Stakes Advance - Derby Day

Friday, March 29, 2024

Compiled by Robert Yates

He can answer the question Saturday at Oaklawn.

Mystik Dan is among 10 horses entered in the $1.5 million G1-Arkansas Derby, a 1 1/8-mile event that is a major steppingstone to the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown.

The Arkansas Derby anchors a 13-race program that begins at 12:05 p.m. (Central). Probable post time for the Arkansas Derby, the 12th race, is 6:47 p.m. With sunny skies and temperatures approaching 80 degrees, the infield is scheduled to be open.

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 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.

The Arkansas Derby could award as many as 200 points to its top five eligible finishers (100-50-25-15-10, respectively) for the Kentucky Derby May 4 at Churchill Downs. The race is limited to 20 starters. Mystik Dan has 21 points currently to rank 20th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard compiled by Churchill Downs.

Trained by Kenny McPeek, the speedy Mystik Dan collected 20 points for a dazzling eight-length victory in his last start, the $800,000 G3-Southwest Stakes Feb. 3 at Oaklawn. Mystik Dan (101) generated the second-highest Beyer Speed Figure for a 3-year-old in 2024 with that performance.

But was it the product of a muddy track and/or an off-the-pace, ground-saving ride by Hernandez?

“That’s kind of the unknown, the sloppy track that day,” Hernandez said. “But, I mean, he’s a horse that we’ve liked all along. We’ve always thought a lot of him and he went ahead and proved it in the Southwest. The nice thing about him is he’s so tactical. He’s naturally fast, but now he’s kind of learning his lessons. We got him to settle the other day. He sat midpack and kind of cruised along and finished it off well.”

A son of two-time Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Goldencents, Mystik Dan had been based at the Fair Grounds for McPeek 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.

McPeek passed the $1.25 million G2-Rebel Stakes Feb. 24 and opted to train Mytik Dan up to the Arkansas Derby. Mystik Dan finished fifth in Oaklawn’s first Kentucky Derby points race, the $300,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 1. The Rebel was Oaklawn’s third Kentucky Derby points race.

Although the Southwest was run over a muddy track, McPeek noted that Mystik Dan received a 96 Beyer Speed Figure for his front-running 7 ¾-length maiden special weight victory Nov. 12 at Churchill Downs. The 5 ½-furlong race was contested over a fast surface.

“He’s a fast horse – period,” McPeek said. “He did that on a dry track. That didn’t have anything to do with the mud. Spaced him a lot. Skipped the Rebel. He’s had plenty of time in between. One bad thing is all of our eggs are in this basket to get points. But if he’s good enough, he’ll get there.”

Conversely, Timberlake (66 points) ranks No. 5 on the latest Kentucky Derby leaderboard after winning the Rebel in his 3-year-old debut. It was trainer Brad Cox’s seventh victory in Oaklawn’s last 15 Kentucky Derby qualifying races.

Cox is seeking a record third consecutive victory in Oaklawn’s Arkansas Derby after winning the race in 2022 with Cyberknife and again last year with Angel of Empire.

“(Going) to have a deeper field for the Arkansas Derby,” Cox said. “We’re excited about giving him the opportunity there. We’ll see what happens. Hope he continues his march to the Kentucky Derby after that.”

Cox said he considered the one-mile $300,000 G3-Gotham Stakes March 2 at Aqueduct for Timberlake’s 3-year-old debut before opting for the Rebel. It was his first victory around two turns. Cox chose the Arkansas Derby over the $1 million G1-Blue Grass Stakes April 6 at Keeneland. Timberlake had concluded 2023 with a victory in the $500,000 G1-Champagne Stakes – a one-turn mile – Oct. 7 at Aqueduct and a fourth-place finish in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at 1 1/16 miles Nov. 3 at Santa Anita.

“I didn’t know, honestly, if I had enough time,” Cox said, referring to the Rebel. “I was thinking about the Gotham as well. He was doing good and we wanted to give him experience around two turns. He had that run in the Breeders’ Cup around two turns. He didn’t handle the first turn real well. The other day (Rebel), he did. He settled well. I think if he gets a similar trip, he’ll be very competitive.”

Program favorite Muth is running for style points, owing to trainer Bob Baffert’s suspension from Churchill Downs after Medina Spirit, his 2021 Kentucky Derby winner, was disqualified for a medication violation.

Muth was a finalist for an Eclipse Award as the county’s champion 2-year-old male after compiling a 2-2-0 mark from four starts. The son of champion Good Magic, unraced outside California, recorded his biggest career victory to date in the $300,000 G1-American Pharoah Stakes Oct. 7 at Santa Anita. Muth closed 2023 with a runner-up finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Muth hasn’t started since winning the seven-furlong $200,000 G2-San Vicente Stakes Jan. 6 at Santa Anita. He was scheduled to run in the Rebel, but Baffert scrapped the trip because he wasn’t satisfied with the colt’s Feb. 18 workout at Santa Anita. Baffert is seeking his record-tying fifth Arkansas Derby victory and record-extending 20th in a Kentucky Derby points race at Oaklawn.

