With no Kentucky Derby, horse racing turns its gaze to Arkansas

There will be an undeniable void this weekend for anyone who has made the first Saturday in May a tradition in their sports fandom. Even for someone who only watches one horse race a year, not having a Kentucky Derby this spring will resonate as one of those moments that marks the strangeness of living through the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But for the sport of horse racing, which is still operating in some places around the country in a fan-free capacity, having a Kentucky Derby rescheduled for Sept. 5 presented a unique challenge for the owners and trainers who think they can win it: Where do you run your horse in the meantime? 

With limited opportunities for top 3-year-olds to race during this odd period where the Triple Crown has been delayed and racetracks in California, Kentucky and New York are closed, the eyes of the sport this weekend will be trained on Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas. 

Taking advantage of the fact that Churchill Downs is still closed, Oaklawn moved its signature race for 3-year olds, the Arkansas Derby, from April 11 to this Saturday and had so much interest from owners that they’re going to run it twice. 

Instead of limiting the field to 14 horses running for $1 million as the track would do in a typical year, Oaklawn accepted 22 entries and split the field evenly into two divisions who will each race for a $500,000 purse. 

“Because of our national crisis, we and the entire world of sports are in uncharted waters requiring unprecedented actions,” Oaklawn president Louis Cella said in a news release. “We’re trying to make the best of a very, very difficult situation. On one hand, it is the worst of times to be racing without fans in our grandstand. On the other, we have a large number of exceptional 3-year-olds wanting to run in our Arkansas Derby. We simply did not want to see anyone lose that opportunity.” 

American Pharoah, right, won the Arkansas Derby in 2015 before going on to win the Triple Crown. (Photo: David Quinn, AP)

Even as a standalone event, the Arkansas Derby is annually one of the top prep races for the Kentucky Derby. Notably, Triple Crown winner American Pharoah came out of Arkansas in 2015, as did Country House, who was named last year’s Kentucky Derby winner when Maximum Security was disqualified. 

But with so few options at the moment for 3-year-olds to run in big races and earn points that could qualify them for the Kentucky Derby in the fall, both fields at Oaklawn are loaded. Across the two races, six of the top 15 horses in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association 3-year-old poll will race.

“Hats off to the Cella family and to Oaklawn. For them to do what they’ve done has been a godsend,” said Jack Wolf, the managing partner and CEO of Starlight Racing, who will send out the lightly raced Charlatan as the likely favorite in the first division. “Thank goodness they came up with a way to split the race. I’m tickled to death that there’s 22 horses because we probably wouldn’t have (gotten) in with Charlatan.”

In a normal year, the top 3-year-olds would be spread out in March and April among the top six prep races, which also include the Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass Stakes and the Wood Memorial, which have not been run because those tracks are currently closed. 

So for horses that would have targeted one of those races to earn their Kentucky Derby points, it’s pretty much Arkansas or bust, at least until racing gets going again in more places. Trainer Peter Eurton, who is based out of Southern California, said he likely would have kept last year’s 2-year old champion Storm the Court at Santa Anita this spring. But once that track closed on March 27, Arkansas was the only option to run for significant prize money. 

“It is a challenge. You don’t want to keep training, training, training,” Eurton said. “Our options were limited. He’s coming up to his third race off a layoff so we thought the timing was right for him to take the trip. As far as the race being split, I think it’s really a great thing to see.”

Legendary trainer Bob Baffert, as usual, comes in with a strong hand in both divisions. In addition to Charlatan, who was dominant in his two starts this winter at Santa Anita, Baffert will send out Nadal in the second division.

Named for the 19-time Grand Slam tennis champion, Nadal is 3-for-3 in his career and won the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 14. He’ll face Tampa Bay Derby winner King Guillermo and Louisiana Derby winner Wells Bayou, all of whom would have been strong contenders if the Kentucky Derby had been run this weekend. 

“We’re just fortunate and just grateful that they split it and we get to run them there and keep them separated,” Baffert said. “I really did not want to run them together.”

Source: Read Full Article