Barn Notes 2/21/24

Compiled by Robert Yates

The winners of Oaklawn’s first and second 2024 Kentucky Derby points races bypassed the third, but could meet again in the fourth.

Trainer Kenny McPeek reiterated Tuesday morning that Southwest Stakes winner Mystik Dan is pointing for the nine-furlong $1.5 million G1-Arkansas Derby March 30. The Arkansas Derby is among several races under consideration for Smarty Jones Stakes winner Catching Freedom’s next start, trainer Brad Cox said Monday afternoon.

McPeek said Mystik Dan returned to the Fair Grounds shortly after his eight-length victory in the $800,000 G3-Southwest, a 1 1/16-mile race postponed a week because of winter weather.

The shortened turnaround (21 days) to Saturday’s $1.25 million G2-Rebel Stakes - Oaklawn’s third Kentucky Derby points race – factored into McPeek’s decision to train Mystik Dan up to the Arkansas Derby. McPeek originally sent Mystik Dan to the Fair Grounds to prepare for the Southwest after arctic temperatures, snow and rain halted training at Oaklawn for 11 days (Jan. 13-23). Mystik Dan recorded three published workouts at Oaklawn (Dec. 23, Dec. 29 and Jan. 12) before heading south.

“He’s doing well,” said McPeek, who has divisions at Oaklawn and Fair Grounds. “I skipped a breeze with him this weekend because the track was horrendous, and he’ll get teed up for the Arkansas Derby in the next month.” McPeek said most of Mystik Dan’s serious leg work for the Arkansas Derby will be in New Orleans.

“He might come up, like, a week early to work over the track or he may come a few days before the race,” McPeek said.

Mystik Dan opened 2024 with a fifth-place finish, beaten 3 ¼ lengths by Catching Freedom, in the $300,000 Smarty Jones Jan. 1. Catching Freedom returned to finish third in the $400,000 G2-Risen Star Stakes at 1 1/8 miles Saturday at Fair Grounds. Catching Freedom, racing over a sloppy track, was beaten 1 ¾ lengths by Sierra Leone.

“Very pleased with the effort,” Cox said. “It looks like he came out of it well.”

Cox won the 2022 Arkansas Derby with Cyberknife and last year with Angel of Empire, who, like Catching Freedom, is owned by Albaugh Family Stables.

Before the Arkansas Derby – his final Kentucky Derby prep – Angel of Empire ran second in the Smarty Jones and won the Risen Star. That doesn’t necessarily mean Catching Freedom will follow the same script, Cox said.

“I think right now everything’s in play – the Arkansas Derby, Louisiana Derby, Blue Grass,” Cox said. “I might even throw the Wood in there. Don’t think we would do the Florida Derby or the Santa Anita Derby. But those four races will be on his radar, and we’ll pick the one we’re thinking makes the most sense. Obviously, he ran well in Arkansas. That gives us some confidence if that’s the route to go.”

Angel of Empire finished third as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. Catching Freedom (25 points) and Mystik Dan (21) rank fifth and sixth, respectively, on the latest Kentucky Derby leaderboard released by Churchill Downs. The race is limited to 20 starters.

The Arkansas Derby offers 200 points (100-50-25-15-10, respectively) to its top five eligible finishers toward Kentucky Derby.

C Z Rocket Retired

Moments after millionaire sprinter C Z Rocket finished sixth in Monday’s eighth race at Oaklawn, co-owner/trainer Peter Miller pulled the plug on 10-year-old gelding’s racing career.

A riches to rags to riches story, C Z Rocket retired with a 13-9-7 record from 46 starts and earnings of $2,144,691, the bulk coming after Miller, on behalf of Tom Kagele, claimed the son of City Zip for $40,000 out of a fifth-place finish in an April 30, 2020, sprint at Oaklawn.

C Z Rocket won 9 of 29 starts for Miller, including four stakes, and earned $1,903,394.

“One of the all-time great claims,” the Southern California-based Miller said by phone Monday afternoon. “Made over $2 million, second in the Breeders’ Cup twice and retires sound and happy. If that’s not a success, I don’t know what is.”

Originally purchased for $800,000 as a 2-year-old by prominent Arkansas businessman Frank Fletcher, C Z Rocket had lost 11 consecutive starts when he moved to Miller’s barn in the spring of 2020.

C Z Rocket then won his next five starts. He set a 6 ½-furlong track record (1:15) in a Keeneland allowance and won the $150,000 G2-Pat O’Brien Stakes at Del Mar and $200,000 G2-Santa Anita Sprint Championship at Santa Anita before completing 2020 with a runner-up finish in the $2 million G1-Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Keeneland. He also finished second in the 2022 G1-Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Keeneland.

C Z Rocket made nine career starts at Oaklawn, running at least once in Hot Springs each year since 2019. His two victories were in 2021, when he toppled champion Whitmore in the $200,000 Hot Springs Stakes and $500,000 G3-Count Fleet Sprint Handicap.

C Z Rocket’s last two career victories were in allowance company at Del Mar (July 23, 2022, and Nov. 25). He was retired after being beaten 5 ½ lengths in a starter-allowance sprint.

“The last thing I want to see is him get hurt,” Miller said. “He’s very sound, but he’s lost a step or two and now’s the time.”

Miller said C Z Rocket’s post-racing life could begin in a Kentucky equine retirement facility.

“If we can get him into Old Friends or Kentucky Horse Park, we’d do that,” Miller said. “And if not, we’ll bring him home.”

Roy H, Miller’s two-time champion male sprinter/Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner (2017-2018), resides at Kentucky Horse Park.

Miller has a division this winter at Oaklawn. C Z Rocket, in his only other start this year, finished third in a Jan. 19 allowance sprint at Santa Anita.