There aren’t many stakes races on the schedule these days, but there will be double the Grade I Arkansas Derby action at Oaklawn Park on Saturday, with that Kentucky Derby points race split into two divisions because of a flood of entries.
Leading the charge will two undefeated colts from the barn of Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, who has even-money Charlatan in the first division and Nadal in the second division as a slight favorite at 5-2 on the morning line.
The two Arkansas Derby heats drew 11 horses each, but each is expected to have at least two scratches, Shooters Shoot and Wrecking Crew from the first, and long shots Fast Enough and Saratogian from the second.
Each division will be worth the full 170 points, with 100 to each winner, toward qualifying for the Kentucky Derby, rescheduled from Saturday to Sept. 5 at Churchill Downs because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Baffert’s top-ranked 3-year-old on the NTRA national poll is Authentic, at No. 2 behind Tiz the Law, but Nadal and Charlatan are right behind him at 3 and 4, respectively.
“We’re just fortunate and just grateful that they split it [Arkansas Derby] and we get to run them there and keep them separated,” Baffert told the Oaklawn Park press office on Thursday. “I really did not want to run them together.”
Charlatan, co-owned by a variety of partnerships, including Starlight Racing, hasn’t raced in stakes company, but won his two starts at Santa Anita by a combined 16 lengths under Drayden Van Dyke, most recently at a mile on March 14.
Martin Garcia will ride Charlatan in the Arkansas Derby.
“Drayden has been getting on both horses [Charlatan and Authentic] in the morning, and he tends to think Authentic is a better horse, but until Charlatan had his two-turn race last time, I think Bob may have had some concerns on the distance limitations,” Starlight managing partner Jack Wolf said during a national teleconference. “But the way he galloped out and won the race, I think that calmed his nerves a little bit.”
The Arkansas Derby will be run at a mile and an eighth.
Charlatan will break from the rail in the first division, which also includes Gouverneur Morris, an impressive debut winner at Saratoga Race Course last summer who most recently was fourth to Tiz the Law in the Florida Derby, and Basin, who won the Hopeful at Saratoga.
Unraced as a 2-year-old, Nadal has won three starts this season by a combined 5 1/4 lengths, including the Grade II San Vicente at Santa Anita and the Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn on March 14.
Like the Arkansas Derby, the Rebel, run shortly after many tracks had shut down because of COVID-19, was split into two divisions.
“They’re both doing fantastic,” Baffert said. “I think Nadal, for some reason, he doesn’t get the respect that he should be getting. He’s a really top horse.
“Last time, we were on the inside and had to get away from there and go and then we got hooked up early by American Theorem. He came to us and they went fast. To me, I think he showed us that day what he’s really made of. And they came to him. He had every reason to stop and he just kept going.”
“This will be his third start off the layoff, and we’re hoping for a good, honest pace,” trainer Todd Pletcher said of Gouverneur Morris. “I think he’s a horse that’s looking to kind of settle and make a run. It was difficult to do that last time at Gulfstream, with the track being kind of speed favoring and not much pace on in the race. Kind of had to chase them a little bit the whole way. I thought he finished with good interest.”
“We definitely haven’t gotten the best of Basin this year,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “This is his third start off the layoff, so it’s time to get it done. The weather looks good this weekend after catching two off tracks. There’s a lot more there.”
The second division of the Arkansas Derby also includes 2-year-old male champion Storm the Court; King Guillermo, the 49-1 upset winner of the Tampa Bay Derby owned by five-time MLB all-star Victor Martinez; and Louisiana Derby winner Wells Bayou.
Storm the Court won the 2019 Eclipse Award by virtue of his victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at odds of 45-1.
He has yet to win in 2020, finishing fourth to Nadal in the San Vicente and fifth to Authentic in the San Felipe.
“I don’t think we had him too keyed up for the San Vicente,” trainer Peter Eurton said. “He ran OK. Probably a little bit on the dull side, but I thought he bounced back decently in the San Felipe and didn’t have the best of trips.
“The quality of horses always tends to change a little bit from 2-year-old to 3-year-old. But he does have reason to get better, because he’s a late foal, he’s a May foal, and we’re happy with the way he’s going right now.”
AROUND THE TRACKS
Baffert was scheduled to participate in the NTRA teleconference on Tuesday, but instead he and his wife Jill, along with trainer Doug O’Neill, joined a demonstration in front of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors building while the board was conducting its own wide-ranging teleconference.
The ralliers were calling for a resumption of spectator-less racing at Santa Anita, which hasn’t held racing since March 22 and has been shut down by the L.A. County Department of Health as non-essential.
In anticipation of relaxed restrictions by Gov. Gavin Newsom this month, Santa Anita has written a condition book for race cards beginning on May 15, including a June 6 card that includes the Santa Anita Derby, an important Kentucky Derby prep race originally scheduled for April 4.
Churchill Downs said on Thursday that the track has received permission from the state of Kentucky to re-open its stable area on May 11, and the track plans to begin racing on Saturday, May 16.
Horses will be allowed to ship in from other tracks around the country on a phased schedule.