Rail Runner

The Observations of a Horse Racing Enthusiast

Seeing Golden Arch’s in the Arkansas Derby

Posted by Brian Appleton on April 17, 2011

After watching the Arkansas Derby I’m beginning to question whether or not I really know anything about handicapping horse races or not. Everything in racing and especially the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown trail is so fragile, the circumstances and situations can change in the blink of an eye. Once you think you might have something figured out another bombshell gets dropped and that’s exactly what happened at Oaklawn Park on Saturday.

In front of a packed house of more than 62,000 fans and spectators the field for the Arkansas Derby marched past the stands in the post parade, a field 13 talented three year olds all shooting for a chance to enter the Run for the Roses. As I sat watching the post parade it struck me how many of the contenders appeared to be thriving. Sway Away looked amazing warming up for the race and I was certain he was ready to run big, I even tweeted “Sway Away looks amazing in the post parade.” Brethren, Alternation, Elite Alex and Nehro also gave an excellent appearance. The Factor appeared kinds of dull to me in the Post Parade so I tossed him right away and made Sway Away, Brethren and Nehro my to three choices.

As the field lined up to enter the gate Dance City, in post position number eight but breaking from nine spots off the rail, began to act up as he was led to the gate. Kicking and bucking, the Todd Pletcher entry held up the race for the longest few minutes of the day, finally loading after numerous attempts. The Oaklawn gate crew did a stellar job handling the situation, allowing Dance City to calm down on his own without getting the horses already loaded stirred up.

Once the gates sprang it appeared The Factor was shooting straight out to his customary position on the front but from the far outside J P’s Gusto stormed up and seized the lead by more than a length under the wire for the first time with Dance City moving up quickly to overtake The Factor in second. Down the backstretch J P’s Gusto was winging it out on the front end, posting fractions of :22.54 for the opening quarter and running the half in :46.53 with the rest of the field a length behind and staying well within striking distance. As they approached the far turn J P’s Gusto was overtaken by a three horse sweep, led by Dance City with The Factor and Sway Away to his outside. Sway Away was moving the best and surged to the lead under a vigorous hand ride, looking like a serious threat even with such an early move. From behind Archarcharch swept past horses on the outside and moved into third as the The Factor faded and Nehro came charging from between horses in the middle of the pack. Down the stretch Sway Away began to tire quickly after his premature move and Dance City came back at him along the rail to take the lead once again, but on the outside Archarcharch was closing ground like a well-oiled machine. Within a matter of strides Archarcharch easily overtook Dance City but from behind Nehro was moving best of all, eating up the ground with giant strides on the grandstand side as they neared the wire.

Under the line Archarcharch barely managed to hold off Nehro by a neck with Dance City just over a length back in third and Sway Away 1 ½ lengths back in fourth. The Factor faded badly in the stretch to finish seventh as the heavy favorite. Trainer Bob Baffert said after the race that he believed the War Front colt had displaced his palate. I’m always impressed with how accurate Gary Stevens is when analyzing the race before post time and this time he was right on calling J P’ Gusto as the pacesetter with the addition of blinkers and stating that the entire makeup of the race would turn upside down if The Factor didn’t make the lead. With J P’s Gusto taking the lead right from the start with Dance City second it appeared to take The Factor completely out of his comfort zone, but who knows if he ran poorly because of the palate displacement or distance limitations. I’m not sure how to decipher The Factor’s poor showing but I suspect we’ll know more in a few days after Baffert has had some time to analyze the situation and sort things out.

Archarcharch, who won the Southwest Stakes in February before finishing third in the Rebel Stakes behind The Factor, will be shipping to Churchill Downs the beginning of next week to continue preparations for the Kentucky Derby.

The horse I was most impressed with in the Arkansas Derby was Nehro who easily outran his prerace odds to finish second by a neck and had so much momentum behind his finishing drive that he galloped out more the 5 lengths ahead of Archarcharch by the time they went into the turn past the wire. The Arkansas Derby marks the second consecutive time this colt has finished second by less than half a length after just missing in last month’s Louisiana Derby with a similar late run. He keeps improving and will be a strong contender in the classics over the next couple of months if that is where his connections decide to go.

What in the world was jockey Patrick Valenzuela thinking sending Sway Away to the lead so early under such a strong drive. He was a little rank early on but had settled nicely by the time the field was mid-way down the backstretch in a perfect stalking position. He still showed a tremendous drive as he entered the stretch but tired badly which is understandable after his half-way descent run in the Rebel probably left him a little short. He’ll still be an intriguing option in the Kentucky Derby.

I think it’s safe to say goodbye to Brethren on the Road to the Roses. He presented a great image in the post parade but faded like a spring flower in June down the stretch, finishing third to last in 11th.

Alternation ran a good race to finish 5th after a huge rally from dead last that he began just a little too late. This was only his fifth lifetime start and snapped his three race winning streak. His graded earnings won’t be enough to get him in the Derby but keep an eye on this son of Distorted Humor to make some noise in the 3-year-old male ranks later on in the season.

Dance City was entered to try and keep The Factor’s speed in check but wound up running the best race of his young career for Todd Pletcher. He will an interesting runner to watch down the road as he continues to progress.

Returns in the Arkansas Derby were phenomenal with Archarcharch as the 8th betting choice returning $416.80 exacta and a $1 trifecta worth $5,282.90. The superfecta returned a whopping $29,993.80.

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