Zayat Stables' Bodemeister entered Saturday's Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby on a mission for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. The late-developing colt had just $60,000 in graded earnings, garnered from his runner-up effort in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, and needed a huge effort to ensure a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. Racing as if aware of the high stakes involved, Bodemeister dominated in wire-to-wire fashion by 9 1/2 lengths, and ran himself into the Run for the Roses.
"What a race," said assistant trainer Jim Barnes, who was deputizing for Baffert. "That was sweet. We knew he was good -- didn't know quite how good -- but he moved up a lot after his last race. We are very happy."
At the same time, the Empire Maker colt completed Baffert's grand sweep of Oaklawn Park's graded series for three-year-olds this season. Stablemate Secret Circle, winner of the Grade 2 Rebel and the second division of the Grade 3 Southwest, finished a distant second to Bodemeister on Saturday. Another Baffert pupil, Castaway, had captured the first division of the Southwest in his only invasion of Oaklawn.
Baffert, a three-time Kentucky Derby winner, will head back to Churchill Downs, this time with a sense of poignancy. Aside from the fact that Bodemeister is named for his young son, Bode, Baffert is still recuperating from emergency surgery he underwent after recently suffering a heart attack in Dubai.
Bodemeister, who only just began his racing career in January, will now try to overcome one of the most daunting of Kentucky Derby statistics. No horse who was unraced as a juvenile has gone on to win the Derby since Apollo in 1882 -- a factoid that will be repeated often in the build-up to Bodemeister's bid to rewrite history.
With regular rider Rafael Bejarano sticking with Secret Circle, Hall of Famer Mike Smith picked up the Arkansas Derby mount aboard Bodemeister. The stablemates vied for favoritism, but Bodemeister ended up going off as the slight 2-1 favorite, and Secret Circle was the second choice at 5-2. Their finishing positions wouldn't be so close.
Bodemeister broke outward a bit from the far outside post 11, but quickly regained the straight path and hustled to the front. Although Stat also flashed speed from post 2, Bodemeister got the upper hand through an opening quarter in :23, and opened up a comfortable advantage through splits of :46 2/5 and 1:11 1/5. Secret Circle, who had been stalking on the outside, tried to move into contention on the far turn. Bodemeister, however, had too many gears left.
Kicking away with authority, Bodemeister turned the Arkansas Derby into a one-horse show. He reached the mile mark in 1:36 3/5 and completed 1 1/8 miles on the fast track in 1:48 3/5, easily bettering the time of 1:49 4/5 posted by the four-year-old Alternation in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap one race prior. The tour de force resulted in payouts of $6.80, $4.60 and $3.60.
"It was extremely impressive," Smith said. "You could see it as well as I could feel it. I had been watching him work, watching him run. I had seen his last two works and I was very impressed. He was ultra-impressive.
"That last eighth was something. I was looking around about a length or so in front of the other horse (Secret Circle), and I set him down just in case someone was going to be coming, but then I looked up at the big TV board and I was like, whoa…I was like seven in front."
Baffert commented from California on the great performance.
"The key to this horse is keeping him quiet in the post parade," the trainer said. "He got really hot in his last race. It's exciting to see a young horse develop like this.
"Secret Circle ran a great race too. He's shipped in there three times and ran hard each time. That's pretty impressive.
"I told both riders that I didn't care what they did as long as they ran one-two. I let them each run their own race. Bodemeister really ran huge. It's a great feeling to run one-two in a million dollar race.
"We'll see what this took out of them," Baffert concluded, "and then we'll start talking (Kentucky) Derby. Oaklawn is a very kind surface, and the horses have been coming back great. Bodemeister should be in great shape. He ran hard and fast. We know distance won't be a problem."
"(Secret Circle) tried hard," Bejarano said. "He ran good, he broke beautiful, he tried so hard. The other horse was just much the best, you know? He's going to be good. He was relaxing, he made a good run. He got a little tired in the end."
Secret Circle tenaciously held onto runner-up honors by a neck from Sabercat, who prevailed by a head over Cozzetti for third. Atigun checked in fifth, followed by Stat, Najjaar, Isn't He Clever, Optimizer, Jake Mo and Raconteur.
Sabercat's connections looked on the bright side of his third-place effort.
"Bodemeister is tough," Sabercat's jockey Corey Nakatani said. "He is a very, very nice horse. He deserved to win today because he outran everybody. Sabercat put his heart out there, and ran a big race, and this is his second race after a little layoff. So he moved forward the way we wanted him to, except for not winning the race, but I think going forward to the next race, the Kentucky Derby, he'll be spot on.
"I think I definitely would have been second if it wasn't for Secret Circle weaving around. I had to dive inside him, and that cost me a little bit of momentum, but hopefully he did enough to get third and hopefully Steve (Asmussen) was pleased with it."
"I was very pleased with it," trainer Steve Asmussen said. "It was encouraging. It was the step in the right direction we were expecting and looking for -- the move forward we needed. It looked like a very good experience for him. We needed to see improvement and at this time of year, that's the important thing in each start. The winner ran an incredible race. To think he ran so much faster than the Oaklawn Handicap went just 30 minutes earlier, that gives you an idea of what he did today."
Bodemeister boosted his bankroll to $704,800, including $660,000 in graded earnings, from his 4-2-2-0 record. The bay colt made his debut at Santa Anita on January 16, where he reported home an encouraging second to American Act in a 5 1/2-furlong dash. Bodemeister was a different horse stretching out to two turns on February 11, annihilating a one-mile Santa Anita maiden by 9 1/4 lengths. He tried stakes company for the first time in the March 10 San Felipe and nearly upset a far more seasoned rival in Creative Cause. Despite arguing a testing pace throughout, Bodemeister hung tough down the stretch and only yielded late.
Baffert wanted to make sure that Bodemeister got into the Kentucky Derby, and weighed whether he should stay home at Santa Anita or hit the road. Ultimately deciding against last Saturday's Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, he chose the Arkansas route, and the gambit worked.
Another decision Baffert had to make involved equipment. Bodemeister had raced in blinkers in his first three starts, but took off the headgear for the Arkansas Derby.
A jockey change will be in order for the Kentucky Derby. Smith had reportedly committed to ride Daddy Nose Best on the first Saturday in May.
"I'm just going to enjoy this right now," Smith said. "I don't even know if I'm going to get to ride this horse back, because I was really just kind of filling in. I'm just going to enjoy it and we'll see. We all know how much things can change this time of year before the Derby."
Bred by Audley Farm in Virginia, Bodemeister was purchased for $260,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. He is the second registered foal from the Grade 3-winning Storm Cat mare Untouched Talent, who is herself out of multiple Grade 3 victress Parade Queen.