Road to the 2023 Kentucky Derby – The Grade 1 Arkansas Derby – By Eric Solomon

A competitive field of 11 has been assembled for the signature race of the Oaklawn Park Meet. Three horses have pulled off the Arkansas Derby/Kentucky Derby double, with Sunny’s Halo doing it in 1983, Smarty Jones doing it in 2004, and American Pharoah doing it in 2015 en route to securing the first Triple Crown since 1978. Last year’s winner, Cyberknife, went on to be a Grade 1 winner by emerging victorious in the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth last summer.

This year’s race is wide open, featuring the winners of three Derby Points races. Tim Yakteen trains the morning line favorite, Reincarnate, who was previously under the care of Bob Baffert. He’s trying to make up for his troubled trip third place finish in the Rebel last month. The runner up in both of the previous graded stakes races for three year olds, Red Route One is back, along with the winner of the Holy Bull Stakes, Rocket Can and the winner of the Risen Star Stakes, Angel of Empire.

There were storms that rolled through Hot Springs, Arkansas yesterday, causing the cancellation of one of the races on the program. However, the forecast this afternoon is a dry and sunny day with a high of 71 degrees. The track should be drying out, and should be no worse than good by post time, which is scheduled for 6:50 (CT). 

Oaklawn Park, Saturday 4/1/23, Race 12: The Grade 1 Arkansas Derby

200 Total Derby Points (100/40/30/20/10)

1 – Bourbon Bash (15-1 ML): All things considered, I thought his effort in the Rebel was better than it looks on paper. He drew a wide post and was widest of all going into the first turn. He moved up on his own down the backstretch and found himself in some tight quarters a few times. He wasn’t as good as the top few finishers that day, but at 77-1, I thought he ran well. He draws all the way inside today and will get Reylu Gutierrez, fresh off winning the Fair Grounds Jockey Title, to ride for the first time. His two local races have been two of his stronger efforts. I think he’ll run another solid effort and could be an outsider that could get an on the board finish with the right kind of trip here. 


2 – Interlock Empire (20-1 ML, 200-1 Circa): His maiden score last month reminded me very much of Ethereal Road’s maiden victory last season. For both horses, they graduated in their 4th career start. Both horses were a long way back and both closed a ton of ground to win by daylight. After his maiden score, Ethereal Road came back to run second in the Rebel, which was a good effort, but the times and figures came back slow that day. He’d likely need another pace meltdown scenario to get involved in the outcome of this race, and I’m not sure he’s going to get that kind of race here. He’s making steady progress, but I’d probably prefer to see him try the N1X level before jumping into the deep end in a race like this. He’s not impossible, but I prefer others. 


3 -Harlocap (15-1 ML, 200-1 Circa): He was a part of a strong early pace battle in the Risen Star before fading to finish 6th in the long stretch at the Fair Grounds. He was making his first start since moving into Steve Asmussen’s barn from Bob Baffert’s barn. He did finish well in front of everyone else that was involved in the early pace that day. Two Phil’s, who was third that day, was brilliant in victory when winning the Jeff Ruby Steaks last week, so that effort certainly flatters the form from that race. He’ll have inside position on the other speed, but I’m not sure he’s up to the task at this level. John Velasquez opting to ride Reincarnate is not surprising, but it’s not a great sign, either. 


4 – Two Eagles River (10-1 ML, 100-1 Circa): Going into his last race when he faced Louisiana Derby runner-up, Disarm, I believed that this son of Cloud Computing was going to be more effective at one turn. He ran very well going one mile though, and soundly defeated Disarm, who was making his first start since August that day. That form clearly held up at the Fair Grounds, so I do this Chris Hartman trainee as a threat today. He fits from a Beyer Speed Figure, but his Thoro-Graph numbers are a tad light. With Harlocap to his inside and Reincarnate to the outside, I don’t see him getting the same cozy trip that he got last time out. He’s one of the more appealing longer prices in this race, and he might be one that I’d cover on the deeper tickets.


5 – Airtime (15-1 ML, 135-1 Circa): He made his first start of the year in an optional $50K starter allowance/$50K claiming race where he was in for the tag. Robertino Diodoro snagged him out of that race, where he ran huge. He brought him back to face the regally bred, Shopper’s Revenge, in allowance company. He had a few traffic woes on the turn, but Cristian Torres gave him a wonderful ride, sending him through along the rail to outgame the heavy favorite that day. The speed figures from that race came back a little light, and Shopper’s Revenge fading to 4th suggests that the lighter figures were pretty close to accurate. He beat a nice horse by saving a lot of ground, but I’m not sure that will be enough in this field.


6 – Angel of Empire (9-2 ML, 50-1 Circa): The winner of the Risen Star is back in action for Brad Cox. This son of Classic Empire continues to improve, never running a bad race on the main track. He was a game second behind his stablemate, Victory Formation, in the Smarty Jones on New Year’s Day. He turned the tables on him in Louisiana, closing well to win a 50 point Derby Points Race, essentially guaranteeing him a spot in the starting gate in the Kentucky Derby. He got a decent trip that day and was flattered when Two Phil’s came back to crush a decent field in the Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway last week. He has enough tactical speed where he won’t be completely pace dependent, but he has no problem closing from well out of it if they want to fly on the front end. He’s the 4th choice on the morning line and I hope it stays that way. I think he’s the most likely winner.


