Simple addition, a $200,000 gamble, recalculation of the morning line, and an absentee trainer are all part of Saturday’s Arkansas Derby.
For starters, must-know numbers are 170 and one.
Split four ways, the three-digit figure represents the points available to the 11 3-year-olds whose final opportunity to qualify for the May 6 Kentucky Derby is Oaklawn Park’s 11th race. Malagacy, who earned 50 points for his Rebel victory at Oaklawn last month, is the single runner in the field who is home free in the competition for one of the 20 spots in the starting gate at Churchill Downs.
Untrapped, who accumulated 34 points with two seconds in Louisiana and a third in Arkansas, and Classic Empire, who was awarded 20 of his 32 points for winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November, are close. For either of them, a fourth-place finish worth 10 points will suffice.
For most of the others, a first- or second-place finish is a must although Conquest Mo Money and Sonneteer, each with 20 points, would slip into the field with a third-place finish and the money-won tiebreaker.
Points are distributed 100-40-20-10 and all involved know their magic number since the Arkansas Derby is the final major prep for the Kentucky Derby. As a result, horsemen will be churning inside when they spring the latch on the starting gate about 6:20 p.m. After all, whether they will be living a dream and participating in the Run for the Roses will be settled in 108 seconds.
If Conquest Mo Money does finish third or better, the man in charge of a racing/breeding operation that competes almost exclusively in New Mexico has indicated he will ante up $200,000 to get his colt into the Run for the Roses. Considering the circumstances, the guess is Tom McKenna’s check will be expedited.
Conquest Mo Money’s 20 points were earned with a second-place finish in the Sunland Park Derby in New Mexico, but, the colt’s connections somehow missed the March 20 deadline for making the horse a late nominee to the Triple Crown. The January fee is $600, the late fee is 10 times that, and then there is the 200k supplemental fee.
Named Judge Lanier Racing after McKenna’s grandfather, the stable has never had a horse in the Derby and McKenna is 81. Besides, he only paid $8,500 for Conquest Mo Money. Adding another hook to the story, trainer Miguel Hernandez did not get into that part of the business until a 2013 spill ended his riding career.
Until One Liner was taken off the Kentucky Derby trail this week, the Todd Pletcher-trained winner of the Southwest was going to be the morning line favorite with Classic Empire as the second choice. Instead, Classic Empire is 8-to-5 and Malagacy, also trained by Pletcher, is 2-to-1.
Taking a stand against either favorite is justifiable. In his only race of the year, Classic Empire was a distant third — a performance blamed on an abscess in his right front foot. Meanwhile, the five horses that finished within four lengths of Malagacy in the Rebel are entered in Saturday’s $1 million race, their connections believing they can make up the margin.
For the first time in seven years, California-based Bob Baffert will not train the Arkansas Derby favorite. In fact, Baffert, who won the race with American Pharoah in 2015 and Bodemeister in 2012, does not have a horse in the 1 1-8-mile event. Even more surprising, the man who has won the Kentucky Derby four times since 1997, failed to qualify any of his 21 Triple Crown-nominated thoroughbreds for America’s most famous race.
In a last-ditch attempt, Baffert ran three in the Santa Anita Derby last week, but the best finish was fourth. Pletcher, who led all trainers with 33 Triple Crown nominees, has three qualified for Kentucky.
Those of us accustomed to including a Baffert-trainee in any exacta box on the Arkansas Derby are lost.
Harry King is sports columnist for GateHouse Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org