The long and winding road to the Kentucky Derby ends Saturday with the $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. With 100 points to the winner and fewer points to fifth place, the result will impact the final 20 horses for the Kentucky Derby field.
There is also the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, but with only 10 points to the winner, it figures to be a prep for the Preakness only.
The Arkansas Derby lost a shining star in One Liner, who has been taken out of training by Todd Pletcher. One Liner had won the Southwest at Oaklawn and would have been favored.
Instead, that honor will go to Classic Empire (8-5), who was a beaten 1-2 favorite in the Holy Bull last time. The fact that he was so heavily favored over the eventual Holy Bull and Wood Memorial winner, Irish War Cry, and the eventual Fountain of Youth winner, Gunnevera, showed the depth of that field.
Classic Empire drew a favorable Post 2, so jockey Julien Leparoux should be able to save ground throughout, which is important in two turn races at Oaklawn.
Instead of One Liner, Malagacy (2-1) will represent Pletcher. Malagacy won the Rebel at Oaklawn last time and is undefeated in three career starts. His job was made more difficult when he drew the outside Post 12.
Jockey Javier Castellano will face a key decision at the start of the race. Will he send Malagacy to the front early, or settle and try to tuck in before the first turn to avoid serious ground loss?
Classic Empire and Malagacy figure to dominate the race. But if you don’t like to bet favorites, I suggest Petrov (12-1) and Conquest Mo Money (15-1).
Petrov flattened out to fourth last time in the Rebel. My read is this colt might not want to go 9 furlongs, much less the 10 furlongs of the Kentucky Derby.
I would be more inclined to use Conquest Mo Money to run into the number late. I liked his second-place finish in the Sunland Derby. I hope his jockey, Jorge Carreno, settles in the rear of the field and picks off horses one by one in the stretch run.
I like Classic Empire to win in a manner that might make him the Kentucky Derby favorite. He was the champion 2-year-old, and I expect him to run like it Saturday.
I have read many social media comments trashing this group of 3-year-olds. I disagree. Indeed, this group has lost a lot of star power with horses such as Not This Time, Mastery and One Liner sidelined.
But colts such as McCraken, Irish War Cry and Classic Empire might be good enough to carry the division. I always have felt that the barometer should come in the fall when 3-year-olds start running against their elders.
Last year’s class was rescued by the likes of Arrogate, Gun Runner and Connect, who all ran huge races against older horses. Arrogate won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Gun Runner the Clark and Connect the Cigar Mile.
So before we dismiss this group, let’s give them a chance to develop and get battle tested for the fall.
Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. You can buy his Santa Anita Park picks at racedaylasvegas.com. You can email him at email@example.com and follow @richeng4propick on Twitter.