Race Favorites Enjoying Much Improved Weather
Thursdayâ€™s heavy rain storms and humidity blew out of Hot Springs overnight and the resulting much cooler and crisper morning air perked up the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) and $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) contenders and had them on their toes while their connections tightened the final screws for Saturdayâ€™s races at Oaklawn Park.
â€œThey love this weather, especially coming from South Florida. They were all feeling really good when we were out on the track this morning,â€ said Adele Bellinger, trainer Todd Pletcherâ€™s assistant, who galloped Arkansas Derby contender Madefromlucky and Oaklawn Handicap hopefuls Golden Lad and Race Day 1 Â¼ miles each.
Race Day, the 5-2 morning line favorite in the field of eight horses four and older in the 1 1/8 miles test, last out won the Razorback Handicap (G3) here and has rewarded owner Matthew Scheraâ€™s confidence in him. Schera bought the gray 4-year-old son of Tapit for $285,000 out of the 2014 November consignment of racing age stock and he was the only horse he wanted. Since being sent to Pletcher, Race Day has two wins, with a third place finish in the Fred Hooper Stakes (G3) at Gulfstream Park sandwiched between, and earned triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures in all three efforts.
Golden Lad, the 7-2 second choice, also won at Oaklawn in his last start, the $100,000 Essex Handicap on Feb. 15 when he scored a 102 figure. The only other triple figure on his 12-race resume came in his 2014 Razorback win.
â€œThey both like the track here and have done everything they are supposed to all week,â€ said Bellinger. â€œWeâ€™re all done with the preparations. Weâ€™re ready for the race.â€
The same can be said for Rebel Handicap (G2) winner American Pharoah. The Bob-Baffert trainee was on the muscle and looking very sharp and much like the reigning 2-year-old champion he is when he went out shortly after 9 a.m. for a 1 Â¼ miles gallop under regular exercise rider Jorge Alvez.
â€œHeâ€™s ready, thatâ€™s for sure,â€ said Jimmy Barnes, Baffertâ€™s assistant, who will saddle the colt and give regular partner Victor Espinoza a leg up on Saturday.
Zayat Stablesâ€™ homebred American Pharoah, a son of Pioneer of the Nile who also raced in their colors, visited the paddock and the infield at noon for a schooling lesson.
Connections of Bridgetâ€™s Big Luvy Starting to Get Derby Fever
Tom Oâ€™Grady, who lives in Louisville, KY, has been in the business for many years but has never had a Kentucky Derby horse. Even though Jeremiah Englehart has trained an adjudged Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner, he hasnâ€™t either. Bridgetâ€™s Big Luvy, the winner of the $100,000 Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park last out, could change all of that with a victory in the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby qualifying points (100-40-20-10 for a first through fourth finish) up for the taking. With zero points earned, the 20-1 long shot needs to be at the tip top of his game.
â€œThis is my first time at Oaklawn and my first Arkansas Derby,â€ said Englehart. â€œHe has to step up if itâ€™s going to be my first Kentucky Derby. There are obviously a lot of very nice horses in the race, but you have to take a shot every now and then. Itâ€™s now or never. But heâ€™s doing great and has been training really well. The change in the weather has him feeling really good.â€
The connections of Bridgetâ€™s Big Luvy, who is named for the pink blanket Oâ€™Gradyâ€™s 10-year-old daughter has had since she was a baby, got quite a scare when regular rider Angel Cruz went down in a spill at Aqueduct on Thursday afternoon, but the news was good on Friday morning.
â€œI spoke with Angel last night by phone from the hospital and everything is okay, thank God. Heâ€™s really looking forward to coming and he picked up a few other mounts for the day. Heâ€™s all set and is really excited. So are we,â€ said Englehart, who got his first horses from Oâ€™Grady when he took out his license in 2003 and trains one other for him among the 65 currently in his barn.
The Oâ€™Grady family is flying in from a Bahamas vacation for the Arkansas Derby, and for the anticipated post-race celebration.
â€œIâ€™ve been here all week and havenâ€™t done a whole lot other than go in the downtown area to eat dinner a couple of times. It seems like a really neat town. Iâ€™ve been pretty low key. I guess Iâ€™ve been saving it all up for Saturday night. If we win, I donâ€™t know if this town will be ready for me,â€ the affable trainer said with a big laugh.
On Friday morning Bridget's Big Luvy jogged once around and stood in the gate.
