Owner Frank Fletcher is Derby Dreaming

Oaklawn Barn Notes by Robert Yates

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

Friday, March 31, 2023

Rocket Can

Photo Credit: Coady Photography

Owner Frank Fletcher is Derby Dreaming

Frank Fletcher still has Derby fever, but it’s not the Kentucky kind.

Fletcher was raised in tiny Tamo, Ark., about 80 miles southeast of Hot Springs, attended the University of Arkansas and later became a highly successful businessman in the state, with interests ranging from furs to restaurants, hotels to automobile dealerships.

Fletcher, 80, is also a longtime Thoroughbred owner and considers Oaklawn, naturally, his home track. It’s easy to connect the remaining dots since Oaklawn annually runs the race Fletcher covets more than any – the Arkansas Derby.

Fletcher, who won his first race at Oaklawn in 1989, has started only two horses in the Arkansas Derby, finishing third in 2001 with Son of Rocket and seventh in 2007 with Officer Rocket. Both were trained by the late Bob Holthus, Oaklawn’s all-time winningest trainer.

Fletcher, the colorful North Little Rock, Ark., owner will have another opportunity Saturday when his Rocket Can, trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, starts in the $1.25 million Arkansas Derby (G1). The 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby is Oaklawn’s fourth and final Kentucky Derby points race.

“I love the Arkansas Derby,” Fletcher said moments after last Sunday’s post position draw in the Larry Snyder Winner’s Circle. “We love this race. I told Wally Hall (longtime Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sports editor) all my life that my whole life’s dream was to win the Arkansas Derby. And if I did that, I didn’t care if I ever got in the Kentucky Derby. If I were to win the Arkansas Derby, I would just probably tell Mott to go ahead and do whatever he wants to. I’m just going to stay here and get on top of this statue out front and sit there for about a week.”

Rocket Can represents Fletcher’s best Arkansas Derby chance to date after winning the $250,000 Holy Bull Stakes (G3) Feb. 4 and finishing second behind champion Forte in the $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) March 4. Both 1 1/16-mile races were at Gulfstream Park.

By super sire Into Mischief out of the Tapit mare, Tension, Rocket Can has flourished since moving to two turns last fall. Rocket Can broke his maiden Oct. 30 at Churchill Downs, then finished second, beaten a half-length by Confidence Game, in a first-level allowance Nov. 26 at Churchill Downs. Both races were 1 1/16 miles. Confidence Game returned to win the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2), Oaklawn’s final major prep for the Arkansas Derby, Feb. 25.

After winning the Holy Bull by three-quarters of a length, Rocket Can, in his last start, was beaten 4 ½ lengths by Forte in the Fountain of Youth. Forte, an Eclipse Award winner at 2, is favored in Kentucky Derby future wagering.

“Forte was faster than us, there’s no question,” Fletcher said. “But he had the best trip in the world in the Fountain of Youth. He’s a very fast runner, but he never got banged or hit or anything. He’s going to be one of the top two or three favorites in the Kentucky Derby. But our horse is built, I like to say, more like a linebacker than a running back. He’s strong and he can take a bump in that first turn and he’ll keep on going.”

Rocket Can, like Forte, has been based this winter and early spring in south Florida. Mott opted for a road trip after it was announced Forte would stay home and run in the $1 million Florida Derby (G1) Saturday at Gulfstream Park, with the Arkansas Derby and $1 million Blue Grass Stakes (G1) April 8 at Keeneland becoming the two next-race targets.

The Arkansas Derby will offer 200 points to the top five finishers (100-40-30-20-10, respectively) toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby. Rocket Can (40 points) ranks 13th on the latest Kentucky Derby leaderboard released by Churchill Downs. The Kentucky Derby is limited to 20 starters.

