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Arkansas Derby favorite has Baffert connection

by Bob Wisener | March 27, 2023 at 4:03 a.m.
Interlock Empire wins a race March 11 at Oaklawn. Interlock Empire is entered in Saturday's Arkansas Derby. - Photo courtesy of Coady Photography

The Rebel Stakes winner is missing, but the Feb. 25 outcome casts a giant shadow over the oldest and richest race at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort.

The place and show horses and fifth-place finisher of the Grade 2 race are among the 11 entered in Saturday's Grade 1 $1.25 million Arkansas Derby. Reincarnate, formerly with Bob Baffert and now racing in trainer Tim Yakteen's name, is the 5-2 program favorite off his Rebel third.

Though Baffert is barred from Churchill Downs for another year stemming from controversy over the 2021 Derby, the Hall of Famer is dispersing certain horses to other trainers so they may earn Derby qualifying points. Hall of Famer John Velazquez, a recurring go-to rider for Baffert, has the mount on Reincarnate.

Red Route One, a two-time graded runner-up at Oaklawn, is the 3-1 second choice for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. Bourbon Bash, with Kentucky Derby qualifying points from a troubled fifth in the Rebel, represents Hall of Fame trainer Wayne Lukas, who at 87 seeks his third Arkansas Derby victory and first since Tank's Prospect in 1985.

The Arkansas Derby winner, health permitting, qualifies for the May 6 Grade 1 race at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, with 100 points Saturday. The next four spots are worth 40, 30, 20 and 10, respectively. The top 20 in points through a series of Derby preps, four held at Oaklawn, are eligible for the 149th Derby. Rich Strike won at 80-1 odds last year, making the field after Oaklawn-based qualifier Ethereal Road was scratched on Derby eve.

None of Oaklawn's three Derby prep-race winners is entered with Victory Formation (Smarty Jones) and Arabian Knight (G3 Southwest) off the Triple Crown trail and trainer Keith Desormeaux considering other options with Rebel winner Confidence Game, though entering Kolomio in the Arkansas Derby.

First won by Holl Image in 1936, the Arkansas Derby has produced six next-out Kentucky Derby winners, three (Sunny's Halo in 1983, Smarty Jones in 2004 and American Pharoah in 2015) off Oaklawn victories. Though Country Grammer (second at Oaklawn) was declared the 2019 winner through a rival's disqualification, Creator (2016 Belmont) is the last Arkansas Derby winner of a Triple Crown event. Secret Oath, third in last year's Arkansas Derby, won the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks.

Trainer Brad Cox, last year's Arkansas Derby winner with Fair Grounds shipper Cyberknife, is back with Smarty Jones second Angel of Empire, a Grade 2 winner in New Orleans. North Little Rock owner Frank Fletcher, with Victory Formation off the trail, tries with Grade 2 Gulfstream Park winner Rocket Can, trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott.

Asmussen, a four-time Arkansas Derby winner, most recently with Super Stock in 2021, entered a second horse, Harlocap. Also entered are Airtime for leading trainer Robertino Diodoro, Interlock Empire and Mendelssohns March for Ken McPeek, King Russell (Ron Moquett) and Two Eagles River (Chris Hartman).

Ten 3-year-old fillies entered Saturday's Grade 3 $600,000 Fantasy Stakes, a 200-point prep for the Grade 1 May 5 Oaks at Churchill Downs. Two-time Oaklawn winner Wet Paint is the program favorite for Cox, though the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes April 7 at Keeneland is an option for breeder-owner Godolphin.

Entries for the Grade 3 $400,000 Oaklawn Mile and restored $200,000 Hot Springs Stakes, also on Saturday, will be drawn today. Thursday's card was trimmed to eight races but Friday's 10-race card includes the $250,000 Matron for older females.

Print Headline: Arkansas Derby favorite has Baffert connection

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