Doing it His Way
Far Right won the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 19 and the $300,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Feb. 22. But, trainer Ron Moquett decided to skip the $750,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) March 14 and train the ridgling up to Saturdayâ€™s $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1). Moquett said he doesnâ€™t regret the decision because he believes itâ€™s the best formula to get Far Right to the Kentucky Derby.
â€œI did everything, training-wise, to allow us to have the best horse for the Kentucky Derby,â€ Moquett said. â€œEverything I did, as far as my work schedule, my daily routine, my race selection, it was all to get us to the Kentucky Derby with horse. I didnâ€™t want to be a wilted flower. Nobody wants to be there and not be able to party.â€
Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith is again scheduled to pilot Far Right, who is the distant second wagering choice in the program (9-2) behind champion American Pharoah, the 1-2 favorite.
Far Right will again carry the colors of majority owner Harry Rosenblum in the Arkansas Derby. Rosenblum, a Little Rock, Ark., native said minority owner Robert LaPenta will fly in to watch Far Right run in the Arkansas Derby. Rosenblum sold an interest in Far Right to LaPenta, a Connecticut businessman, before the ridgling made his 3-year-old debut in the Smarty Jones.
Under terms of the deal, Far Right alternates silks for his races. Although Far Right wore Rosenblumâ€™s colors in the Southwest, the owner said it was stipulated that the ridgling would wear his green and blue silks in the Arkansas Derby.
Sammy Mandeville Ready for Next Step in Oaklawn Handicap
After winning his last start, an allowance optional claiming race lengths at Santa Anita, by 6 Â½ lengths, the connections of Sammy Mandeville felt he earned the opportunity to test deeper waters in the $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2).
â€œThe decision to run was based upon the fact that heâ€™s the one telling us that heâ€™s ready for this next step,â€ said Jack Sisterton, the assistant to Southern California-based trainer Doug Oâ€™Neill.
The 4-year-old son of Rock Hard Ten is still looking for his first stakes win and is eligible for a second level allowance race, but he ran his competitors off their feet when rallying from the back of the pack to win his March 6 race under Kent Desormeaux when Oâ€™Neill put the blinkers back on. â€œKent is an excellent rider and it speaks volumes about this horse that he wanted to come all the way here to ride him in this race. It would have been a little bit of a concern if Kent hadnâ€™t wanted to come,â€ he said.
Desormeaux, whose only other mount on the 12-race Arkansas Derby Day card is on long shot Win the Space in the Derby for Southern California trainer George Papaprodromou, stood squarely on the side of the colt known affectionately around the barn as â€œSammy.â€ He was so impressed with their last race that he, too, argued the colt was ready to handle the big step up in class.
â€œKent helped us make the decision. Weâ€™ve had him in the barn from day one, and weâ€™ve always thought he was a stakes horse.â€ said Sisterton, a former longtime assistant to Pletcher.
Sammy Mandeville, who has tactical speed, is owned by Glenn Sorgenstein and Josh Kaplanâ€™s WC Racing, which is the partnership that campaigned 2013-2014 Breedersâ€™ Cup Dirt Mile winner Goldencents. He now stands at Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky.
â€œGlenn and Josh bought 10 broodmares just to support him. If Sammy could step it up and win this one for them, it would be fantastic because they are wonderful owners who are patient and always do the right thing for each of their horses,â€ said Sisterton.
Sammy Mandeville, who made the first eight of his 11 starts on the grass, galloped 1 Â¼ miles on Friday morning under regular exercise rider Humberto Gomez and was pronounced fit and ready to go. Ironically, Gomez was also pressed into duty to take Hard Aces out for a 1 Â½ miles gallop for fellow Californian Sadler.
â€œI donâ€™t know what happened to Johnâ€™s guy, so Humberto worked both horses even though theyâ€™re in the same race,â€ said Sisterton.
Sammy Mandeville did not school in the afternoon or at the gate.
â€œHeâ€™s such a classy horse that heâ€™ll be fine. He knows what heâ€™s here for. The good ones always seem to know what is expected and they rise to occasion,â€ said Sisterton.
Tapiture Looks To Rebound in Oaklawn Handicap
Trainer Steve Asmussen went 0 for 3 with his big guns March 14 at Oaklawn, with multiple graded stakes winner Tapiture clearly turning in the most puzzling performance. In his 4-year-old debut, Tapiture finished a well-beaten fifth in the $250,000 Razorback Handicap (G3), a 1 1/16-mile race run over a saturated surface. He tries to rebound in Saturdayâ€™s $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) at 1 1/8 miles.
