Catching My Eye: In Person at the Arkansas Derby

April 6th, 2023

I pulled into Hot Springs, Arkansas, a perfect halfway point between my two homes, New Orleans and Kansas City, changed at the hotel and grabbed a cab. The driver told me all the inanities of his life. I asked him to drop me off early and I walked the last block, taking in the Arkansas Derby Day crowd. Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort was buzzing.

I had only been to Oaklawn Park once before. In a previous life, Arkansas was in my sales territory. I decided cold-calling school districts near Hot Springs was a fine idea, and as it goes with a salesman/horseplayer, I just so happened to spend an afternoon at the track. This was before the renovations. A new hotel, horse racing, table games, and dive bars across the street packed with the who’s who of our sport’s downtrodden and beautiful degenerates. What more could you want?

I walked in past the indoor paddock, heading out to the apron to watch Race 8, the inaugural running of the $200,000 Hot Springs Stakes for three-year-olds at one mile. Brad Cox had Eyeing Clover entered, and Cox was standing beneath the TV getting focused. It would be a big day for him, sweeping the three-year-old stakes as Eyeing Clover, Wet Paint, and Angel Of Empire each took the prize. 

Florent Geroux did everything right aboard Eyeing Clover, letting two longshot keen speedsters dictate the pace before threading the needle to split those two in the second turn and drawing away from the field. Who knows what exactly went wrong in the Gotham (G3) for Eyeing Clover because it could have been one or all of so many things: the wide draw, the off-track, the loose horse who spilled his rider. Blinkers went off for the Hot Springs Stakes and Eyeing Clover showed his maturity. Look for him to be dangerous going one mile in Kentucky this summer, or wherever he shows up, but I don’t trust him to be able to get much more distance than that.

Ahead of Race 9, the maiden special weight, I watched the three-year-olds in the paddock. The favorite Seeking Unity trained by Ken McPeek, the first-time starter Night Effect trained by Riley Mott, and the two from Asmussen all touted their fitness and health. Route Runner was too nervous to pause in his stall--it could have been the indoor paddock, quite the chaotic ordeal for a horse--until Asmussen came over with his grounded energy and calmed him down before saddling him up. 

Seeking Unity won the race but the most impressive was Night Effect. This Malibu Moon colt purchased for $330,000 had been strutting his stuff in his morning drills, and on Saturday, he dueled throughout, putting away Asmussen’s Auto Glide. When Seeking Unity came at him and took over, he had every excuse to fold, but no, Night Effect came back gamely. He had the rail, tough assignment on debut, and was inside throughout on a track I have as favoring outside runs, as I am finding out might often be the case going two turns at Oaklawn. 

I met up with friends on the third floor who were five races deep into a show pool and many beers deeper than that. The Fantasy (G3) was up next and the only question was would Wet Paint take to a dry track? She not only took to it, she stepped forward on it, running a 94 Brisnet Speed figure and drawing clear of the field for the third race in a row. Visually impressive every time, but lacking natural speed, I think the only scenario that could stop her in the Kentucky Oaks is a loose-on-the-lead filly who gets bold.

Arkansas Derby (G1) time, and as the table tossed around thoughts about how to bet it, I talked most everyone out of using Angel Of Empire. The shame was only bearable because of the 9 horse, King Russell. Not only the table, I had been talking the entire third floor into betting King Russell (I’d done my best to catch up on drinks). He had never had a fast main track as a three-year-old, angle enough to use a 59-1 underneath, and when I saw him in the paddock and the post parade, he was absolutely full of himself, strutting and composed, exactly what you want to see. He finished second and I had bet him across the board, but in my verticals, I faded Angel of Empire.

Both Angel of Empire and King Russell were aided by their wide moves in the second turn, and the horses who were stuck in tight towards the inside--Airtime and Harlocap--had the worst of it.

Thinking of the first Saturday in May, it’s hard to knock Angel of Empire as he has steadily stepped forward in each race, winning two of the biggest Derby preps. I want to fade him for the same reasons I was telling the table on Saturday, but there’s no way you’ll find me without him on top in my verticals come Kentucky Derby day. Especially with bombs like King Russell out there, who grinded home in the Arkansas Derby and pace-scenario-dependent will be able to do the same again in his next start. He has improved steadily, can get the distance, and who knows, might be the next Rich Strike.

At the end of the race day after milling around in the crowd, watching San Diego State crush the souls of FAU, doing the tomahawk chant with some Chiefs fans I ran into, four of us settled into The First Turn, a bar which has a patio extending from the main room. What a spot. You can see from there how sloped the course is--the top of the homestretch is the highest point, and the middle of the first turn appears to be the lowest. Now I know how those wide runs in the second turn can sling a serious mover down the stretch, which is exactly what we saw from Wet Paint and Angel Of Empire.