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WATCH | Big hats to horse naming: What to know ahead of Derby Day

by Bryan Rice | March 31, 2023 at 4:03 a.m.
Jessica Budny spends time on the Oaklawn infield during Derby Day on April 15, 2017. - File photo by The Sentinel-Record

The 87th running of the Arkansas Derby is set for Saturday, and thousands of spectators will be dressed in the fanciest of attire.

Oaklawn started operations in the early 1900s, and there's plenty of little details that come together to create the intricacies of horse racing.

"It is just the tradition," Oaklawn Director of Racing Jennifer Hoyt said. "It is kind of our equivalent to Kentucky Derby Day, and that has been a long standing tradition at Churchill Downs. To have the fancy dresses, to have the big hats and it has just kind of carried over to our Derby Day."

Finding clothes from the early 1900s is not exactly easy for spectators, and yet they come out in droves to participate in an 87-year tradition.

"It is a celebration of the best horses in the country," Hoyt said. "So, whenever you have a big celebration you always want to look your best."

Last year's Arkansas Derby winner was Cyberknife. He carried with him a creative name, as do many horses.

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"Each person is different when it comes to naming their horse," Hoyt said. "A lot of time they will take a look at the breeding, sire and dam -- the father and mother -- and they will kind of combine the two names. You have a horse in our Arkansas Derby named Rocket Can. He is owned by Frank Fletcher of Little Rock. He always has Rocket in his horses' names because of his dog, Rocket."

This is the third horse Fletcher has owned to make the Arkansas Derby. In 2001, Son of Rocket came in third and in 2007, Officer Rocket finished seventh.

An Arkansas favorite American Pharoah won the Arkansas Derby and triple crown in 2015, and he notably has his name misspelled.

There is a lot of pride that comes from the thoroughbred bloodlines. Where the horses are bred is a shining example of the stock from each racing state.

"An Arky-bred horse is a horse that was born in Arkansas," Hoyt said. "Oaklawn has one of the richest programs for state-bred horses. You really want to have your horses bred here and born here in Arkansas to be part of that rich program."

The Arkansas Derby purse is $1.25 million this season.

"The only requirement is you have to be 3 years old," Hoyt said. "The Arkansas Derby is only open to 3-year-old horses. It is the same thing for the Kentucky Derby, Iowa Derby. All derbies the only requirement is you have to be a 3-year-old horse."

Jockeys form bonds with the horses similar to owners and trainers.

"A lot of times that is open to the owner," Hoyt said. "Sometimes a trainer has a special relationship with a jockey. Obviously when you're going into a race that is worth $1.25 million like the Arkansas Derby you really want to have the best jockey possible on your horse."

Jockeys are also selected based on the preference of the owner, the trust of the trainer and they have different levels of skill based on experience.

"Sometimes they will reach out to jockeys that might not even be here at Oaklawn," Hoyt said. "It is always just up to the owner and who is available that day."

Building a race card is no easy task for Oaklawn's staff. Racing secretary Pat Pope is over the card building for the 13 races for Saturday.

"It takes a lot of time and effort," Hoyt said. "We have actually been planning this day since last year. When we start putting together our condition book for the season all of our races kind of build up to the Arkansas Derby."

There are three prep races for the Arkansas Derby. The Smarty Jones, Southwest and the Rebel Stakes are also Kentucky Derby prep races.

"Now we are in our finale for 3-year-old triple crown hopefuls in the Arkansas Derby," Hoyt said. "It takes a lot of time and effort from our racing office."

Oaklawn's track is not dormant on non-race days, hosting daily workouts for its horses to practice at three, four, five and six furlongs.

"If you are a good handicapper, you are following to see how well your horse has been working," Hoyt said. "Sometimes that is kind of a secret gem of horse people. They know that a horse has been working out real well, but sometimes the betting public might not be fully aware of that."

Hoyt said the horses are athletes.

"So," she said, "if a horse has been working out really well, a lot of times they will show up in the afternoon."

When looking at horse workouts at Oaklawn, people will see letters standing for breezing, handily and gate next to times.

"Gate means they worked out from the gate," Hoyt said. "Breezing and handily means are ways to describe the workout. Breezing, they are doing it a little bit easier than if they are doing it handily."

The Fantasy Stakes and Oaklawn Mile are both stakes races that will be run Saturday along with the Arkansas Derby.

"Usually, we have a nine to 10 race card, and that is standard," Hoyt said. "Arkansas Derby Day is our biggest day, so we are going to have 13 races and it is just the way it worked out. We have four stake races. You want to be able to give every horse an opportunity to run on our biggest day."

The Arkansas Derby is a prep for the Kentucky Derby, and the Fantasy Stakes is a prep for the Kentucky Oaks. Both races carry 200 points for qualifying for those Kentucky races.

"All of the horses have been kind of gearing up for this day," Hoyt said. "They have been in prep races and other stake races. So, they really were trying to qualify. Obviously the 3-year-olds had the option of going in some of our other stakes like the Southwest, Rebel stakes or they have just been very impressive in a maiden race or allowance race. Their trainers are now giving them a shot to be in the Arkansas Derby as well as the Fantasy Stakes."

There will be 11 horses in the 87th running of the Arkansas Derby Saturday. Post time is set for 6:24 p.m.

Print Headline: WATCH | Big hats to horse naming: What to know ahead of Derby Day


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