It’s hard to believe we’ve reached the end of the road to the 2016 Triple Crown. It seems like just yesterday we all watched American Pharoah win the Arkansas Derby (GI) en route to capturing the first Triple Crown in 37 years and satisfying a thirst the racing world believed would never be quenched. So, this year, few racing fans knew what to expect and, as everyone watched champion Nyquist continue to dominate and maintain his position as the horse to beat on the first Saturday in May, the question of who would make the gate beside him under the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs for the most important event in American racing remained.
After Saturday’s 80th running of the $1 million Arkansas Derby (GI), all questions were answered and the field virtually set after WinStar Farm’s Creator posted an impressive last-to-first performance in the 1 1/8-mile race, claiming top honors and earning 100 of the 170 points up for grabs, comfortably securing his coveted spot in the Kentucky Derby in three weeks. The Steve Asmussen-trained gray now owns 144 total Derby points and sits a comfortable sixth on the list of Derby-eligible runners, adding to the 44 he earned previously from his runner-up finishes in the Southwest Stakes (GIII) and Rebel Stakes (GII).
The predicted early dynamics of the Arkansas Derby changed the minute the field broke from the gate, as predicted pacesetter and favored Cupid was squeezed back both on his outside by Gettysburg and Gray Sky, who together leaned inward as they jockeyed for early position, and by Whitmore and Luna de Loco to his inside, in tandem veering outward and causing the gray colt to take back sharply before the clubhouse turn.
When the dust settled after the bumpy break, Gettysburg had easily made the lead, taking Cupid out of his comfort zone and leaving him to chase the pace rather than set it. And with the top two under pressure from American Pioneer and Unbridled Outlaw, Gettysburg set all the early pace through quick splits of :22.81, :46.33 and 1:10.61 with Cupid in hot pursuit.
The excitement to his outside at the break meant little to Creator, who was taken back to last early from post position three under Ricardo Santana Jr. and was comfortable to bring up the rear for more than a half-mile. By the time the frontrunners reached the far turn, Creator began his steady and deliberate drive toward the front and had successfully made his way through the tiring traffic in front of him by the time he reached the far turn.
After weaving in and out of traffic around the far turn and and swinging wide as he straightened out for the drive, Creator brushed briefly with fellow late runner Whitmore before being set down for the drive and, under a strong ride from Santana, ran down the tiring early frontrunners in the final eighth of a mile while successfully holding off the late challenge from Suddenbreakingnews to prevail.
After logging a mile in 1:37.48, Creator stopped the Teletimer in 1:50.14 over the fast Oaklawn Park main track.
Creator, a son of Tapit and the Peruvian champion Morena, was bred in Kentucky by Mt. Brilliant Broodmares I LLC and was purchased by WinStar for $440,000 as a Keeneland September yearling in 2014. Since then, the flashy colt has amassed a career line of 8-2-4-1 for earnings of $768,320.
“I am very proud of the outcome today,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “Ricardo has a ton of confidence in this horse and I’m glad to see him rewarded for how much he believed in this horse. I was concerned in the far turn that he was going nowhere, and struggling a little bit. I was wondering if he was even going to fire at all. Finally, when he got straightened out down the lane, he did come with his move. It sure looks like more ground is better for us.”
Creator was worth $25.20, $8.60 and $5 to his faithful backers at odds of 11-1. Suddenbreakingnews, who left the gate at odds of more than 5-1, paid $6 and $4 while Whitmore, at nearly 6-1, was good for $3.80. The exacta returned $120.20 and the trifecta $258.10.
Dazzling Gem, Gettysburg, Discreetness, Cutacorner, Gray Sky, American Pioneer, the favored Cupid, Unbridled Outlaw and Luna de Loco completed the order of finish.
“We were done early, basically,” Baffert’s assistant, Jimmy Barnes, said. “I think the fractions probably took a toll on us. But that’s racing. I know Martin [jockey Garcia] wanted to get him in the clear, which he did. But unfortunately, he got in the clear and they were rolling right along.”
It’s still unclear if Cupid will be in the starting gate at Churchill Downs in three weeks, but the connections of several other runners said that they will be there. Third-place finisher Whitmore has earned 44 points, adding 20 from the Arkansas Derby to the 24 he earned previously in with runner-up finishes in the Rebel (GII) and Southwest (GIII) Stakes.
“We belong in the Kentucky Derby,” Ron Moquett, Whitmore’s trainer, said. “It’s what I said before the race, ‘Whoever got the best trip would win.’ Today, Ricardo Santana, Creator and Steve Asmussen got the better trip. Whitmore is not a ‘hanger’ or any of that stuff. He keeps overcoming every race.”