The feature race of last Saturday’s action was Oaklawn’s Arkansas Derby, a $1m Grade 1 race for the classic generation over a mile and an eighth. The race along with 100 Kentucky Derby points went to the 11/1 outsider Creator with the 4/5 favorite, Cupid finishing a well-beaten 10th.
On a fast track, the early pace was quick, if not frenetic with early quarter fractions of 22.8 and 46.3 seconds respectively. This pace could not be maintained and those that went the early pace fell away and those at the back of the pack early on were able to come through and win well. This race format has been common to quite a number of the high profile derbies.
I don’t wish to crab the effort of Creator, who powered clear in the stretch to win well but the race was run to suit and we have to ask whether things will drop into his lap like this in the big one in May. The Run for the Roses is looking to be a fascinating race with race tactics likely to play a key factor. Can the front runners get the fractions right so that horses like Creator can never get into the race? We haven’t got long to wait to find out!
The other major race on the card was the Oaklawn Handicap, won by Effinex at odds of a shade over 6/4. He wasn’t a well horse last time but was back to full strength this time with an imposing performance. It was expected that Melatonin would make the clear early pace but Effinex’s jockey, Mike Smith, had other ideas and harried the horse for the lead throughout before hitting the front 3 furlongs from home. He was always holding Melatonin thereafter and won by a length in a time over a second faster than the Arkansas Derby.
The other grade 1 on the Saturday was the Jenny Wiley Stakes at Keeneland for four year old and above fillies and mares over a mile and a sixteenth of the turf course. All eyes were on Tepin, who was looking to make it five wins in a row.
She was a prohibitively priced 2/5 in the market but never gave her supporters a moment’s worry as she stalked the early pace before hitting the front going into the straight and winning with ease by 5 lengths in a stakes record time of 1 minute 40.53 seconds. She looks to be in a class of her own in this division at the moment.
When I looked at Keeneland’s Ben Ali Stakes, a Grade 3 for 4 year olds and up over a mile and an eighth, I was concerned that likely favorite, Eagle, may just be vulnerable to a horse that was capable of the occasional top class run. Well, for much of the race, it looked like Noble Bird would do just that. He seemed to have all the opposition in trouble with jockey, Julien Leparoux, sitting comfortably with seemingly plenty in the tank.
However, Eagle kept fighting and gradually wore his opponent down in the stretch to win going away by 1 ¼ lengths. He continues to be ultra-consistent and will be there or thereabouts at this sort of grade.