August 6, 2020

Five points to ponder: Arkansas Derby doubleheader

Charlatan is the heavy favorite in a lighter first division of the Arkansas Derby doubleheader (Coady Photography)

Saturday’s Arkansas Derby (G1) turned into a doubleheader when 22 horses entered, but the two divisions didn’t stack up evenly at Oaklawn Park.

The first division marks the eagerly anticipated stakes debut of Charlatan, who faces fewer graded-quality rivals. The second division, in contrast, includes five graded winners of Kentucky Derby (G1) scoring races. Each division is worth the full complement of Derby points, on the 100-40-20-10 scale to the top four.

With Churchill Downs’ Spring Meet set to open May 16, Santa Anita publishing a revamped stakes schedule hoping for a June 6 Santa Anita Derby (G1), and further points races to be determined, soon the aspiring sophomores might be able to plan their path to the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby.

In the meantime, the two Arkansas Derby divisions play a vital role in offering points and sifting the contenders. Here are my five points to ponder:

1. Charlatan has a more straightforward task than Nadal.

Bob Baffert’s unbeaten colts enter their respective divisions as favorites, but with different profiles and tasks. Charlatan is the stakes novice who needs to handle a new environment, while multiple graded winner Nadal is already proven over the track. Whereas Charlatan looms as the controlling speed in the first division, Nadal figures to be under siege from the start in the loaded second division.

One possible drawback for Charlatan is drawing the rail. If he breaks alertly for new rider Martin Garcia, he projects an advantageous trip. The scratch of his likeliest pace rival, Shooters Shoot, implies that Charlatan will have an easier time of dictating terms. Yet he would have had more margin for error if drawing wider out, and possibly more of an education. If Charlatan doesn’t get away in good order, the silver lining is that he’ll learn more, and we’ll learn more than a cozy front-running trip would tell us.

As noted in the “Five points to ponder” for the Rebel (G2), I keep seeing Nadal more in the line of Baffert’s distance-limited Rebel heroes The Factor and Secret Circle than his champions American Pharoah or Lookin at Lucky. As valiant as he was in the Rebel – holding better than I’d given him credit for – he was still almost caught by the unheralded Excession. Granted, it was in the slop and Excession is a mudlark.

Still, the larger question remains, especially on the step up to 1 1/8 miles, and a top-class opponent with the same running style, Louisiana Derby (G2) star Wells Bayou. Nadal could find himself under pressure on both flanks, with Tampa Bay Derby (G2) romper King Guillermo on his inside and Wells Bayou hustling from post 11. If he withstands that, or successfully adapts to a stalking role, I’ll have to revise my stubborn opinion.

2. Gouverneur Morris and Farmington Road are eligible to move forward.

Todd Pletcher’s duo could both be on the verge of a breakout performance, but Farmington Road appears to have a better set-up on paper in Division 2 than Gouverneur Morris in Division 1.

The bulk of that Division 1 argument depends upon Charlatan being as good as advertised, and allowed to get comfortable up front. If neither is true, Gouverneur Morris has the proven class to take advantage at a more attractive price – as long as he doesn’t give Charlatan too much of a head start. Losing early position compromised him a bit in the Florida Derby (G1), where he wound up fourth behind Tiz the Law, but didn’t miss second by much. It’s worth remembering that was not the original plan for Gouverneur Morris; rather, the Florida Derby was a target of opportunity in a coronavirus-wrecked calendar. The well-bred son of hot sire Constitution could be primed for this engagement, and considering his better-than-appears second to Maxfield in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1), he’s plenty good enough to be involved in the finish.

Farmington Road has yet to mix it up at the highest level, but he’s displayed a potent late kick when fourth in the Risen Star (G2) (the division won by Mr Monomoy) and most recently charging into second in the Oaklawn S. at this trip. The lackadaisical son of Quality Road improved during the two-month break between those races, and could put it all together here. The 12-1 shot couldn’t ask for a better pace scenario, but Farmington Road does need to rev his engine sooner.

3. Silver Prospector might be a better rebound chance than Basin.

Steve Asmussen likewise has chances in each division, but Basin arguably poses more of a question mark in Division 1 than Silver Prospector in Division 2.

Although Basin can boast a Grade 1 laurel from last season’s Hopeful (G1), his two outings this term have been uninspiring. He could be forgiven his comeback third in the Rebel, considering he was making a two-turn bow off an injury layoff. Yet Basin ran a similar race when fourth in the Oaklawn last out. In his defense, this third start back might be his best, and he should stalk a kinder tempo than the two wicked paces in slop he’s encountered of late. Even so, Basin has to prove he didn’t peak as a juvenile.

Silver Prospector, on the other hand, has won two major stakes over a route in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) and Southwest (G3), notably running down a loose Wells Bayou in the latter. His regressing to sixth in the Rebel was at least partly due to a midrace move into the teeth of the pace. If conserved for one run, Silver Prospector has an upset chance at 10-1.

4. Storm the Court, Anneau d’Or still trying to strike a blow for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

The two longshots who fought out the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile have yet to uphold that form, which has been battered in the subsequent months. While unlikely champion Storm the Court is looking exposed, the jury’s still out on him going into Division 2, and near-misser Anneau d’Or has a talking point in his favor in Division 1.

Anneau d’Or comes off the only bad race of his life, a ninth in the Risen Star (the division won by Modernist). All things being equal, that flop would reinforce the indictments of the Juvenile as well as his second in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2). But there was a new variable Fair Grounds – the addition of blinkers. The headgear comes off here, and trainer Blaine Wright is 31% in the blinkers-off category. If reverting to his former tactical speed for original rider Juan Hernandez, Anneau d’Or should track Charlatan early.

Storm the Court has the misfortune of finding himself in the deeper second division, but trainer Peter Eurton has been old-school in racing him up to a peak. From that perspective, his fourth to Nadal in the 7-furlong San Vicente (G2) and third to Authentic in the San Felipe (G2) served more as building blocks than acid tests. Thus the Arkansas Derby is his second route after a sprint – the exact same pattern going into the Breeders’ Cup. The question is if Storm the Court can replicate the result.

5. Is Winning Impression the next King Guillermo?

King Guillermo was ignored at 49-1 in the Tampa Bay Derby, but his form had been decent, albeit on turf. The Uncle Mo colt was a revelation on the switch to dirt at Tampa, and if he enjoys Oaklawn equally, I could be underestimating him in Division 2. Considering how turfy types can prosper on the Tampa main, however, my approach is more hesitant until we see him back it up elsewhere.

The more intriguing question is if there’s a big longshot lurking in the Arkansas Derby. With Division 2 dominated by graded-proven runners, a massive run from an unheralded sophomore is perhaps more of a theoretical possibility for Division 1. There is such a candidate in Winning Impression, a 15-1 shot on the morning line but eligible to climb with money coming for Charlatan and Gouverneur Morris as presumably the best alternative.

Trained by Dallas Stewart, who has a penchant for producing longshots on the big day, Winning Impression enters on an upward curve. The Paynter gelding uncorked a strong rally to cross the finish line first in a recent allowance, beating graded veteran (and Division 2 runner) Finnick the Fierce. Unfortunately, he also drifted in and got disqualified. Winning Impression has trained forwardly since, firing a half-mile bullet April 24 in :47.20. Note that he’s from the immediate family of Volponi, the 2002 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) upsetter at 43-1.