Barn Notes 3/24/24

Compiled by Robert Yates

Grade 1 winners Muth and Timberlake were installed the top two wagering choices on the morning line for the $1.5 million G1-Arkansas Derby for 3-year-olds Saturday at Oaklawn.

Muth (8-5) and Timberlake (9-5) were among 10 horses entered Sunday morning in the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby, Oaklawn’s fourth and final Kentucky Derby points race. The Arkansas Derby, the 12th race, anchors a 13-race program that begins at 12:05 (Central). Probable post time for the Arkansas Derby is 6:47 p.m.

In addition to the Arkansas Derby, there are three other stakes races on the program – $750,000 G2-Fantasy for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles, $500,000 G3-Oaklawn Mile for older horses and the $250,000 Matron for older fillies and mares at six furlongs.

The Arkansas Derby could award as many as 200 points to its top five finishers (100-50-25-15-10, respectively) toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby. The race is limited to 20 starters.

The Arkansas Derby field from the rail out: Will Take It, Francisco Arrieta to ride, 121 pounds, 50-1 on the morning line; Timberlake, Flavien Prat, 124, 9-5; Dimatic, Cristian Torres, 121, 20-1; Time for Truth, Rafael Bejarano, 121, 20-1; Liberal Arts, Tyler Gaffalione, 124, 15-1; Informed Patriot, Ricardo Santana Jr., 121, 30-1; Muth, Juan Hernandez, 124, 8-5; Just Steel, Keith Asmussen, 124, 15-1; Mystik Dan, Brian Hernandez Jr., 124, 5-2; and Imperial Gun, Emmanuel Esquivel, 121, 30-1.

Muth will try to give Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert his record-tying fifth Arkansas Derby victory. Muth hasn’t started since winning the $200,000 G2-San Vicente Stakes at seven furlongs Jan. 6 at Santa Anita. The son of champion Good Magic, unraced outside California, recorded his biggest career victory to date in the $300,000 G1-American Pharoah Oct. 7 at Santa Anita. Muth closed 2023 with a runner-up finish in the $2 million G1-Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Nov. 3 at Santa Anita.

Muth, owing to Baffert’s suspension by Churchill Downs, is ineligible for Kentucky Derby qualifying points and to run in the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Trainer Brad Cox bids for his third consecutive Arkansas Derby victory with Timberlake, who launched his 3-year-old campaign with a victory in the $1.25 million G2-Rebel Stakes Feb. 24 at Oaklawn. The 8 ½-furlong Rebel was Oaklawn’s third Kentucky Derby points race.

Timberlake concluded 2023 with a victory in the $500,000 G3-Champagne Stakes – a one-turn mile – Oct. 7 at Aqueduct and a fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. No trainer has won Oaklawn’s Arkansas Derby three consecutive years.

Mystik Dan, the early third choice, is unraced since a dazzling eight-length victory in Oaklawn’s 1 1/16-miles $800,000 G3-Southwest Stakes Feb. 3. The son of two-time Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Goldencents has been based at Fair Grounds since arctic temperatures, snow and rain forced Oaklawn to cancel 11 days of training (Jan. 13-23). The Southwest was Oaklawn’s second Kentucky Derby points race.

Just Steel and Liberal Arts were second and third, respectively, in the Southwest. Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen is scheduled to start Rebel fifth-place finisher Dimatic, Imperial Gun and Informed Patriot in search of his fifth Arkansas Derby victory. Informed Patriot finished third in the $300,000 Smarty Jones Stakes January 1 The Smarty Jones was Oaklawn’s first Kentucky Derby points race. Smarty Jones winner Catching Freedom returned to win the $1 million G2-Louisiana Derby Saturday at the Fair Grounds for Cox.

New York-bred standout My Mane Squeeze is the 3-1 program favorite for the Fantasy, which will award 200 points to its top five finishers (100-50-25-15-10, respectively) toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Oaks. The Kentucky Oaks, the country’s biggest race for 3-year-old fillies, is limited to 14 starters.

Lemon Muffin, Tapit Jenallie and West Omaha finished 1-2-3, respectively, in the $400,000 G3-Honeybee Stakes Feb. 24. The 1 1/16-mile Honeybee was Oaklawn’s final major prep for the Fantasy.

