American Pharoah used a pair of Oaklawn Park preps to set up his 2015 Triple Crown run and a myriad of top trainers, including Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen, will prepare their Kentucky Derby contenders over the Hot Springs, Arkansas oval.
[This story is an excerpt from the Oaklawn Meet Betting Guide, download the full guide for free here.]
Oaklawn features a quartet of qualifiers in the 2018 Road to the Kentucky Derby series. The first two, the January 15 Smarty Jones and February 19 Southwest (G3), are each worth 17 points (10-4-2-1). In the March 17 Rebel (G2), the point total increases to 85 (50-20-10-5). The track’s signature event, the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) on April 14, awards 170 points (100-40-20-10).
The $150,000 Smarty Jones is named for the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner who was based at Oaklawn and takes place on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The one-mile event has not a featured a Triple Crown race winner, but Will Take Charge was eventually named champion 3-year-old males after capturing the 2013 editions of the Smarty Jones and Rebel for Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who holds the record with 14 Triple Crown race wins and is stabled at Oaklawn.
Next comes the $500,000 Southwest, which is carded at 1 1/16 miles on President’s Day, and Baffert has posted four wins since 2010. Smarty Jones is the only Southwest runner to win a Triple Crown race this century.
The $900,000 Rebel at 1 1/16 miles has served an important stepping stone and topping the honor roll of past winners is American Pharoah, who rolled to a 6 ¼-length decision over a sloppy track in his first start back at age 3. He was trained by Hall of Famer Baffert, who holds the record with six Rebel victories and is tied for second all-time with four Kentucky Derby triumphs.
Other distinguished Rebel alumni of the last 20 years include two-time Horse of the Year and Preakness winner Curlin; Smarty Jones; Preakness and Belmont winner Afleet Alex; Preakness victors Lookin at Lucky and Oxbow; and Belmont Stakes winners Creator and Victory Gallop.
One the final major prep races, the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby has produced six Kentucky Derby heroes (American Pharoah, Super Saver, Smarty Jones, Grindstone, Lil E. Tee and Sunny’s Halo) and numerous winners of the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. In 2014, Bayern finished third in the Arkansas Derby before winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) that fall.
Pletcher leads all trainers with four wins and his first Kentucky Derby scorer, Super Saver, finished second in the 2010 edition. Asmussen has sent out a trio of Arkansas Derby winners.
Baffert enters the year with a pair of well-respected contenders in Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) winner McKinzie and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) runner-up Solomini, and they likely won’t run against each other in preps. Expect to see one of them to head to Oaklawn and Baffert has several other well-respected maiden winners in his arsenal.
In 2017, Pletcher shipped in One Liner to win the Southwest and Malagacy to take Rebel. The leading conditioner often has an embarrassment of riches in South Florida and he’ll probably employ the Arkansas route with multiple runners.
Asmussen has won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes but is still seeking an elusive Kentucky Derby victory. After being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016 and orchestrating Gun Runner’s Horse of the Year season in 2017, Asmussen is focused upon the first Saturday in May and will likely have multiple horses for the Oaklawn preps. Copper Bullet, New York Central and Principe Guilherme are among his top prospects currently.
(Photos by Coady Photography/Oaklawn Park)