“Just the timing out it,” Mott said Tuesday afternoon. “If he gets some more points and qualifies for the (Kentucky) Derby, it gives us five full weeks back to the Derby, so that’s good. So, the timing is OK. We’re coming back in four weeks for this one, but sometimes you’ve got put them on a rigorous program if you’re going to try to get to the Derby.”

Fletcher and Mott have already enjoyed considerable success since reuniting several years ago, campaigning, among others, millionaire multiple graded stakes winning female sprinter Frank’s Rockette and Grade 3 winner Candy Man Rocket. Fletcher said he has never pressured Mott to run one of the owner’s horses in the Arkansas Derby. Mott, for example, ran Candy Man Rocket in major Kentucky Derby preps in Florida and New York – not Arkansas – in 2021. Rocket Can, a gray, is the 4-1 third choice in the program for the Arkansas Derby.

“We were looking at this race and the Blue Grass and wanted to see who was in each,” Fletcher said. “I told him I’d give anything to be in the Arkansas Derby, but if there’s a better field for us in Kentucky, I’m not going to tell you not to race there. So, it turned out OK. This is my home state. This is the track I’ve always wanted to win on. But I felt strongly that the horse needed to have every opportunity that Mott thought he could get.”

Fletcher also co-owns Victory Formation, who the $250,000 Smarty Jones Stakes at 1 mile Jan. 1. The Smarty Jones was Oaklawn’s first Kentucky Derby points race. Victory Formation fell off the Arkansas Derby trail following a ninth-place finish as the favorite in the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (G2) at 1 1/8 miles Feb. 18 at Fair Grounds. Next-race plans for Victory Formation are pending, the colt’s trainer, Brad Cox, said Wednesday morning. Cox said Victory Formation is nominated to the $400,000 Lexington Stakes (G3) at 1 1/16 miles April 15 at Keeneland.

An Arkansas Derby victory would fall on the 34th anniversary of Fletcher’s first overall at Oaklawn. Fletcher co-owned Fast Fan, winner of the 11th race April 1, 1989, with Holthus.

“I won’t have anything to do with what they do or how they do it Saturday,” Fletcher said. “I’ll just be the cheerleader for it. Really, that’s our position as owners. It’s to step up to the line and write a check and then we become nothing but a cheerleader. I don’t try to get into Mr. Mott’s business. I really like him. He would never do anything that wasn’t absolutely best for the horse.”

Red Route One and Jockey Keith J. Asmussen

Blinkers On

After falling far behind early in his last two starts, Red Route One will race in blinkers for the first time in Saturday’s $1.25 million Arkansas Derby (G1) at 1 1/8 miles.

Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen said he hopes the move will shake up the son of Gun Runner, who races for his breeder, Winchell Thoroughbreds (Ron and Joan Winchell). Red Route One trailed by double digits early in the $750,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Jan. 28 and $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) Feb. 25 before rallying to finish second in both races. Both 1 1/16-mile races were run over off tracks.

“This, expecting to be his last prep before the (Kentucky) Derby, we were pleased with his run in the Rebel,” Asmussen said Thursday morning. “But we need a little more. Hopefully, the blinkers will keep him engaged. Just watching the race, he was away fine and around the first turn. When they dropped down the backside, he just lost too much immediately. I’m hoping he doesn’t give them that much with the addition of blinkers in the middle of the race.”

Asmussen said Red Route One began training in blinkers following the Rebel, where he was beaten one length by Confidence Game. Red Route One trailed by 19 ½ lengths after the opening quarter mile.

“He is very comfortable in them at this stage,” Asmussen said, referring to blinkers.

Red Route One, who is seeking his first career victory on dirt, has 33 points to rank 16th on the latest Kentucky Derby leaderboard released by Churchill Downs. The Kentucky Derby is limited to 20 starters.

Asmussen also entered Harlocap in the Arkansas Derby. After previously being with Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, Harlocap finished sixth in his first start for Asmussen, the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (G2) at 1 1/8 miles Feb. 18 at Fair Grounds. Asmussen decided to run Harlocap in the Arkansas Derby, rather than the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) at 1 3/16 miles last Saturday at Fair Grounds.

