbred racing begins at 12:35 p.m. Despite the threat of heavy rain, the infield will be open.
The projected Arkansas Derby field from the rail out: Improbable, Jose Ortiz to ride, 122 pounds, 8-5 on the morning line; Six Shooter, David Cohen, 122, 30-1; Omaha Beach, 122, Mike Smith, 2-1; Tikhvin Flew, Tyler Baze, 118, 30-1; Laughing Fox, Ricardo Santana Jr., 118, 20-1; Gray Attempt, Stewart Elliott, 122, 8-1; Galilean, Flavien Prat, 122, 10-1; Country House, Joel Rosario, 118, 12-1; One Flew South, Calvin Borel, 118, 50-1; Jersey Agenda, Ramon Vazquez, 118, 30-1; and Long Range Toddy, Jon Court, 122, 5-1.
The Arkansas Derby offers 170 points to the top four finishers (100-40-20-10) toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby.
According to Churchill Downs' official Kentucky Derby points rankings, Improbable is 27th on the list with 25 points The Kentucky Derby is limited to 20 starters. If the race overfills, starting preference given to horses with the highest point totals in designated races like the Arkansas Derby.
Improbable represents the seventh Arkansas Derby program favorite for Baffert in the last nine years. He won the race in 2012 with Bodemeister and again in 2015 with American Pharoah, who would go on to sweep the Triple Crown, Breeders' Cup Classic and be named Horse of the Year.
The Southern California-based Improbable won his first three career starts before being beaten a neck in his 3-year-old debut, the first division of the $750,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) March 16. The 1 1/16-mile Rebel is the final major local prep for the Arkansas Derby.
“We're there, so there's no turning back,” said Baffert, who trains Improbable for WinStar Farm, China Horse Club International and Starlight Racing. “We're all in. There's some nice horses this year. Nobody's just really sprung away from the field. There's a lot of parity. There's a lot of nice 3-year-olds. Happy to be in it. We need to run first, second or third.”
Improbable switches to Ortiz and adds blinkers after Baffert said the colt lost a little focus in the stretch of the Rebel.
Omaha Beach is the early second choice after beating Game Winner, Baffert's previously unbeaten Eclipse Award winner, a nose in the second division of the Rebel. Trained by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella, Omaha Beach is 2 for 3 since switching from turf to dirt. He broke his maiden by nine lengths over a sloppy track Feb. 2 at Santa Anita and held off Game Winner after opening a clear lead in the stretch.
“To be honest with you, I'm thinking if I'm going to beat a horse like Game Winner, right now might really be a good chance because he's coming off a long, long layoff,” Smith said after riding Omaha Beach for the first time in the Rebel. “But this horse is really starting to figure things out. And with the natural speed that he had, it really played to his advantage.”
Long Range Toddy will be the only horse to go through Oaklawn's four-race Kentucky Derby prep series this year. The Willis Horton-owned homebred finished second in the $150,000 Smarty Jones Jan. 25 and third in the $500,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Feb. 18 before tagging Improbable in deep stretch to win the first division of the Rebel under Court.
“I knew this horse and studied him enough that I hoped it would work out the way it did,” Court said after riding Long Range Toddy for the first time. “He's got a really ferocious kick. Again, it's just about executing the timing. In horse racing, it can work for you or work against you.”
Gray Attempt was a wire-to-wire winner of the Smarty Jones – his first start around two turns – and won the $125,000 Gazebo Stakes at 6 furlongs March 23 in his last start. Gray Attempt, who missed the Rebel because of a hind-end problem, figures to be the controlling speed Saturday for trainer Jinks Fires, who won the 2011 Arkansas Derby with Archarcharch.
No horse based at Oaklawn throughout the meeting has won the Arkansas Derby since Archarcharch.
Galilean, in his first start in open company, finished third, beaten 2 ½ lengths, in the first division of the Rebel for Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.
“Very good the way that he ran,” Hollendorfer said. “I can't say as what the weather's going to be on Saturday, but I understand we might be in for some rain. So, we'll see what happens there.”
Galilean removes blinkers for the Arkansas Derby.
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