Saturday’s $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) is the last scoring race on the road to the 2018 Kentucky Derby (G1), with a 7:18 p.m. (EDT) post time that puts it well after the Lexington’s (G3) scheduled post of 5:34 p.m. at Keeneland.
Fittingly enough for a Derby trail that’s showcased some serious talent, in a crop shaping up to be stronger than average, the points chase promises to end not with a whimper but a bang.
Without further ado, here are my five things to know for the Arkansas Derby:
1. Magnum Moon can reinforce the magnificent impression left by his Rebel (G2) victory. From a Todd Pletcher barn that’s been scooping up other 170-point scoring races with Audible (Florida Derby [G1]), Noble Indy (Louisiana Derby [G2]), and Vino Rosso (Wood Memorial [G2]), Magnum Moon is arguably the most naturally gifted of the lot. The blueblood son of Malibu Moon, bred on a cross redolent of 2013 Kentucky Derby hero Orb, has exuded class at every stage. Given his tactical foot, and push-button style, it’s easy to envision his executing a similarly emphatic stalk-and-pounce trip as in the Rebel. The slight increase in distance to 1 1/8 miles should only suit a colt of his classic-oriented pedigree.
The other premier Derby contender seeking to defy the “Apollo curse,” along with Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner Justify, Magnum Moon can claim a couple of advantages over that Bob Baffert favorite. He got started in mid-January, a full month earlier than Justify, and boasts a greater breadth of experience. Magnum Moon has won his three races so far over three different tracks, including his first taste of shipping to Oaklawn. The Arkansas Derby marks his fourth outing, one more than Justify, and if he remains perfect on Saturday evening, Magnum Moon will re-ignite the buzz.
2. Solomini is better than he showed when an inconvenienced second in the Rebel. The victim of a mild upset by Magnum Moon as the even-money favorite in his last trip to Oaklawn, the Baffert pupil did not have his preferred passage through the race. His ground-saving trip did him no favors when he couldn’t find room on the rail, had to steady, and came around just as Magnum Moon was forging clear. Solomini fought admirably to outfinish Combatant for runner-up honors. That was a solid performance off the layoff for a horse who looks like a grinding type, from his placings in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and FrontRunner (G1) to his first-past-the-post disqualification in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1). With a little more breathing room this time in post 5, Solomini projects a better trip, and a fairer shot at Magnum Moon. That said, since he lacks that touch of brilliance, the Curlin colt needs to get a more forward position and steal a march on Magnum Moon, because he likely won’t be able to outkick him.
In the “funny how things work out” department, Solomini was rerouted here as part of the domino effect of stablemate McKinzie’s injury. Thus Justify, originally slated for the Arkansas Derby, replaced McKinzie in the Santa Anita Derby. Solomini, aiming for the Wood Memorial, was re-deployed for another tour of duty at Oaklawn. Considering the mad pace that unfolded at Aqueduct, Solomini may be better off here after all.
3. Combatant is the most accomplished of the trio for Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, who also has up-and-coming Tenfold and Dream Baby Dream. Seconditis personified over the winter, Combatant rallied to place to Greyvitos in Remington’s Springboard Mile and in the first two Oaklawn points races, the Smarty Jones (to ill-fated Mourinho) and Southwest (G3) (to rail-skimming My Boy Jack). But for the hard-trying Solomini’s resistance in the Rebel, Combatant would have made it four seconds in a row. Outside posts in his last pair, and an unfavorable race shape in the Smarty Jones, have made life tougher for him. Although Combatant has drawn wide again, post 9 in a nine-horse field, at least the added ground may help the closer. And since late sire Scat Daddy is making all the headlines with Justify and Mendelssohn, and Flameaway’s second in the Blue Grass (G2), Combatant could be yet another representative to step forward. Still, he has to do just that to shed his bridesmaid status.