“I just think this racetrack is more conducive to his natural style,” Asmussen said. “Hopefully, he’s away cleanly. He has a high cruising speed and I think he’ll stay on extremely well. He’s a beautiful horse that has plenty of talent. Just trying to put him in a position where he can use it.”

Asmussen is seeking his record-tying fifth Arkansas Derby victory after winning the race in 2002 (Private Emblem), 2007 (Curlin), 2016 (Creator) and 2021 (Super Stock). Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher has five Arkansas Derby victories.

McPeek’s Empire

Kenny McPeek’s young horses have flourished this season at Oaklawn, notably Dec. 31 when the trainer won four races on the track’s first card exclusively for 2-year-olds.

Another one of McPeek’s young prospects, Interlock Empire, will make his stakes debut in Saturday’s $1.25 million Arkansas Derby (G1) at 1 1/8 miles. A late-running son of champion and 2017 Arkansas Derby winner Classic Empire, Interlock Empire exits an eye-catching five-length maiden victory at 1 mile March 11.

“We don’t feel like we have anything to lose and more to gain,” McPeek said Tuesday afternoon. “By the time you do the entry fee, plus other stuff, I think everybody that runs gets some return. This colt is good right now and he’s there, so the shipping costs are zero. I think we’ve got more to gain than certainly to lose and he’s doing well. So, we’re going to take a chance. I think he’s a horse that might need a little set up, but they came to him the last time at a mile and now he gets a mile and an eighth and he could be even better at that distance.”

Interlock Empire, made a late Triple Crown nominee by owner Mike Mackin (Lucky Seven Stable), has made all four career starts at the 2022-2023 Oaklawn meeting. The colt has improved with each start, particularly when moving to two turns for the first time Jan. 28. Interlock Empire exploded late to break his maiden, generating a career-high 78 Beyer Speed Figure.

“Our expectations are zero, but we’re hoping for more than that,” McPeek said.

McPeek had also planned to start unbeaten Mendelssohns March (2 for 2) in the Arkansas Derby, but he came out of a first-level allowance victory March 9 at Oaklawn with a minor illness. McPeek said Mendelssohns March needed more time and will “more than likely” make his next start in the $1 million Blue Grass Stakes (G1) at 1 1/8 miles April 8 at Keeneland.

McPeek is also scheduled to start Frosted Departure in the inaugural $200,000 Hot Springs Stakes for 3-year-olds at 1 mile Saturday at Oaklawn. Frosted Departure was among McPeek’s four winners Dec. 31, taking the inaugural $150,000 Renaissance Stakes at 6 furlongs.

Finish Lines

Oaklawn has moved first post Saturday from 12:30 p.m. (Central) to 12:15 p.m. … Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen saddled two winners Thursday, pushing his career Oaklawn total to 855. Only the late Bob Holthus (867) has more career training victories at Oaklawn. Asmussen won the third race with Thorn Crown ($7.60) and the seventh race with favored Echo Again ($7.60). … Leading rider Cristian Torres rode three winners Thursday. Torres won the first race with favored News Box ($4), fifth race with Haythere Jogeegirl ($7.40) and the eighth race with favored Allo Enry ($3). ... Haythere Jogeegirl was one of two winners on the card for trainer John Henry Prather Jr. of Hot Springs and owner Eugenia Thompson-Benight of Sheridan, Ark. They also won the second race with favored She Be Sheehan ($5.40). … “Oaklawn Raceday,” featuring David Longinotti, director of Oaklawn Anywhere, and Equibase representative Jeff Taylor, can be heard Saturdays 11 a.m.-11:30 a.m. (Central) during the 2022-2023 meeting on Little Rock, Ark., radio station KABZ-FM 103.7 and www.1037thebuzz.com.