November 30, 2020

Five points to ponder: Oaklawn Stakes

Basin topped an all Steve Asmussen trifecta in the Hopeful (NYRA/Coglianese Photography)

Before COVID-19 wreaked its havoc on the racing calendar as well as society at large, Saturday was to be Arkansas Derby Day, three weeks ahead of the Kentucky Derby (G1). Oaklawn Park’s feature for the first Saturday in May, the Oaklawn S., was designed to offer a berth to the Preakness (G1) two weeks hence.

In our new and constantly evolving landscape, the order has been scrambled. Now the $200,000 Oaklawn S. takes center stage on Saturday as an improvised prep for the Arkansas Derby (G1), itself repositioned to May 2, four months ahead of the Kentucky Derby’s unprecedented date of Sept. 5. The Preakness is still shopping for a date.

According to Equibase and Daily Racing Form, the Oaklawn S. is to continue its role as a Preakness “Win and You’re In.” Thanks to its retooling into a course-and-distance stepping stone, the top three finishers in Saturday’s stakes will receive tickets to the Arkansas Derby.

That’s just a snapshot of the nationwide shake-up to the racing schedule. With Santa Anita on hiatus, the loss of Keeneland’s meet, and Aqueduct’s early closure, trainers have had to adjust plans on the fly, and the Oaklawn S. has ended up meeting the need.

Here are my five points to ponder:

1. Thousand Words, on a mission to regroup, could be a vulnerable favorite.

Before stablemates Authentic, Nadal, and Charlatan jumped up, Thousand Words was the progressive Derby hope for Hall of Famer Bob Baffert. The $1 million son of Pioneerof the Nile and multiple Grade 2 sprinter Pomeroys Pistol kept finding to prevail in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2), much as in his career debut at Santa Anita. His Robert B. Lewis (G3) victory was achieved in similarly gritty fashion, reinforcing his profile as a talented type who did enough to win without flaunting it.

Precisely because he lacked the flash of Authentic, Thousand Words was likely to find his comrade too speedy to handle in the March 7 San Felipe (G2). Simply losing his perfect record would have been understandable, but not the way he flopped. Thousand Words ran far worse when backing up to a poor fourth, 11 lengths behind Authentic and even 5 1/2 lengths behind third-placer Storm the Court.

It’s logical to draw a line through it and forecast a return to form for the 5-2 morning-line favorite. The rub is that his form has not held up. Two of his nearest pursuers have been put in their place when shipping to Fair Grounds. The runner-up in the Los Alamitos Futurity (and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile [G1]), Anneau d’Or, disappointed in the second division of the Risen Star (G2). Royal Act, second in the Lewis, likewise failed to flatter when ninth in the Louisiana Derby (G2).

2. Basin looks to move forward second up but faces trip questions.

Hopeful (G1) winner Basin was handed a tough assignment in his Rebel (G2) comeback. Not only was he making his two-turn debut off an injury-induced layoff, but the Steve Asmussen trainee didn’t have the cleanest of trips either. He advanced into the teeth of Nadal’s torrid pace, then had to wait on the far turn to come around the backpedaling American Theorem. Basin nevertheless soldiered on with good courage down the lane to outgame Three Technique for third.

With the benefit of that experience, Basin has a reasonable case to improve second up. Yet this race might not set up easily for the 7-2 second choice on the rail. While he has the early foot to go forward for new rider Florent Geroux, there’s plenty of pace signed on, and he doesn’t want to end up dueling all the way going 9 furlongs. If he works out a stalking trip, luck is a prerequisite. Basin would have to thread a path off the fence and could find an early pacesetter fading into his lap again.

The other cause for pause is how much stock to place in his Hopeful from a Derby perspective. Basin was an authoritative winner over stablemate Shoplifted, an honest type who runs his race and pays his way. Shoplifted’s pedigree implies that he might prefer shorter trips, and if so, it speaks well of Basin that he dismissed him so readily at Saratoga. But Basin isn’t guaranteed to be as effective at 9 furlongs and up himself, and that’s a question he’ll have to answer here.

