Arkansas Derby (GI)

Oaklawn Park • Hot Springs, AR, USA 100-50-25-15-10
March 30, 2024

Arkansas Derby Race History 

Most Kentucky Derby prep races exist primarily to serve as steppingstones toward the Run for the Roses. The historic Arkansas Derby (G1) technically serves the same purpose, but the 1 18-mile race is also an important race in its own right, cranking out elite racehorses with stunning regularity.

Held at Oaklawn Park, the Arkansas Derby received its inaugural running in 1936, 100 years after Arkansas achieved statehood. The “Arkansas Centennial Derby” awarded a purse of just $4,110 to the victorious Holl Image, who would race 155 times over the course of eight seasons.

 From these humble beginnings, the Arkansas Derby underwent a slow ascent. Although the race achieved Grade 1 status for the first time in 1981, it didn’t produce a Kentucky Derby winner until 1983, when Sunny’s Halo managed to sweep both races during a productive spring campaign. The following year, the filly Althea scored a memorable victory, beating males in the still-standing stakes-record time of 1:46.80. 

Over the next two decades, Tank’s Prospect (1985), Pine Bluff (1992), and Victory Gallop (1998) all parlayed Arkansas Derby victories into career-defining triumphs in Triple Crown races, while Arkansas Derby runners-up Lil E. Tee (1992) and Grindstone (1996) went on to win the Kentucky Derby. But it was Smarty Jones (2004) who propelled Oaklawn’s signature race into a new era. After cruising to victory in the first Arkansas Derby worth $1 million, Smarty Jones added wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness (G1) to his championship resume. 

Since then, the rise of the Arkansas Derby has been swift and steady. Case in point? The first two decades of the 2000s saw the Arkansas Derby produce champions and/or classic winners Afleet Alex (2005), Lawyer Ron (2006), Curlin (2007), Summer Bird (2009), Super Saver (2010), Oxbow (2013), American Pharoah (2015), Creator (2016), Whitmore (2016), Classic Empire (2017), Country House (2019), and Improbable (2019). 

Thanks to this eye-catching record of productivity, the Arkansas Derby understandably ranks as a top-tier Kentucky Derby prep race awarding qualification points on a 100-40-20-10 basis to the top four finishers. Between 1980 and 2019, a span of 40 years, the Arkansas Derby produced 113 Kentucky Derby starters, averaging nearly three per year.

With its Grade 1 status and seven-figure purse, you can bet the Arkansas Derby will remain a key Kentucky Derby prep race for years to come.

By J. Keeler Johnson

  • Sign up for race updates and contender stories

  • Thank You To Our Sponsors

  • Thank You To Our Sponsors