Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has the opportunity at a rare sweep of Oaklawn Park's graded stakes for three-year-olds when he saddles the probable two favorites in the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby on Saturday. The 1 1/8-mile feature, which has yielded classic winners Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Curlin, Summer Bird, and Super Saver over the past decade, highlights a blockbuster 12-race card that concludes not only the Racing Festival of the South but the 2012 Oaklawn racing season.
Baffert sent out Castaway and Secret Circle to capture the two divisions of the Grade 3 Southwest in February, brought Secret Circle back to capture the Grade 2 Rebel last month, and will send that son of Eddington to Hot Springs for a third time seeking a series sweep. Joining him is the lightly-raced Bodemeister, an Empire Maker colt owned by Zayat Stables and named after Baffert's young son, Bode.
Raced exclusively in sprints during a three-race juvenile campaign, Secret Circle has fared well in two-turn events this year without being authoritative. Indeed, at times the colt has appeared to struggle with the additional ground and shown a tendency to drift in the stretch. Despite those flaws, his dogged persistence and will to find the finish line first yielded the top prize in the Southwest, by a half-length, and the Rebel by three-quarters of a length.
"Secret Circle has been getting the distance so far," Baffert said. "He hasn't shown me he can't get it -- they can all get it until they show you they can't."
Bodemeister, who only debuted on January 16, rebounded from that initial loss to post a 9 1/4-length maiden win at Santa Anita over a mile on February 11. Most recently, the colt went down fighting by a half-length in the Grade 2 San Felipe to Creative Cause, one of the West Coast's leading classic prospects. Rafael Bejarano, who had been riding both Secret Circle and Bodemeister, has chosen Secret Circle for the Arkansas Derby. Bodemeister, who will race without blinkers for the first time Saturday and is the 9-5 morning-line favorite, will be guided by Mike Smith.
Jockey Jon Court will be looking to make a bit of history of his own Saturday when he rides Optimizer in the Arkansas Derby. Court will seek an unprecedented third straight win in the race after winning aboard Line of David in 2010 and Archarcharch last year.
Optimizer ran easily his best race ever on dirt when a fast-closing second to Secret Circle in the Rebel. The deep closer appeared to have a future on grass and synthetic early in his juvenile season after placing in the Grade 2 With Anticipation and Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity, but will remain on the classic trail for now following the strong Rebel effort. The son of grass champion English Channel would be Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas' third Arkansas Derby winner should he triumph, following in the hoofsteps of Althea (1984) and Tank's Prospect (1985).
Isn't He Clever, who opened up a big lead in the stretch of the Grade 3 Sunland Derby only to get run down late by Daddy Nose Best, will seek redemption in the Arkansas Derby. The multiple stakes-winning son of Smarty Jones, who won Oaklawn's big three in 2004 en route to a near Triple Crown sweep, will also shed blinkers for the first time Saturday for trainer Henry Dominguez.
Sabercat already has the necessary graded earnings to make the Kentucky Derby field due to his win last November in the Grade 3, $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot. Whether he truly belongs in the lineup will be determined Saturday as the Steve Asmussen trainee was a dull eighth in the Rebel in his first start of the season. His connections would figure to press forward with a strong showing here, but may re-evaluate if forward progress does not occur.
Trainer Todd Pletcher will saddle two in the Arkansas Derby. Stat, whose juvenile campaign ended prematurely following a distant second-place finish to Union Rags in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special, exits a 6 1/4-length allowance victory at Gulfstream around a one-turn mile. His stablemate, Raconteur, most recently gutted out a head victory in a modest renewal of the Private Terms at Laurel.
The remainder of the field has work to do to be competitive. Cozzetti ships in from Florida after finishing third in the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby. Jake Mo earned minor checks in the Rebel, the first Southwest division, and the Smarty Jones earlier in the meet, while Najjaar and Atigun both failed to make their case in the Rebel.