7 – Rocket Can (4-1 ML, 50-1 Circa): Perhaps Bill Mott has seen enough of Forte, who runs in the Florida Derby this afternoon, and that was the impetus to ship this son of Into Mischief to Arkansas for this Grade 1 event. He was good when winning an unremarkable running on the Holy Bull at the beginning of February. He ran a good race to be second best to Forte in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream last month, despite being a little closer to the front end than he usually prefers. When Mage broke awkwardly, Junior Alvarado took advantage and took his position when breaking on the first turn at Gulfstream. He had no answer for the Juvenile Champion, but he was able to hold off both Cyclone Mischief and Mage to secure second place. He’s been working well at Payson Park and Alvarado will follow him to Hot Springs. He’s clearly been a different horse since moving out of sprint races into two turn contests. His grand dam, Tough Tiz’s Sis was a hard knocking distaff runner, who got better with more races, winning the Grade 1 Ruffian as a four year old. He should be in a good striking spot, just off the front runners. 


8 – Reincarnate (5-2 ML, 23-1 Circa): The winner of the Grade 3 Sham back in January certainly got an education when he shipped here for the Rebel Stakes last month. He appeared to slip ever so slightly when leaving the gate, which allowed Giant Mischief to shift out and prevent him from going forward. He sat near the back of the pack in that race, which was a new experience for him. The fractions were strong in the slop, and he was able to make some decent headway before Bourbon Bash caused him to check at the top of the stretch. He still ran on well to get into third that afternoon. It will be interesting to see what kind of trip John Velasquez is going to try to work out with him today. I don’t see him making the lead without having to work fairly hard to get there, seeing as how both Harlocap and Two Eagles River are slotted inside of him. I also don’t see the pace being as intense in this race as it was in the Rebel. He’s run very well on fast tracks in California, and both of wins were gate to wire victories. I don’t love him as the favorite in this race, but if there are some odds shifts from the morning line, and his number floats up, I’d be more willing to play him. He’ll be on the B line for me in the rolling exotics.


9 – King Russell (30-1 ML): He last ran on Rebel Day, breaking his maiden in his 5th career try, He’s a horse that likes to run on from the back of the pack, so I don’t see the extra 1/16 of a mile being a concern. This race is a massive step up in class though, and while he’s racing form indicates, he might be sitting on a career top effort, I don’t think that would be enough to win this race. 


10 – Red Route One (3-1 ML, 35-1 Circa): He’s the second choice on the morning line after rallying well to finish second in both the Southwest and the Rebel Stakes on this oval. He’ll be the only runner to start in all three graded stakes races for three year olds at this meet. He came from way off the pace last time out in the Rebel, almost 20 lengths off a hot pace. Perhaps Cristian Torres, who was riding for the first time, left a little too much work for him to do. Gaffalione will reunite with him today for the first time since finishing a tough trip 4th in the Kentucky Jockey Club. I’m a big fan of this horse, but I don’t think he’s going to get the same strong pace to close in to. He feels like a must use underneath in the vertical exotics, but he’ll be the odd man out in the multi-race wagers for me. I see him as a horse that is much more likely to finish second or third, than to win this race.


11 – Kolomio (30-1 ML): Keith Desormeaux claimed this son of Constitution for $50K on behalf of Big Chief Racing two months ago at Santa Anita. He’s been on a steady diet of turf races after sprinting on dirt in his first two starts. James Graham rode Confidence Game for Desormeaux to pull off the upset in the Rebel at the end of February. That one is not entered here, and I’m not convinced this outsider will be a viable replacement. 

The Verdict: 6-7-1

Angel of Empire (#6) is the choice for me in this competitive renewal of the Arkansas Derby. He continues to improve with each start and he always shows up on raceday. He’s one of only two horses to have tried this distance and he’s the only one to emerge victorious. I think he’s the most adaptable horse in the race, which is always a plus when trying to navigate a big field. 


Rocket Can (#7) is another horse that could wind up sitting a good trip while sitting off some cheaper speed. He ran a good race at Gulfstream last time, however, Forte is just a better horse right now. I like the decision to ship him here to try to get him a victory before facing the champ again in Kentucky.


Bourbon Bash (#1) is a live longshot in this race for me. He’s made some improvements in his last two starts when routing. He hung around gamely in the Rebel despite having a less than ideal trip. He gets a significant post and rider upgrade for this race. 


Reincarnate (#8) is live, but I don’t love him as the favorite. He’s drawn outside of the other speed horses and may have to work harder than he wants to in order to make the lead. He proved he can run from off the pace last time out, but I think he’s best weapon is his speed. Red Route One (#10) also feels tough to take as the second choice in this race. He is still eligible for the N1X condition. He’s pace dependent and he often leaves himself with too much work to do. With his wide draw. I think he’s going to be at the back of the pack once again, in a race where I don’t think the pace will be torrid. 


We’ll have coverage of every North American Derby Points Race, along with plenty of coverage leading up to the 149th Kentucky Derby on May 6th, 2023. Current futures odds from Circa or Caesars-William Hill will be provided as they are available. Feel free to reach out on Twitter @EricSolomon718.

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