Handicappers Debate: 2023 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park

March 30th, 2023

The Arkansas Derby (G1) is arguably the more competitive of the two Kentucky Derby (G1) preps this weekend and is the focus of this week’s debate involving handicappers Vance Hanson and Alastair Bull. The 1 1/8-mile feature has attracted a field of 11.

Vance Hanson: #4 Two Eagles River (10-1) looks an appealing longshot to me on Saturday. Versatile in running style and surface condition affinity, the stakes-placed gelding enters off of an impressive allowance win over the Oaklawn strip on Feb. 19, in which he defeated subsequent Louisiana Derby (G2) runner-up Disarm by four lengths.

Although he had a recency edge over that rival and was unpressured on the lead, I expect Two Eagles River to revert to a stalking trip in the Arkansas Derby, especially with the likes of Harlocap and morning line favorite Reincarnate likely to show the way. If they happen to soften each other up, I’m hopeful Two Eagles River will be in position to get the jump on closers like Red Route One and Angel of Empire.

Who do you like Alastair?

Alastair Bull: Unoriginally, I’m with #7 Rocket Can (4-1). I’ve felt the best form throughout the Derby preps has been around Forte, with most of the horses he’s beaten having shown something in subsequent races. On that score, it’s pretty difficult for me to go past the horse Forte beat into second in the Fountain of Youth (G2).

Rocket Can also has another good piece of form for this: not his Holy Bull (G3) victory, but the Churchill Downs juvenile allowance Nov. 26. He was beaten by a half-length by subsequent Rebel (G2) winner Confidence Game, and was nearly seven lengths ahead of Hit Show, who went on from his fourth placing that day to win the Withers (G3). I think he’ll be close to the speed as well and ready to pounce.

I have to ask the question though, Vance: what is a rocket can?

VH: All good points on Rocket Can, whose moniker brings to mind a collection of lethal fireworks or the world’s most potent energy drink.

One thing we seem to agree on is standing against Reincarnate. While many folks lauded his performance in the Rebel, and it was commendable given the trouble he encountered, I thought he was actually fortunate to receive the trip he did. By getting shuffled back early, he avoided a suicidal pace duel that he otherwise would have been a part of. The fast pace played into the hands of those, like him, who rallied from behind.

There’s seemingly not as much speed on paper as there was in the Rebel, but I still harbor doubts whether a forwardly-placed Reincarnate will be as effective over longer distances. What do you make of that take and are there more logical reasons for standing against the morning line choice?

AB: I am with you. Reincarnate’s trouble happened because Red Route One was going by much quicker than he was travelling, and that was after looping the field rather than cutting the corner. I would personally back Red Route One to finish ahead of Reincarnate again; no doubt I’ll be proved wrong, but the extra distance should suit Red Route One.

I haven’t forgotten Angel of Empire, who we already know handles this journey. He may need a solid tempo to be in the finish, but I liked the grit he showed when winning the Risen Star. However, it’s slightly intriguing that with Flavien Prat aboard, Angel of Empire is getting his fifth different jockey in five races. Clearly he loses nothing for having Prat replace Luis Saez, who sticks to Gulfstream this weekend and is probably set for Tapit Trice in the Derby, but the signals sent with the rider merry-go-round aren’t ideal.

Anyway, it looks a fascinating contest. I hope Two Eagles River gets a trouble-free run for you and thus gets the chance to show he’s better than all but Rocket Can.