Oaklawn Leading the Charge with Nine Kentucky Derby Runners and Three Oaks Runners

Oaklawn Barn Notes by Robert Yates

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

Thursday, May 04, 2023

Angel of Empire and Jockey Chris Landeros

Photo Credit: Coady Photography

Oaklawn Leading the Charge with Nine Kentucky Derby Runners and Three Oaks Runners

Oaklawn’s decision to revamp its Kentucky Derby prep schedule in 2021 is paying huge dividends two years later. A new twist this season further enhanced the product.

Nine Oaklawn-raced horses, as of Thursday morning, were scheduled to run in the Kentucky Derby Saturday at Churchill Downs. Barring scratches, nine starters would represent 45 percent of the 20-horse field, the most of any track where horses started this year.

Oaklawn’s nine projected starters would also be a record since its four-race Kentucky Derby prep series (Smarty Jones Stakes, Southwest Stakes, Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby) began in 2008. Seven Oaklawn-raced horses races ran in the 2010 Kentucky Derby. Oaklawn averaged four Kentucky Derby starters per year in 2008-2022.

“I can’t remember anything like this in the last 15 years, where that many horses came from a certain jurisdiction,” longtime Oaklawn racing secretary Pat Pope said. “It shows how strong the 3-year-old series is leading to it (Kentucky Derby) and how it gives owners the opportunity to come to Arkansas to do it.”

In conjunction with an expanded racing calendar and opening in December for the first time, Oaklawn shifted the dates of its four Kentucky Derby preps for the 2021-2022 meeting. The Arkansas Derby (G1), normally run three weeks before the Kentucky Derby since 1996, was moved to five weeks before the first leg of the Triple Crown. The move addressed the growing trend of trainers wanting more time between races. Mirroring the 2022 Arkansas Derby, the Smarty Jones, Southwest and Rebel were also moved up on the calendar.

Three Oaklawn-raced horses ran in the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Four were scheduled to run last year before the 11th-hour scratch of Ethereal Road. Clearly, there was a traffic jam on the road from Hot Springs to Louisville in 2023.

“I think the extended meet has benefited us,” Pope said. “I think the spacing of the race is tremendous now. Trainers want more time. And I do believe, without a doubt, it’s the Cella family’s commitment to the series and the money they’re offering to come.”

Oaklawn raised the purse of the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby from $1 million to $1.25 million in 2022, making it the country’s richest Kentucky Derby prep. Oaklawn also boosted the purse of the 1-mile Smarty Jones from $150,000 to a record $250,000 in 2022. Coupled with the $750,000 Southwest (G3) and $1 million Rebel (G2) – both at 1 1/16 miles – Oaklawn has the country’s most lucrative Kentucky Derby prep series.

“I don’t ever remember anything like this,” Pope said. “I used to be excited if we got three or four in. If (Ron) Moquett gets in, we’ll have half the field. Think about that.”

Oaklawn-raced horses scheduled to run in the Kentucky Derby are: Hit Show for trainer Brad Cox, Verifying (Cox), Rebel winner Confidence Game (Keith Desormeaux), Reincarnate (Tim Yakteen), Disarm (Steve Asmussen), Jace’s Road (Cox), Sun Thunder (Kenny McPeek), Arkansas Derby winner Angel of Empire (Cox) and Rocket Can (Bill Mott).

King Russell (Moquett) is an also-eligible and needs three defections to draw into the 1 ¼-mile race, which is limited to 20 starters. The scratch deadline is 9 a.m. (Eastern) Friday.

Moquett said that King Russell, if he doesn’t run in the Kentucky Derby, could head to the $200,000 Peter Pan Stakes (G3) for 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles May 13 at Belmont Park.

Cox has dominated Oaklawn’s Kentucky Derby prep series the last three years, winning 5 of 12 races, including the Jan. 1 Smarty Jones (Victory Formation) and Arkansas Derby. Angel of Empire finished second in the Smarty Jones.

