Check on your friends in Kentucky this week; they are not ok. Among the many pandemic-related disruptions in life and sports is the postponement of this year’s Kentucky Derby and the festivities and excitement that lead up to the annual May event.
Kentuckians and horse racing fans around the country are faced with a new reality of no Derby draw, no Thurby, no Kentucky Oaks Friday and no racing of any kind under the twin spires of Churchill Downs on the upcoming first Saturday in May. However, we are lucky to have as good of a substitute as we could hope for in this turbulent year: the Arkansas Derby.
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Traditionally, the Arkansas Derby is held in early April each year, timed such that hopeful 3-year-olds can use the prep as the final stepping stone on the path to the Kentucky Derby 3-4 weeks later.
Following the announcement from Churchill Downs that the 2020 Kentucky Derby would be moved to the first Saturday in September, Oaklawn Park officials made the decision to move the Arkansas Derby to take the place of the Kentucky Derby. For 2020, the Arkansas Derby will be the biggest race for 3-year-old Thoroughbreds on the first Saturday in May.
With the postponement of the Kentucky Derby and some traditional prep races such as the Santa Anita Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes, horses who have been preparing for the Triple Crown races have fewer options to run. As the exact schedule of replacement and rescheduled Derby preps has yet to be announced, many trainers are taking their chances where they can, turning the already popular Arkansas Derby into the hottest race of the month. So many horses entered the race, in fact, that track officials made the uncommon decision to split the race into two divisions to give even more horses a chance for much needed racing.
The Arkansas Derby divisions will be Race 11 and Race 13 on Oaklawn’s Saturday card. Post time for the first race of the card is 1:00 PM ET/10:00 AM PT, and the first of the two divisions of the Arkansas Derby is scheduled for 6:29 PM ET/3:29 PM PT.
The entire Saturday card of racing at Oaklawn provides tremendous betting opportunities, featuring the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap for older horses and a slew of full-field allowance races. You can watch all the races and coverage on NBC Sports and Fox Sports 1, plus NBC will have a special Kentucky Derby feature on Saturday afternoon that includes a virtual race of all 13 Triple Crown winners.
While you watch, you can bet on all on action legally online through twinspires.com, xpressbet.com, or TVG.com. Each site offers the ability to deposit money and make real wagers on all live racing taking place this Saturday as well as all day, every day, year-round.
The Arkansas Derby is the last of four Kentucky Derby prep races held at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, each spring. One of the final scheduled preps each season, it typically offers a $1,000,000 purse and 100 points to the winner, more than enough to secure a place in the gate on the first Saturday in May.
The race is run over a dirt course and is 1 1/8 miles long, just 1/8 mile shorter than the Kentucky Derby.
The Arkansas Derby was first run in 1936. Though it has always been a serviceable prep race, it has gained more attention in recent years and is now considered one of the top Derby preps in the country, alongside the Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita in Arcadia, California and the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida.
To date, only three winners of the Arkansas Derby have also won the Kentucky Derby: Sunny’s Halo, Smarty Jones and American Pharoah.
Smarty Jones captured America’s heart in 2004 as the little racehorse that could with working-class Philadelphia roots, sweeping the Kentucky Derby and Preakness while falling to Birdstone in one of the most memorable editions of the Belmont Stakes. The best-known winner of the Arkansas Derby is American Pharoah, who broke the Triple Crown drought in 2015.
The Arkansas Derby tends to produce classic winners and champions, regardless of what they do in the Kentucky Derby. Seven winners have gone on to win the Preakness Stakes, and four of the winners have won the Belmont Stakes.
The Arkansas Derby also produces year-end champions. In addition to Smarty Jones and American Pharoah, 2007 winner Curlin was a two-time American Horse of the Year and a co-world Champion; for years, he held the record for the highest money-earning Thoroughbred racehorse.
2005 Arkansas Derby winner Afleet Alex was named Champion 3-Year-Old and 1998 winner Victory Gallop was the 1999 Champion Older Horse.
There are 22 horses entered in the two divisions of this year’s Arkansas Derby. Whether you want stakes winners, hunch bets or sneaky picks, there is something for everyone this year:
Bob Baffert sends some of his top horses to Oaklawn each year, and this race is no exception. Two of his top 3-year-olds in training, Charlatan and Nadal, are each entered and will run in separate divisions.
Of the two, Charlatan is lightly raced. He will make just his third lifetime start in the Arkansas Derby and his first start in a stakes race on Saturday. The colt was a $700,000 sale purchase thanks to his classy pedigree: his dam, Authenticity, was a multiple graded stakes winner. His two races have been dominant victories by a combined 16 lengths and he has put in monster works this spring.
Nadal will compete in the second division. He has three races under his belt, all victorious, including two stakes. He’s already raced and won at Oaklawn to boot, as the winner of the Rebel Stakes (G2) in March. He also sold for $700,000, and though his dam didn’t find her way to the winner’s circle, his sire, Blame, certainly did in 2010 when he upset Zenyatta in her only loss in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The top dirt race for 2-year-old Thoroughbreds is the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Last year, a duo of longshots pulled the ultimate upset as Storm the Court, 46-1, defeated Anneau d’Or, 28-1, by a head.
Both horses return on Saturday, though unfortunately in different divisions. Anneau d’Or will make his second start of the year after a disappointing effort in the Risen Star Stakes (G2) at the Fair Grounds in February. Interestingly, that race was also a rare split of a Derby prep race into two divisions.
Storm the Court has raced twice since the Juvenile and has yet to win again, but he has put in nice efforts against contenders in two Kentucky Derby preps this year.
Sometimes, you have to bet on the horse name that means something to you or makes you laugh. In the first division, how can you not cheer for a horse named My Friends Beer? The colt is sired by multiple graded stakes winner Stay Thirsty (get it?) and you’re certainly going to get 20-1 or higher at post time. He has experience at Oaklawn, though, and has hit the board every time he races at a mile or longer.
Division two of the Arkansas Derby includes a horse named Fast Enough. Enough said. If this horse hits the board and you didn’t include him, you certainly will not be able to blame the horse – he told you how good he was. He was also third last time out to Nadal, so he is not a complete shot in the dark in this field.
Looking for a horse with a legitimate chance to win that is not a Baffert trainee and won’t have million-to-one odds? In the first division, Basin is worth a look. The colt has two races at Oaklawn this spring and has excellent connections in leading Oaklawn jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr. and second leading trainer Steve Asmussen. Basin finished third in the Rebel behind Nadal; while Nadal had a clear trip, Basin had traffic issues and had to negotiate the best trip he could. He won a Grade 1 race at Saratoga last year and his half-brother, Rise Up, is a graded stakes winner with over $1 million in earnings.
In the second division, Wells Bayou may be overlooked, which is unfair given his recent win in the Louisiana Derby (G2). Only Storm the Court has earned more money in this field, and he has two starts, including a win, at Oaklawn. His dam, Whispering Angel, was a promising filly who only raced three times, but won twice for owner Bobby Flay (yes, that Bobby Flay).
It may not be what we originally imagined, but the first Saturday in May will still showcase top 3-year-olds at a premier racetrack with an exciting undercard of stakes and allowance races. Tune into NBC Sports and bet on the races safely from home through Twinspires, Xpressbet or TVG on all the races at Oaklawn Park on Derby Day!