Tenfold gives Winchell Thoroughbreds (co-owner of Combatant) an additional rooting interest. The homebred son of Curlin makes his stakes debut after opening his career with two straight wins over the track. Dominant on the front end in his February 9 unveiling, Tenfold had to work harder from a tracking position to prevail in an entry-level allowance. The runner-up was Pletcher’s useful Navistar, though, and they pulled more than three lengths clear of Plainsman. Tenfold may show early speed from post 3 with Victor Espinoza, who picks up the mount with Ricardo Santana Jr. remaining on Combatant. Completing the Asmussen contingent is Dream Baby Dream, best of the rest behind Runaway Ghost in the Sunland Derby (G3). The deep closer needed a pace meltdown to finish so well, and it’s doubtful that these early factors will oblige. Dream Baby Dream is also the most exposed, having made eight career starts, including thirds in Oaklawn allowances to Bravazo as well as to stablemates Title Ready and New York Central. On the plus side, the step up to 1 1/8 miles yielded a career-best in the Sunland Derby.
4. Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner Quip had his stock boosted in last Saturday’s points races. The aforementioned Flameaway was runner-up at Tampa before filling that same spot in the Blue Grass, and Vino Rosso improved from a fourth at the Oldsmar oval to take the Wood. But there’s some difficulty in gauging exactly what that means for Quip in Arkansas. If the WinStar homebred was in hindsight a massive overlay at 19-1 at Tampa, it’s equally fair to note that he had the run of the race. When Flameaway got bumped at the start, he couldn’t secure the same beneficial trip as in the Sam F. Davis (G3). Quip, on the other hand, enjoyed the best possible position attending distance-challenged World of Trouble through slow fractions. To be sure, Quip was good enough to capitalize on the gift, but he’ll find a far different task here.
Note that the Arkansas Derby wasn’t trainer Rodolphe Brisset’s first choice. Quip was entered in the Blue Grass, but scratched to fill in for Justify (with likewise overlapping co-owners WinStar and China Horse Club) at Oaklawn. According to Daily Racing Form’s Mary Rampellini, the allure of the all-important Grade 1 for his profile as a stallion prospect was also in play. Unlike Solomini’s case, I’m not sure this will work out as well for Quip. The Blue Grass would have been a more straightforward set-up, over a Keeneland track he already loved at two. And if he just beat Flameaway again, Quip would have been no worse than second. Now he ships to face Magnum Moon, Solomini, and Asmussen’s posse from a likely overland trip out of post 8.
5. Beautiful Shot rates an interesting longshot. Trained by Keith Desormeaux, who dispatched My Boy Jack to take the Southwest and had highly-tried Sonneteer performing here on the 2017 Derby trail, Beautiful Shot has some smart Southern California form. The Calumet colorbearer was up in time to catch the napping Nero in his Del Mar debut, and next he ran down an exhausted Mourinho in the Speakeasy. After a distant third to front-running Greyvitos and Mourinho in the Bob Hope (G3), where the pace didn’t collapse, Beautiful Shot wasn’t seen again until the Gotham (G3). Aqueduct’s one-turn mile was a logical target, and he was in a good spot in the chasing pack, until losing position, getting checked, and wrapped up on the rest of the way. While he probably could have avoided the trouble if moving better at the time, the result is still a toss-out because his race was over on the far turn. This is a tough spot to try two turns, and his pedigree is no guarantee. But the placement itself is worth noting. Speaking of placement, Machismo wheels back just a week after a 12th in the Blue Grass. I expected a much better showing from the well-bred colt who was fourth in the Fountain of Youth (G2), but once he couldn’t muster enough early speed from post 12, that was all she wrote. The Loooch Racing runner still has upside, and he’s drawn light years better in post 2. But it’s difficult to endorse on the unexpected turnaround. Plainsman has been stuck on his entry-level allowance condition, and he’d do well to reverse form with Tenfold, let alone deal with the heavy-hitting invaders.
Magnum Moon photo courtesy of Coady Photography