3. Farmington Road is the most attractive of the Risen Star alumni.

A sneaky fourth in the first Risen Star division, Farmington Road rallied from a poor tactical position at the rear of the field, and well wide, on a day that it paid to be inside speed. Indeed, the Todd Pletcher trainee likely would have been involved in the finish if he’d secured any sort of decent early spot.

To that end, Farmington Road gets two key changes: the addition of blinkers (a 21% move for Pletcher) and Martin Garcia. He’s capable of a pace-tracking trip, as evidenced by his maiden score at Tampa Bay Downs. Post 12 doesn’t help, but the 6-1 chance figures to be sharper this time. Crucially, his stamina is not in doubt after a 103 Brisnet Late Pace rating at this trip at Fair Grounds.

Trainer Bret Calhoun sends out the other two Risen Star alumni. Digital, well placed stalking the victorious Mr. Monomoy in the first division, was outfinished in fifth. Also worn down in first his route attempt two back, Digital must be regarded as suspect at the distance.

In contrast, 30-1 stablemate Mr. Big News is bred to want at least this far as a son of Giant’s Causeway and a well-related daughter of Galileo. Mr. Big News ground his way into fifth in the second Risen Star division, a result that took on greater significance after Modernist and Ny Traffic (the respective one-three) went on to place in the Louisiana Derby (G2) (in reverse order). Note also that he picks up Gabriel Saez, who sports a 22% strike rate with Calhoun runners in the past 60 days.

Something Natural warrants a mention in this context since he was a clear best-of-the-rest behind future Louisiana Derby hero Wells Bayou in a Jan. 26 Oaklawn allowance. The Brad Cox trainee otherwise must step up at odds of 20-1.

4. Sir Rick enters on the upswing in his first major class test.

Not an early Triple Crown nominee, Sir Rick didn’t stamp himself as anything special when originally plying his trade for Asmussen’s minor-league divisions. His sophomore debut, however, marked a substantial improvement as he wired a Sam Houston allowance. Subsequently transferred to Robertino Diodoro, Sir Rick continued his upward curve with a four-length conquest of the Mine That Bird Derby. The Sunland Derby (G3) was his next port of call (as it was to have been for Shoplifted), until its cancellation.

Although Sir Rick has yet to deal with rivals of this quality, he’s eligible to keep progressing with maturity as a son of Paynter from a Quiet American mare. (His pedigree features inbreeding to Relaunch too, portending his 2-for-2 record on off tracks.) Sir Rick has paired up 96 Brisnet Speed ratings, so any incremental move forward can help him spring an upset at 15-1 on the morning line. The pacey type needs to avoid overdoing it in a speed duel, though.

As a pedigree fun fact, rival Flap Jack is by Paynter’s intensely close relation, Oxbow. Flap Jack has fared better so far on turf and Polytrack (as a dominant winner of the Arlington-Washington Futurity) than on the dirt. But his dirt tries are a small sample size of two – a fifth in his Ellis Park debut and a sixth in the Gotham (G3). Bred to appreciate the stretch-out, the 20-1 chance intriguingly lures Adam Beschizza who’s 2-for-3 with Jack Sisterson lately.

5. Taishan and Gold Street hope the rain arrives soon enough.

At this writing, rain is forecast to be in the Hot Springs, Arkansas, area as Saturday wears on, so the question is how much might arrive before evening. Asmussen’s third chance, Gold Street, has been dependent upon wet tracks to produce his best. If he gets his rain, he’ll still have to cope with the far outside post 13 and other speed that should prevent him from crossing over.

Taishan qualifies as another mud-loving pace factor from post 8. The Richard Baltas trainee has already tried graded company, winding up fourth to Authentic in the Sham (G3) and an equally distant fifth in the Southwest (G3) in his Oaklawn premiere. But he was a revelation when wiring his next local try, moving up dramatically in his first chance on slop and with Joel Rosario. The class drop into an allowance was likewise a material factor, so he still has to prove it on the return to stakes company.

Off-track form is not a distinguishing characteristic in a field where most have run capably on it. Indeed, Thousand Words and Basin have scored graded wins in the stuff, to mention just the highest-profile contenders. But unlike them, Gold Street and Taishan strike me as needing it to thrive.