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Derby hopeful Fletcher draws support from his home-state fans

by Bob Wisener | April 1, 2023 at 4:03 a.m.
Jockey Mike Smith gets a hug from Frank Fletcher before the 13th Annual Oaklawn Jockey Club Kick-Off Banquet on Jan. 15, 2020, at the Wyndham Hotel in North Little Rock. - Photo by Thomas Metthe of Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Winning the Arkansas Derby would be an end in itself for Frank Fletcher, another octogenarian making news at his home track, where he was prominent long before it became Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort.

A native Arkansan (Tamo, about 80 miles southeast of Hot Springs) and University of Arkansas graduate, Fletcher stayed home and succeeded in furs, restaurants and automobile dealerships. Like many people of means, he dabbles in horses and has long been acknowledged a friend of Oaklawn, a distinction he accepts with gratitude to the track.

At 80, he would like to savor the thrill of winning the Arkansas Derby experienced by other state horsemen. John Ed Anthony, a Bearden lumberman who lives in Hot Springs, has three race victories, Sunday's Temperence Hill Stakes honoring his first such victor, a maiden become champion in 1980. Anthony comes off his best Oaklawn season in which he led the track in races won by an owner for the 2021-22 campaign and a career. He has two major contenders on this Arkansas Derby undercard in Oaklawn stakes winners Caddo River and Gar Hole.

Fletcher is on the next realm, a big name in the sport without that prized skin on the wall. In that respect, he is like the late Magnolia oilman, Cal Partee, who in 1992 won the Kentucky Derby with Oaklawn-raced Lil E. Tee, Pat Day riding and the late Lynn Whiting training, but never took the biggest race in his home state.

Fletcher takes a third crack today with Rocket Can, finishing third in 2001 with Son of Rocket and seventh in 2007 with Officer Rocket. Both were trained by the late Bob Holthus, a nine-time Oaklawn training champion who won the Arkansas Derby twice in legacy time with Proper Reality in 1988 and Lawyer Ron in 2006.

Holthus said after Lawyer Ron's victory, honoring an Indiana owner who died that spring, "it felt like the whole grandstand was pulling for my horse." The same sentiments were felt when Proper Reality won for Hot Springs owner Jim Winn and wife Juanita, both deceased.

Reincarnate, on loan to trainer Tim Yakteen from Bob Baffert, is the likely favorite at post time, scheduled at 6:24 p.m., but roars and toteboard backing for the Fletcher-owned Rocket Can are likely from the season's biggest crowd.

Eleven horses drew post positions Sunday, and Fletcher appeared on a next-day Little Rock sports-talk show.

"I love the Arkansas Derby," Fletcher said after the draw in the Larry Snyder Winner's Circle. "We love this race. I told Wally Hall (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sports editor) all my life that my whole life's dream was to win the Arkansas Derby. And if I did that, I didn't care if I ever got in the Kentucky Derby. If I were to win the Arkansas Derby, I would just probably tell (trainer Bill) Mott to go ahead and do whatever he wants to. I'm just going to stay here and get on top of this statue out front and sit there for about a week."

Rocket Can won the Grade 3 Holy Bull Feb. 4 and finished second behind champion Forte in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth March 4. Both races were 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream Park, where Forte, trained by Todd Pletcher, towers over the field today in the Grade 1 Florida Derby.

Another feather in the colt's cap came last November when second by a half-length to Confidence Game in a first-level allowance optional claimer at Churchill Downs. The Keith Desormeaux-trained winner is sitting out the Oaklawn race today after taking the roughly-run Grade 2 Rebel Feb. 25.

About the last race, Fletcher said, "Forte was faster than us, but there's no question. But he had the best trip in the world. He's a very fast runner, but he never got banged or hit or anything. He's going to be one of the top two or three favorites in the Kentucky Derby. But our horse is built, I like to say, more like a linebacker than a running back. He's strong and he can take a bump in the first turn and he'll keep on going."

Sired by Into Mischief out of a Tension mare, Fletcher's horse gets points on pedigree as he goes nine furlongs today, possibly 10 on March 6 at Churchill Downs.

Rest assured, if Rocket Can is leading in the stretch, the noise you'll hear will sound like Arkansas just scored a touchdown against Texas or beat Kansas in basketball.

Print Headline: Derby hopeful Fletcher draws support from his home-state fans


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