Muth has been a forward factor early throughout his career, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be on the lead Saturday under Juan Hernandez, his regular rider, Baffert said.

“It’s one of those things where he knows the horse,” Baffert said. “I don’t like to give too many instructions, really. The good riders, they just play the break. The main thing is play the break, see what happens.”

Baffert said trainer Rodolphe Brisset will saddle Muth because Jimmy Barnes is in the United Arab Emirates with Newgate, who is entered in Saturday’s $12 million G1-Dubai World Cup. Barnes normally accompanies Baffert’s horses to Oaklawn as the trainer’s traveling assistant.

Late-running Liberal Arts finished third in the Southwest, his 3-year-old debut, but galloped out strongly. Trainer Robert Medina also skipped the Rebel (the Southwest was postponed one week because of winter weather) to train up to the Arkansas Derby. The gray son of Arrogate has six published workouts at his base, The Thoroughbred Center in Kentucky, since the Southwest and gets an additional sixteenth of a mile to work with Saturday.

“There’s no excuse,” Medina said. “Looking at it on paper, there doesn’t look like an abundance of speed, but usually when it looks like that, there will be enough pace. He is what he is. I think he’ll be five, six lengths behind them. He’s going to have to make his run and whether that’s going to be good enough, we’re going to find out.”

Grade 3 winner Liberal Arts (19) and Just Steel (15) rank 24th and 29, respectively, on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard.

Just Steel was second in the Smarty Jones and Southwest and seventh in the Rebel for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen is scheduled to start Rebel fifth-place finisher Dimatic, Imperial Gun and Informed Patriot in search of a fifth Arkansas Derby victory.

Informed Patriot finished third in the Smarty Jones. Smarty Jones winner Catching Freedom returned to win the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) at 1 3/16 miles last Saturday at Fair Grounds for Cox.

Lightly raced Time for Truth, the possible pacesetter, was an entry-level allowance winner in his two-turn debut March 2 at Oaklawn for trainer Ron Moquett of Hot Springs. Will Take It is a three-race maiden for trainer Eddie Milligan Jr.

The Arkansas Derby, the country’s richest Kentucky Derby prep race, has a record purse in 2024 after previously being worth $1.25 million.


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. The Fantasy drew 12 entrants.Trained by Mike Maker, My Mane Squeeze will be facing open company and racing outside New York for the first time. She has won three consecutive restricted stakes races, including the one-mile $100,000 Maddie May Feb. 18 at Aqueduct in her last start.

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.

Lemon Muffin (9-2) broke her maiden in the Honeybee – her two-turn and stakes debut – after four consecutive runner-up finishes for Lukas. One of nine stakes winners entered in the Fantasy, Lemon Muffin drew post 11.

“I think you’re going to see an improved filly, with that one under her belt the other day,” said Lukas, who is seeking his first Fantasy victory. “She’s doing everything right. Even in that race (Honeybee), she had a chance to suck out of there when it got a little tight and she bulled her way up in there. She’s got the right mental setup to be an Oaks filly, I think. She’s going to be tough.”

Lemon Muffin won the Honeybee by 3 ½ lengths. Tapit Jenallie finished a half-length ahead of the Cox-trained West Omaha, who was exiting a five-length victory in the $150,000 Silverbulletday Stakes at 1 mile and 70 yards Jan. 20 at Fair Grounds. West Omaha is 4-1 in the program for the Fantasy, which Cox won last year with Wet Paint.

“Little bit of a rough trip for a 3-year-old filly,” Cox said, referring to the Honeybee. “Still learning. Last time, I thought she still ran well, ran on, at the end. But we’re looking to get a little bit cleaner trip this time, get away a little bit better. She got squeezed right after the break last time and kind of cost her some position early. She’s always one, I thought, that distance is better, a mile and an eighth, and we’re obviously trying to get her to the Oaks. This is a great opportunity.”

Thorpedo Anna (7-2) will break from the extreme outside in her delayed 3-year-old debut for McPeek.

Thorpedo Anna won her first two starts last fall in Kentucky, but she is unraced since a runner-up finish in the $400,000 G2-Golden Rod Stakes Nov. 25 at Churchill Downs because of a minor hip issue. The Golden Rod was her two-turn debut.

“Extremely talented filly,” McPeek said. “She’s really talented. If she runs well, she could still make the Oaks or the Black-Eyed Susan.”

The Fantasy, the country’s richest Kentucky Oaks prep race, has a record purse in 2024 after previously being worth $600,000.

McPeek also trains Denington, the 5-2 program favorite for the Oaklawn Mile. The race features the 2024 debut of millionaire multiple Oaklawn stakes winer Last Samurai, who is now trained by Eddie Milligan. The Oaklawn Mile drew a field of eight.

Zeitlos (7-2) is among 10 fillies and mares entered in the six-furlong Matron. The Asmussen trainee is seeking her fourth consecutive victory after capturing the $150,000 Carousel Stakes for older female sprinters Feb. 24 at Oaklawn in her last start.

Grade 1 winner Daddysruby is the 5-2 program favorite for Southern California-based trainer Peter Miller.