Another Blue Saturday

A little more than three years after winning two stakes races on a Saturday card at Oaklawn, Godolphin struck again when First Mission and Nash, both even-money favorites, rolled to eye-catching scores for the global breeding/racing powerhouse.

First Mission captured the $600,000 G3-Essex Handicap for older horses at 1 1/8 miles by five lengths. Roughly a half-hour earlier, Triple Crown nominee Nash won the $200,000 Hot Springs for 3-year-olds at one mile by 5 ½ lengths. Florent Geroux rode both Godolphin homebreds for trainer Brad Cox, who had four victories on Saturday’s 10-race card.

Homebreds Mystic Guide and Essential Quality also carried Godolphin’s famed royal blue silks to stakes victories Feb. 27, 2021, at Oaklawn. Mystic Guide won the $600,000 G3-Razorback Handicap for older horses and champion Essential Quality captured the $750,000 G3-Southwest Stakes for 3-year-olds.

“We like coming here for those,” Godolphin USA’s director of bloodstock Michael Banahan said moments after Saturday’s stakes sweep.

The Essex was a major bounce-back performance for First Mission, who captured the $400,000 G3-Lexington Stakes last April at Keeneland and concluded 2023 with a runner-up finish, beaten a nose, in the $600,000 G2-Clark Nov. 24 at Churchill Downs.

First Mission was among the favorites for the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1) Jan. 27 at Gulfstream, but he bombed in the 1 1/8-mile race and finished ninth, beaten 20 ½ lengths by National Treasure. Cox said he believed First Mission, in his 4-year-old debut, didn’t care for the kickback or the racing surface.

First Mission was a forward factor from the start in the Essex, stalking Great Escape from the outside before pouncing on the front-runner near the three-eighths pole, then cruising to the finish line. Carrying top weight of 121 pounds, First Mission ($4.20) ran 1 1/8 miles over a fast track in a meet-best 1:49.76. The race was previously run at 1 1/16 miles.

“He was clean the whole way around there,” Banahan said. “I just think maybe it was the kickback at Gulfstream. He certainly didn’t like the track down there for whatever reason. But every race he’s run in, he’s been a real professional and showed what he could do, so it was very disappointing the last time. So, it was nice to get him back here, get him back on track, get a win under his belt and then we can see where we can go after that. There are several options.”

The Essex was a major local prep for the $1.25 million G2-Oaklawn Handicap April 20. Banahan said First Mission could resurface in the Oaklawn Handicap or the $750,000 G2-Alysheba Stakes for older horses at 1 1/16 miles May 3 at Churchill Downs.

“We feel like he’s one of the better older horses in the country, so we’ll campaign him like that,” Banahan said.

Banahan said next-race plans are also pending for Triple Crown nominee Nash, who secured his first career stakes victory in the Hot Springs. Nash began 2024 on the Triple Crown trail at Fair Grounds, but he finished second to top-shelf Kentucky Derby prospects Track Phantom in the $200,000 G3-Lecomte Stakes Jan. 20 and Tuscan Sky in an allowance Feb. 17. Both races were 1 1/16 miles.

Class relief and a cutting back to a mile led to a blowout in the Hot Springs, Cox’s second consecutive victory in the race. Nash ($4) swept to the lead with a four-wide move on the second turn and coasted to the finish line. The winning time over a fast track was 1:38.49.

“He’s run well every race that we had him in,” Banahan said. “Probably figured out that he didn’t want to go that long. So, we backed him up to a two-turn mile and he did it well. Nice kick at the end and we’ll concentrate, maybe, on those type of races.”

Although Nash has 13 Kentucky Derby qualifying points, Banahan said there won’t be an 11th-hour push to make the first leg of the Triple Crown May 4 at Churchill Downs.

“I don’t think it would be the right thing to do by the horse,” Banahan said. “I think he’s told us what he wants to do. Sort of confirmed it today doing that one-mile race. We’ll look at maybe the Pat Day Mile or something like that at Churchill and maybe later in the year, maybe try to stretch him a little.”

The $600,000 G2-Pat Day Mille is on the Kentucky Derby undercard.

Jorgito Abrego, who oversees Cox’s Oaklawn division, said Sunday morning that both First Mission and Nash exited their victories “very well.”

Moments after First Mission’s victory, Cox saddled Tarifa, another Godolphin homebred, to win the $400,000 G2-Fair Grounds Oaks for 3-year-old fillies.