Cox also won the 2021 Southwest with champion Essential Quality, who crossed the finish line fourth in the Kentucky Derby before capturing the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown. Cox won entry-level allowance races this season at Oaklawn with Hit Show and Verifying, who finished fourth behind Confidence Game in the Feb. 25 Rebel. The Southwest was run Jan. 28.

“The bottom line is the stakes schedule,” Cox said, referring to Oaklawn’s 2023 surge. “It’s very, very good for colts and fillies, just 3-year-olds. Obviously, our stable is made up of a lot of 2-year-olds turning 3. It fits us very, very well. Obviously, if you’ve got a Grade 1 horse like Angel of Empire, or you’re hoping to get a Grade 1 horse, there’s a lot of opportunities for maidens to get broke and first-level allowances and, obviously, the stakes schedule is very, very strong. They do a tremendous job there of offering opportunities for the sophomores.”

Oaklawn’s program for young horses was strengthened in 2022-2023 through the Dec. 31 card, its first exclusively for 2-year-olds. The 10-race card featured two stakes and four open maiden special weight events.

Sun Thunder and King Russell ran 1-2, respectively, in a 1-mile maiden special weight. Sun Thunder returned to finish fourth in the Southwest and second behind Angel of Empire in the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (G2) at 1 1/8 miles Feb. 18 at Fair Grounds. King Russell jumped into the Kentucky Derby picture with a runner-up finish in the Arkansas Derby.

Eyeing Clover, a Dec. 31 debut winner sprinting, returned to win the $200,000 Hot Springs Stakes for 3-year-olds at 1 mile April 1 at Oaklawn for Cox. Defining Purpose and Taxed finished first and fourth, respectively, in the inaugural $150,000 Year’s End Stakes for fillies at 1 mile Dec. 31. Defining Purpose returned to win the $600,000 Ashland Stakes (G1) April 7 at Keeneland for McPeek. Taxed finished second in the $600,000 Fantasy Stakes (G3) April 1 at Oaklawn for trainer Randy Morse. Both major Kentucky Oaks preps were 1 1/16 miles.

“I’m a big fan of this,” Moquett said. “Any time you can get a hyperfocus on the young horses and get people to buy into them early and follow them throughout their career is good. I think it does a good job of getting people to focus on which 2-year-olds they’re going to follow the next year.”

Oaklawn owner Louis Cella said Oaklawn plans to conduct another all-2-year-old day during the 2023-2024 meeting that is scheduled to begin Dec. 8.

“We have every intention of doing it,” Cella said. “It was great.”

Oaklawn has four horses entered in the $1.25 million Kentucky Oaks (G1) Friday at Churchill Downs. The 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Oaks is the country’s biggest race for 3-year-old fillies.

The quartet is headed by the Cox-trained Wet Paint, who became just the second horse to sweep Oaklawn’s three-race Kentucky Oaks prep series – $200,000 Martha Washington Stakes at 1 1/16 miles Jan. 28, $300,000 Honeybee Stakes (G3) at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 25 and the Fantasy. Eight Belles also swept the three races in 2008 before finishing second in the Kentucky Derby.

Defining Purpose and Honeybee fourth Gambling Girl for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher are also entered. Taxed is the first also-eligible and needs one defection to run in the Kentucky Oaks, which is limited to 14 starters.

Secret Oath won last year’s Kentucky Oaks after winning the Martha Washington and Honeybee and finishing third against males in the Arkansas Derby.

Finish Lines

Japanese-bred Komorebino Omoide is entered in Friday’s eighth race at Oaklawn, a $90,000 maiden special weight sprint for 3-year-olds. The son of California Chrome finished second in his April 8 career debut at Oaklawn for leading trainer Robertino Diodoro and breeder/owner Perry Martin. … Oaklawn stakes-placed Warrant ($8.62) surpassed $1 million in career earnings with a victory in the $175,000 Isaac Murphy Marathon Overnight Stakes for older horses at 1 ½ miles Wednesday at Churchill Downs. … Oaklawn stakes winners Secret Oath, Pauline’s Pearl and A Mo Reay are entered in the $750,000 La Troienne Stakes (G1) for older fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles Friday at Churchill Downs.