Oaklawn Barn Notes: Ortiz Relishing His Position Heading into Saturday’s Arkansas Derby

Oaklawn Barn Notes by Robert Yates

Contact: Jennifer Hoyt, jhoyt@oaklawn.com (501) 363-4305

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Barber Road

Photo credit: Coady Photography

Ortiz Relishing His Position Heading into Saturday’s Arkansas Derby

To win the biggest race of his career, trainer John Ortiz will have to topple one of the biggest names in Thoroughbred history.

Ortiz will send out the consistent Barber Road in Saturday’s $1.25 million Arkansas Derby (G1), which is Oaklawn’s fourth and final points race for the Kentucky Derby. The 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby also attracted star filly Secret Oath, who is trained by D. Wayne Lukas, 86, a four-time Kentucky Derby winner and member of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Ortiz was just 13 when Lukas, a former high school basketball coach, captured his fourth Kentucky Derby in 1999, the same year he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. A former assistant to Kellyn Gorder, Ortiz, 36, struck out on his own in 2016 and is seeking his first Kentucky Derby starter.

“It’s fun to run against Wayne Lukas – period,” Ortiz said following Barber Road’s final work for the Arkansas Derby Sunday morning at Oaklawn. “I turned to the ‘Coach’ one time with the first stakes filly that I had. Her name was Sully’s Dream and I was actually on her. He was sitting on his pony and we were actually standing by the gate here at Oaklawn. I looked at him and said, ‘Coach, I know we don’t talk much and I’m just new, but I’ve got a little conflict.’”

Ortiz said he wasn’t sure whether to run Sully’s Dream in an allowance race or the $50,000 Houston Distaff Stakes in January 2018 at Sam Houston. Ortiz said he believed Sully’s Dream could win the Houston Distaff, but she also still had an allowance condition. Reaching this fork in the road, Ortiz asked Lukas to point him in the right direction.

“He goes, ‘Johnny, go with your heart,’” Ortiz said. “He’s like, ‘I’ve won more stakes races that I shouldn’t have been in than the ones I point to.’ Guess what? I turned around and won that race.”

Sully’s Dream provided Ortiz with his first career stakes victory. Four years later, Barber Road is trying to give Ortiz his biggest career stakes victory in the Arkansas Derby, which highlights Saturday’s 13-race card. The Arkansas Derby will go as the 12th race, with probable post 6:35 p.m. (Central). First post is noon. Weather permitting, the infield will be open.

The Arkansas Derby will offer 170 points (100-40-20-10, respectively) to the top four finishers toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby. While Secret Oath is 3 for 3 at the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting (winning her races against 3-year-old fillies, including two stakes, by a combined 23 lengths), Barber Road is still seeking a breakthrough victory.

Barber Road finished second in the $250,000 Smarty Jones Stakes at 1 mile Jan. 1 and $750,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) at 1 1/16 miles Jan. 29 and third in the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 26. Barber Road collected 18 points for those finishes and ranks 20th on Kentucky Derby leaderboard, according to Churchill Downs. A top three finish in the Arkansas Derby likely would secure Barber Road a spot in the Kentucky Derby, which is limited to 20 starters.

“It’s just exciting to be in this position for the first time,” said Ortiz, who trains Barber Road for former Walmart executive William Simon. “I’m pumped. It’s crazy.”

Ortiz, even without the Barber Road storyline, continues to author a spectacular 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting. He was tied for third in victories (22) and ranked third in purse earnings ($1,904,226) through Sunday, Day 47 of the scheduled 66-day live season.

Remarkably, 15 of Ortiz’s victories have come in races worth $100,000 or more, highlighted by the $150,000 Nodouble Breeders’ Stakes for Arkansas-bred sprinters March 5 with Gar Hole, who became the meet’s first four-time winner. The Nodouble marked the first career Oaklawn stakes victory for Ortiz after five runner-up finishes during the 2021 and 2021-2022 meetings.

Ortiz already has shattered his previous single-season Oaklawn bests – 15 victories and $721,658 in purse earnings – set last year. In addition to the Nodouble, Ortiz runners have captured 14 six-figure allowance races, a $90,000 maiden special weights race and two $84,000 maiden special weights events.

“Our goal was to win one race every weekend and we’ve been very blessed to have multiple wins,” Ortiz said. “Our goal was to win a stakes at the meet this year and we finally got that off the bucket list and to win 20 races. Now, we’re at 22 for the meet. I have a great team.”

Ortiz’s stable, roughly 60 horses, is split between Oaklawn and The Thoroughbred Training Center, which is near his home in Lexington, Ky. Ortiz normally makes the 9 ½-hour drive each week, leaving after Sunday’s final race at Oaklawn and arriving home early Monday morning. Ortiz then returns early Friday to Hot Springs for a new race week.

“This is a team effort, from Kentucky to Arkansas,” Ortiz said.

The projected Arkansas Derby field from the rail out: Kavod, Mitchell Murrill to ride, 122 pounds, 15-1; Chasing Time, Jose Lezcano, 119, 12-1; Barber Road, Reylu Gutierrez, 119, 8-1; Doppelganger, John Velazquez, 119, 3-1; Un Ojo, Ramon Vazquez, 122, 6-1; Secret Oath, Luis Contreras, 117, 5-2; Ben Diesel, Jon Court, 119, 15-1; Cyberknife, Florent Geroux, 119, 8-1; and We the People, Flavien Prat, 119, 7-2.