â€œHe didnâ€™t run at all,â€ trainer Steve Asmussen said. â€œThe circumstances were pretty difficult that day, as far as the race track and coming off the layoff. The Razorback was a very disappointing race.â€
Tapiture has worked three times since the Razorback and scored one of his biggest career victories in last yearâ€™s $300,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn. He is the 9-2 third choice in the program for the Oaklawn Handicap.
Weathering the Storm
Asmussen said he believes the consistent Bold Conquest enters Saturdayâ€™s $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) in maybe the best form of his six-race career.
Bold Conquest finished fourth in the $300,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Feb. 22 and never threatened American Pharoah during a third-place finish in the $750,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) March 14. But, both of those races were run on a sloppy track. Additionally, Bold Conquest has often breezed over an off track since arriving in Hot Springs to prepare for the Southwest, which was delayed six days because of a winter storm.
He has recorded two impressive works â€“ both over a fast track â€“ leading up to the Arkansas Derby, including a 6-furlong move, in company, March 30. The colt worked heads up with older stablemate Tapiture, a multiple graded stakes winner. Both horses were credited with three-quarters in 1:12.20. A fast track is expected for the Arkansas Derby.
â€œWeâ€™ve had the opportunity to get some good work in him,â€ Asmussen said. â€œNothing was smooth with the running of the Southwest, with it being postponed a week. Not only that, it made it a quick turnaround for the Rebel. I donâ€™t think he was on a fast race track from the time he got here until his work two Mondays ago.â€
A son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, Bold Conquest has a 1-2-2 record from six lifetime starts.
Hartman Enjoying Meet of a Lifetime
Chris Hartman is poised to win his first Oaklawn training title, leading three-time defending champion Steve Asmussen 30-26 with two days remaining in the meeting. But the fight isnâ€™t over, Hartman said during training hours Friday morning, although he joked that heâ€™s ahead on all the judgesâ€™ scorecards.
â€œI think that numbers are now beginning to turn,â€ Hartman said. â€œIf youâ€™re a boxer â€“ the CompuBox â€“ I think we do have a puncherâ€™s chance now.â€
Hartman recorded his most lucrative career victory Thursday when he saddled Alsvid to win the $300,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3) for older sprinters.
Hartman entered 14 horses over the final two days of the meeting, including Russellin in Saturdayâ€™s $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2). Asmussen, Oaklawnâ€™s six-time leading trainer since 2007, has 21 horses entered during the same period.
Hartman said Alsvid came out of his Count Fleet victory in good order, but heâ€™s unsure where the gelding will run next. He will be based at Churchill Downs following the Oaklawn meeting.
â€œIâ€™ve been so focused on trying to get this title, I havenâ€™t even really paid attention to the next town,â€ Hartman said. â€œI havenâ€™t even cracked the [condition] book. Iâ€™ve made no placements for my horses, trying to empty the bench, basically, to accomplish the David vs. Goliath.â€
Hartman won 17 races at last yearâ€™s Oaklawn meeting to finish sixth in the standings. He enters Friday with 1,051 career victories since he started his first horse in 1992, according to Equibase. Since 2007, Hartman has saddled more than 100 winners five times in a year, including a career-high 117 in 2009 to rank 33rd in North America.
Hartman said Friday morning that Russellin will make his local stakes debut in Saturdayâ€™s $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for older horses. The horse is coming off a fourth-place finish in a March 12 conditioned allowance/optional claimer at 1 1/16 miles, but Hartman said he believes the 4-year-old Old Fashioned gelding deserves a shot in the Oaklawn Handicap because the race is 1 1/8 miles.
â€œWe think heâ€™s going to excel at the added distance,â€ Hartman said. â€œWe think he can handle even more than that, but we wanted to give the horse a shot, just the way everything unfolded. Weâ€™re expecting a big run out of him. Heâ€™s going to need his career best to get a piece of it.â€
Russellin has won 3 of 5 career starts at Oaklawn, including a second-level allowance/optional claimer in his 4-year-old debut Feb. 7. He is 20-1 on the morning line for the Oaklawn Handicap.
Oaklawn Barn Notes - Friday, April 10
Race Favorites Enjoying Much Improved Weather