Cupid Favored in Arkansas Derby

Cupid holds off the furious late charge of Whitmore to capture the Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Saturday.

Cupid holds off the furious late charge of Whitmore to capture the Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

We are now just three weeks away from the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby (GI). In some ways it seems like an eternity ago and, in other ways, it seems like just yesterday that we witnessed American Pharoah winning the $1 million Arkansas Derby (GI) en route to wearing the garland of roses and then achieving immortality by becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

And here we are: 12 months later and back where it started for the reigning Horse of the Year and wondering if any of the 12 who will race the 1 1/8 miles in Oaklawn’s feature this year have what it takes to not only win the Derby, but repeat in the coveted three-race series.

Though the Arkansas Derby has only produced six Kentucky Derby winners overall, it’s been a productive race for runners pointed toward the Triple Crown for a while. American Pharoah, Super Saver, Smarty Jones, Grindstone, Lil E. Tee and Sunny’s Halo won over the Hot Springs oval before capturing the roses, but other good horses have taken the southern path to success in the other two classic races, including Elocutionist, Temperence Hill, Tank’s Prospect, Pine Bluff, Victory Gallop and Afleet Alex, not to mention a half-dozen other classic-placed runners in the more recent history of the race.

The winner of the Arkansas Derby will take home 100 points to make the gate for the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports, while the runner-up could also guarantee himself a spot with the 40 points awarded for second place. Additionally, a third-place finisher will pick up 20 points and also may be Derby-bound. Last year, the Derby points cutoff was 22, so positions in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May are still very much up for grabs in Oaklawn’s sophomore feature.

The weather for the Hot Springs area on Saturday is expected to be humid, but mild. The possibility of morning thunderstorms will end by mid-day, clearing the way for sunny skies and a high in the lower 70s. So it’s reasonable to expect a dry track by post time for the main event.

Bob Baffert returns to the Arkansas Derby after his banner 2015 Triple Crown effort with American Pharoah — this year, tightening the girth on Michael Tabor, Mrs. John Magnier & Derrick Smith’s colorbearer Cupid. The $900,000 yearling purchase got a bit of a late start down the Triple Crown Trail, but made quite an impact in winning the Rebel Stakes by 1 1/4 lengths in his last start, which was also his first start in stakes company.

He took home the Rebel in wire-to-wire fashion, but broke his maiden at the same 1 1/16-mile distance by an impressive 5 1/4 lengths in an off-the-pace performance, so he’s not necessarily a need-the-lead type, which can only help him from post position ten in here. The gray son of Tapit is the 2-1 favorite and considering his connections, which includes Baffert’s go-to jockey Martin Garcia, he will probably be bet heavily, but a clean trip — either on the lead or from just off it — would justify his status as public’s post time choice and put him squarely in front of the cameraman when all is said and done.

Suddenbreakingnews returns after winning the Southwest Stakes (GIII) in impressive near last-to-first fashion, which he followed up with a somewhat lackluster fifth in the Rebel last out. Though he had some trouble in the Rebel and did show some of his impressive late rally, he was no match for the top three and will need to show that his Rebel performance — his first in tough company after winning minor stakes in Oklahoma — wasn’t a fluke. Trainer Donnie Von Hemel is known for sending only fit and ready runners postward and, judging by his two most recent works at Oaklawn, Suddenbreakingnews looks to be no exception. The extra sixteenth of a mile likely won’t be a problem for the son of Mineshaft and the Afleet Alex mare Uchitel and, though he drew post position four, it shouldn’t make much of a difference for him as he’ll be letting the speed go ahead of him from the break. He will have regular jockey Luis Quinonez back aboard and owns some solid speed figures, so expect him to be running late and hoping a clean trip will help him get to the wire in front.

Whitmore was a good second to Cupid in the Rebel last time out, but was no match for the winner and could not get by him in the lane no matter how hard he dug in. Back for a rematch, the gelded son of Pleasantly Perfect will need every ounce of talent he owns to reach the winner’s circle. He’s nothing if not consistent and has only turned in one off-the-board performance in his five-race career, but hasn’t scored a win since taking a six furlong allowance race by 3 ½ lengths back in January. One wouldn’t think the distance would be a problem for the Ron Moquett trainee, but he’s struggled on the stretch-out and will need to bring his “A” game to be a factor today, especially with other improving horses in the gate on either side of him. Irad Ortiz Jr. returns for the mount and the pair will break from post position eight.

Despite ducking in and running erratically down the stretch at times, Cupid won impressively in his stakes debut.

Cupid leads the field home in the 2016 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

Creator has never turned in a poor effort in his seven-race career even though he only owns one career victory. His somewhat troubled third-place finish in the Rebel last time out, which was his first in stakes company, put his name on the Kentucky Derby map ever so slightly, but a top effort here would put the ink on his penciled-in name. Yes, he has his work cut out for him, but he hails from the high percentage barn of Steve Asmussen and has been working solidly over the Oaklawn oval, including his last two strong morning drills. He’s one of two in here who have tested the nine-furlong distance, but that race was on the turf and produced his only off-the-board finish, so he’ll need to turn in a performance that showcases as much as he’s capable of to have a say at the wire. Ricardo Santana Jr. returns for the mount and the pair will break from post position three.

Gettysburg is the other who has tested the 1 1/8-mile distance, finishing second in last month’s Sunland Park Festival of Racing Stakes. He’s a somewhat inconsistent sort, but boasts top connections in trainer Todd Pletcher and Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez. An early speed type, his outside post in the 12-runner field isn’t the best scenario for him, but he’s clearly in capable hands to get to a preferred early position.

Post time for the Arkansas Derby, which is the 11th race on the day, has been set for 7:18 p.m. EDT.

Margaret Ransom
California native and lifelong horsewoman Margaret Ransom is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. She got her start in racing working in the publicity departments at Calder Race Course and Hialeah Park, as well as in the racing office at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. She then spent six years in Lexington, KY, at BRISnet.com where she helped create and develop the company’s popular newsletters, Handicapper’s Edge and Bloodstock Journal.

After returning to California, she served six years as the Southern California news correspondent for BloodHorse, assisted in the publicity department at Santa Anita Park and and was a contributor to many other racing publications, including HorsePlayer Magazine and Trainer Magazine. She then spent seven years at HRTV and HRTV.com in various roles as researcher, programming assistant, producer and social media and marketing manager. She has also walked hots and groomed runners, worked the elite sales in Kentucky for top-class consignors and volunteers for several race horse retirement organizations, including CARMA.

Margaret’s very first Breeders’ Cup was at Hollywood Park in 1984 and she has attended more than half of the Breeders’ Cups since. She counts Holy Bull as her favorite horse of all time. She lives in Pasadena with her longtime beau, Tony, three Australian Shepherds and one Golden Retriever.