Lukas won the 1984 Arkansas Derby with a filly, Althea, and again in 1985 with Tank’s Prospect.

The Green Mile

Bob Baffert will have a horse running Saturday at Oaklawn. But it won’t be in the Arkansas Derby, a race the Hall of Fame trainer has won four times.

Baffert is scheduled to send out 5-2 program favorite Cezanne in the $400,000 Oaklawn Mile (G3) for older horses. A 5-year-old son of Curlin, Cezanne exits a 2 ½-length victory in the $200,000 San Carlos Stakes (G2) for older horses at 7 furlongs March 5 at Santa Anita. Cezanne didn’t debut until June of his 3-year-old year and the San Carlos marked only his second start since last April.

“Just minor issues,” Baffert said Tuesday afternoon. “He just needed time. He was a big, heavy horse.”

Purchased as a 2-year-old for $3.65 million, Cezanne has won 4 of 6 starts overall. His abbreviated 4-year-old campaign – one race – resulted in a 9 ¾-length victory in the $100,000 Kona Gold Stakes (G3) at 6 ½ furlongs last April at Santa Anita. Cezanne finished third, beaten three lengths, in the $200,000 Palos Verdes Stakes (G3) for older horses Jan. 29 at Santa Anita. The 6-furlong race was his 2022 debut.

Baffert finished second in the 2020 Oaklawn Mile with Improbable, who was beaten three-quarters of a length by Tom’s d’Etat in his 4-year-old debut. Improbable then reeled off three consecutive Grade 1 victories, including the $300,000 Hollywood Gold Cup Stakes at 1 ¼ miles at Santa Anita and $750,000 Whitney Stakes at 1 1/8 miles at Saratoga, en route to an Eclipse Award as the country’s champion older dirt male of 2020. Baffert said he hopes Cezanne, who will be making his first start outside California in the Oaklawn Mile, can follow a similar path in 2022.

“They’ve got the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, a Grade 1,” Baffert said. “I really think the longer distance will open up bigger races. He’s the kind of horse that could run in the Whitney, something like that. It (Oaklawn Mile) is going to be a tough race, but I think it will be a good spot for him.”

Baffert also entered Eda in Saturday’s $600,000 Fantasy Stakes (G3) for 3-year-old fillies, but he said the Grade 1 winner will be scratched after developing a slight fever Monday. Eda has won four consecutive starts.

“Bloodwork was OK, but you just can’t take a chance,” Baffert said. “Any time that you have a little bit of a temp, that is it.”

Baffert has won 36 of 85 career starts at Oaklawn, including 28 stakes. He has dominated Oaklawn’s Kentucky Derby prep series the last decade, with 18 victories, including a record eight in the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2).

Because of a two-year ban by Churchill Downs and impending 90-day suspension, sanctions stemming from the disqualification of his 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit (medication violation), a handful of Baffert’s 2022 Kentucky Derby prospects were recently transferred to other trainers. One of those runners, Doppelganger, is entered in the $1.25 million Arkansas Derby (G1) for trainer Tim Yakteen, a former Baffert assistant.

Among Baffert’s four Arkansas Derby victories was American Pharoah, who also swept the Triple Crown in 2015.

Jamal Update

Call Me Jamal is probably out for the summer after emerging from a 6-furlong workout last Sunday with an injury, trainer Mike Puhich said Tuesday morning. The 1:13.40 work was Call Me Jamal’s final intended major move for Saturday’s $1.25 million Arkansas Derby (G1).

“He came out of it and was OK,” Puhich said. “He got in the stall and had some filling in an ankle.”

Puhich said the injury won’t require surgery and the gelding will be re-evaluated in about 60-90 days. A son of the late Malibu Moon, Call Me Jamal was a two-time winner at 1 1/16 miles this season at Oaklawn, including a Feb. 26 entry-level allowance score in his last start. Sandwiched around the victories was a seventh-place finish in the $750,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) at 1 1/16 miles Jan. 29. The Southwest was Oaklawn’s second Kentucky Derby points race.

“This is real disappointing,” Puhich said. “He worked like a freak. Worked great. Just galloped around there, which is all we wanted to do.”

Call Me Jamal breezed under Geovanni Franco, who was scheduled to ride the gelding in the Arkansas Derby.

Finish Lines

Jockey Cristian Torres said he will be out indefinitely after suffering two hairline fractures (tailbone and right ankle) during a spill in last Sunday’s fifth race. Torres was unseated when his mount, Big On Broadway, jumped a shadow at the three-eighths pole, according to footnotes from the official race chart. “I’ll do my best to come back soon,” Torres said in a text message Monday. Torres, through Sunday, had 19 victories at the 2021-2022 meeting. … Millionaire Grade 1 winner Clairiere is on the grounds training in advance of the $1 million Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) for older fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles April 23 for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. … Storm the Court, an Eclipse Award winner as the country’s champion 2-year-old male of 2019, is the 3-1 program favorite for Saturday’s 11th race, an allowance sprint for older horses. The Southern California-based Storm the Court finished sixth in the second division of the $500,000 Arkansas Derby (G1) in 2020. … The major spring objective for Ignitis, runner-up in a March 25 allowance sprint, remains the $500,000 Pat Day Mile (G2) for 3-year-old May 7 at Churchill Downs, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said Tuesday morning.