Many horsemen get no closer to the Kentucky Derby, the sport's holy grail, than the TV set on which they watch the race. For a great many it's a closed shop amid daily hopes of staying financially solvent and lucking into the proverbial big horse.
Ten trainers account for the 11 horses in Saturday's 87th Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn. Upon Holl Image winning the $5,000 inaugural in 1936, the Derby has become the track's richest race, besides its most important in determining a Derby winner on the first Saturday in May at Louisville's Churchill Downs. Cyberknife, in his first race over the track, collected $750,000 from the $1.25 million purse for beating eight fellow 3-year-olds last April 2, the filly Secret Oath included.
Six Arkansas Derby starters have taken the Kentucky Derby next time out, three after winning at Oaklawn: Sunny's Halo in 1983, Smarty Jones in 2004 and future Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015. Grindstone (1996) and Super Saver (2010) improved off Oaklawn seconds and Country Grammer, through disqualification in 2019, after running third in Hot Springs.
The 2023 Oaklawn cast includes horses destined to become better known, others to fade from memory. Just regarding trainers, the field includes a broad range of those with Kentucky Derby experience in all directions.
Wayne Lukas has won the Churchill Downs classic four times, first in 1988 with the filly Winning Colors and including Thunder Gulch in 1995; Grindstone; and Charismatic in 1999. He passed on the Derby last year, sending out Oaklawn star Secret Oath to win the Kentucky Oaks and having a Derby substitute scratched on the eve of the race.
At 87, enjoying a stellar Oaklawn season, Lukas is back with Bourbon Bash, a second-out Saratoga maiden winner who twice ran in Grade 1 stakes as a juvenile and is an early 20-1 risk from the rail on Saturday. Despite its 1-for-9 record, Lukas wants only a fairer shot than he thinks the City of Light colt received in the Grade 2 Rebel Feb. 25 at Oaklawn, rallying for fifth and 10 KD qualifying points despite roughed on the first turn. A late friend of Lukas and former Churchill Downs official said admiringly of the former basketball coach and quarter-horse trainer, "If he thinks it deserves one, Wayne will always give a horse a second chance."
Trainers Brad Cox and Bill Mott may be typed among those with Derby success but are also tending to unfinished business.
Each has won the race through disqualification, Cox with Mandaloun in 2021 after lead horse Medina Spirit failed a drug test and Bill Mott with Country Grammer after the first race-day DQ of a winner (Maximum Security) in its history.
Winning the Derby without properly celebrating the field is enough to irk both trainers, though Mott is in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame and Cox, at 43, is on his way. The Derby is especially transfixing to Cox, a Louisville native who has won the Kentucky Oaks and Clark Stakes, two other races run at Churchill Downs since 1875.
Cox has a number of contenders with sufficient Derby qualifying points, Oaklawn hopeful Angel of Empire included. Sire Classic Empire, trained by Mark Casse, won the 2017 Arkansas Derby and the previous year's juvenile championship. Angel of Empire showed promise when second to a stablemate in the Smarty Jones at Oaklawn on Jan. 1, then turned in the Grade 2 Risen Star in New Orleans. Angel of Empire can make Cox the first trainer to win the Oaklawn race in consecutive years with different horses since Todd Pletcher with Overanalyze in 2013 and Danza in 2014.
Mott is back at Oaklawn with what is becoming a sentimental favorite locally. Rocket Can, a Grade 2 winner in Florida, goes here instead of the Florida Derby after a setback in training to stablemate Victory Formation. Both horses owned by North Little Rock automobile dealer Frank Fletcher, Cox winning the Smarty Jones with Victory Formation. Fletcher, long an Oaklawn patron and of racing in general, is his own press agent, which should be reflected on the toteboard.
Another Derby angle, one especially nettlesome to the Hall of Fame trainer, is Steve Asmussen's 0-for-24 Kentucky Derby record. That would stand out less if the Texan were not the career leader in races won by a trainer, reaching 10,000 Feb. 20 at Oaklawn. He seeks his fifth Arkansas Derby with two horses, notably late-running Red Route One, second in both the Grade 3 Southwest and Grade 2 Rebel over the track. Asmussen, 57, is two years removed from winning the AD with Super Stock, co-owned by his father and ridden to a stakes victory at Lone Star Park by a son, both named Keith.
Bob Baffert's 2020 AD sweep was restored the following spring after Charlatan's drug-related infraction, as cited by track stewards, was overturned by the Arkansas Racing Commission after a two-day hearing at Oaklawn. Nadal also won that race when split into two divisions -- with another Baffert 3-year-old, Acceptable, winning the Kentucky Derby and named Horse of the Year.
With Baffert barred from Churchill Downs a second year over the Medina Spirit flap, the California-based trainer is dispersing some Derby hopefuls to other trainers so they may qualify for the May 6 race. One such horse is Arkansas Derby morning-line favorite Reincarnate, running in Tim Yakteen's name and with Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez aboard. The colt placed third in a roughly run Rebel, whose winner, longshot Confidence Game, is sitting this one out.
The Rebel winner's trainer, Keith Desormeaux, is represented by Kolomio, one of three new Triple Crown eligibles entered. Desormeaux has a TC victory (2018 Preakness with Exaggerator) but joins Ken McPeek, Chris Hartman, Robertino Diodoro and Ron Moquett as non-winners of the Arkansas and Kentucky classics. To quote the late Woody Stephens, they're here for the reason and not the season. Gardenias await the Oaklawn winner before everything comes up roses at Churchill Downs.