No shortage of contenders in Arkansas Derby

By: Wally Hall
Published: Thursday, April 10, 2014

HOT SPRINGS - Almost as soon as the doors opened Wednesday morning at Oaklawn Park, people started grabbing seats around the podium that had been set up for the draw for the 78th running of the Arkansas Derby.

Long before the 12:30 p.m. ceremony started the standing-room-only crowd was so deep that the television stations had long since taken up their spots and Pat Bradley and Chuck “Pigskin Preacher” Monan could barely see the podium while doing The Zone on KABZ-FM, 103.7, The Buzz, which aired the draw live.

Former track announcer Terry Wallace, a member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame; former trainer Jerry Calvin; David Jones, a horse owner and former owner of KARK-TV, channel 4; and hundreds of others had joined the crowd that included owners and trainers who have horses in the Arkansas Derby.

There is a reason there is so much interest in this Arkansas Derby, which is a major prep race for the Kentucky Derby.

This may be one of the most competitive fields in the history of the race, and while it drew a solid field of nine, Knock’em Flat might scratch and run in a race earlier Saturday.

At stake in the $1 million Grade I race are points that will make horses eligible for the Run for the Roses, the most well-known race in the world, and several of them have been training for months at Oaklawn.

Tapiture, the morning-line favorite, drew the three hole and has a jockey change from the Rebel Stakes. That race was so rough that he might have been taken down if jockey Ricardo Santana had squeezed through a tiny opening, but it became a fight for space with Hoppertunity.

Trainer Steve Asmussen, who is embroiled in a controversy over a video released by PETA about his operation,has decided to go with the more experienced rider Joel Rosario.

Second favorite Bayern, like Hoppertunity trained by Bob Baffert, drew the No. 8 spot. The California shipper is lightly raced, having won both career starts, so if he’s going to make it to Kentucky he needs lots of points.

One thought is that Baffert’s strategy for coming here is to keep longtime nemesis D. Wayne Lukas from getting Strong Mandate eligible for the Derby. Those two trainers are that competitive.

Strong Mandate, 9-2, drew the No. 9 spot right next to Bayern.

One more horse that has to be mentioned is Ride On Curlin, who has been training well and for the value has tobe considered. He’s 12-1 but has been right on the heels of Tapiture in the Southwest and Rebel stakes, running a solid third.

This is a field of well-bred colts and a race that features three current Hall of Fame jockeys- Gary Stevens, Mike Smith and Calvin Borel - and some younger riders who are moving up in the racing world.

There are also three Hall of Fame trainers: Baffert (who probably won’t show), Lukas and Todd Pletcher (Commissioner).

It will be a day of fun, with the forecast calling for sunny weather, and the card is strong, especially the $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap. That race will feature even-money favorite Will Take Charge, the 2013 Eclipse Award winner for 3-year-old males who is owned by Arkansan Willis Horton.

Another Arkansas owner, Michael Langford, has Carve ready to run. Carve finished third in last year’s Arkansas Derby, and he’s 12-1 in the morning line, which makes him a value horse too.

A good crowd gathered Wednesday for the drawings, but a bigger crowd is expected each day as the Racing Festival of the South ends another good season of thoroughbred racing at Oaklawn Park.

Sports, Pages 17 on 04/10/2014