The $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) wraps up the Road to the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, offering the final 100-40-20-10 points toward a starting berth in the May 6 Kentucky Derby (G1), and a dozen sophomores will take their shot in the Oaklawn Park affair.
Of those 12, two names stand out – Classic Empire and Malagacy. The former is the 2016 champion two-year-old male while the latter is the unbeaten romping winner of the Rebel Stakes (G2) on March 18. The pair will square off in the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby, with a spot in the Kentucky Derby on the line for one.
That one would be Classic Empire, who currently sits in 21st on the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard. The Mark Casse trainee wrapped up his juvenile season, and the Eclipse Award as champion two-year-old male, with a gutsy neck victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) last November at Santa Anita Park. The Pioneerof the Nile colt has started just once in 2017, running 8 3/4 lengths behind the winner when third in the Holy Bull Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park On February 4.
Classic Empire has suffered a series of setbacks since then, including a hoof abscess and back problems, probably from that abscess. Jockey Julien Leparoux has been aboard the bay colt ever since he captured last year’s Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland, and retains the mount on Saturday.
Malagacy got a late start to his career, not debuting for trainer Todd Pletcher until January 4 at Gulfstream Park. The Shackleford colt dominated his eight rivals that day by 15 lengths and followed up next out in an allowance/optional claimer with a seven-length victory. The chestnut earned stellar 103 and 104 BRIS Speed ratings for those respective efforts, and easily handled the stretch out past 6 1/2 furlongs when taking the 1 1/16-mile Rebel by two lengths. Regular rider Javier Castellano will be in the saddle as Malagacy tries to bring a perfect record into the Kentucky Derby.
Trainer Steve Asmussen tried the Fair Grounds path to the Kentucky Derby with Untrapped at first, and the dark bay colt ran decent seconds in both the Lecomte Stakes (G3) and Risen Star Stakes (G3). Instead of continuing to the Louisiana Derby (G2), though, the son of Trappe Shot found himself shipped to Oaklawn for the Rebel, where he just missed second by a nose. Mike Smith has the call as Untrapped seeks to secure his spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.
Petrov and Lookin at Lee also ran in the Rebel last out, finishing fourth and sixth, respectively. Petrov, a maiden winner at Churchill Downs last November, posted runner-up efforts in the Smarty Jones Stakes and Southwest Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn as well, while Lookin at Lee was third in the Southwest in his first start since finishing fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Ricardo Santana Jr. takes the mount on Petrov and Lookin at Lee will have Luis Contreras in the pilot’s seat.
Sonneteer is still a maiden but did put in a ferocious rally to snatch second away from Untrapped in the Rebel last out at 112-1. The Keith Desormeaux trainee may not be able to duplicate that effort on Saturday, but he’s finished worse than fourth only once in his nine-race career. Kent Desormeaux has the call.
Conquest Mo Money is the only horse in the entire Arkansas Derby field not nominated to the Kentucky Derby but currently boasts 20 points thanks to a runner-up finish in the Sunland Derby (G3) last out on March 26. That was the Miguel Hernandez trainee’s first career loss, following an 11-length romp in the Riley Allison Stakes and two-length victory in the Mine That Bird Derby. Regular rider Jorge Carreno stays in the saddle.
Silver Dust broke his maiden at Churchill Downs last November and was a well-beaten fourth in the Southwest Stakes (G3) to open his sophomore campaign on February 20. The Randy Morse charge had a troubled trip in the Rebel last out but still managed to rally for fifth, beaten 3 1/4 lengths, and keeps Corey Lanerie aboard for this one.
Rounding out the Arkansas Derby field are Rowdy the Warrior, a well-beaten third in the Smarty Jones earlier this year; 11-length maiden-claiming winner Rockin Rudy, who ran second his past two on Santa Anita’s about 6 1/2-furlong downhill turf course; last-out maiden winner Grandpa’s Dream; and maiden One Dreamy Dude.