Two Early Derby Favorites Run On Saturday

It’s the last big round of prep races for the Kentucky Derby and two horses who are big threats to take the checkered flag at Churchill Downs will be in action…wait a minute, that’s a car racing analogy. They’ll be in position to hoist the Cup…no, that’s not it. Okay forget it, but whatever the analogy, just know that Hansen and Secret Circle are two of the favorites to win the Kentucky Derby and both horses will be in separate races  in the Bluegrass Stakes and Arkansas Derby respectively.

Hansen is a heavy 6-5 favorite to win the Bluegrass and the horse trained by Mike Maker and ridden by Ramon Dominguez has lived up to the promise he showed last November in winning a Breeders’ Cup race. Hansen followed that up with a second-place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes in January, an early prep race, and finish that was a big disappointment given the expectations. But the horse showed he was legit in winning the Gotham Stakes at New York’s Aqueduct Racetrack in March.

No other horse in the Bluegrass is going off at odds better than 6-1. Running at that price are Dullahan and Howe Great. The former won a futurity race for two-year-olds last October and has had near-misses since. Howe Great is steadily improving, with top two finishes in his last four races, three of them coming at the competitive meet at Florida’s Gulfstream Park.  Javier Castellano, a good jockey, is in the saddle and if there’s a breakout race in his horse, Castellano will find it. Optimism aside though, there’s a big gap between Howe Great’s previous record and stepping up to beat perhaps the best three-year-old in the country. Of the 13-horse field the only longshot that really catches the eye is Midnight Crooner at 15-1, but this is strictly because of Eclipse Award-winning jockey Garrett Gomez and top trainer Bob Baffert. Midnight Crooner has not yet done anything to merit confidence, so to me this looks like a favorite’s race.

No one has dominated Arkansas the way Secret Circle has since Bill Clinton was racking up political wins. The Arkansas Derby is the third of three big prep races at Oaklawn, each one escalating in quality. Secret Circle has already won the first two, the Southwest Stakes and The Rebel Stakes. Trained by Baffert and ridden by West Coast maestro Rafael Bejarano, he ’s a 5-2 favorite to complete the sweep.

For reasons I can’t figure out, Secret Circle has a rival, at least based on the odds. Bodemeister is at 9-5, with only a second-place finish at Santa Anita’s San Felipe Stakes to his credit. He is a Baffert-trained horse, but given that Secret Circle is too, that can’t explain it. The jockey is Mike Smith and while it’s fair to say that Smith has an edge over Bejarano, it’s not so big as to offset this kind of talent disadvantage. Put another way—think of Smith as Nick Saban, but coaching Kentucky against Oklahoma and Bob Stoops. You might think Saban was a better jockey, but you would never bet on him riding this particular horse unless the oddsmaker made it worth your while. And it’s not in this case.

Other possibilities in Arkansas include Isn’t He Clever and Optimizer. The former has run in five straight stakes races and grabbed two firsts and two seconds. The problem? The fourth-place finish at Santa Anita’s Robert B. Lewis Stakes was the highest-caliber racing that Isn’t He Clever has faced, giving rise to the concern he may be out his league on Saturday. Optimizer is more interesting—he finished second at the Rebel, the best showing of his eight-horse career. If you believe that the Derby trail is about the peaking horse maybe Optimizer is that. We’ll find out on Saturday.

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If you want a longshot in the Arkansas Derby—and who doesn’t—let’s look at Stat, Naijaar and Cozzett. I include the latter out of respect for the jockey/trainer team of Jose Lezcano/Dale Romans and at a price of 15-1, that alone can justify a flier. But there’s nothing in previous races that suggest anything special. Naijaar had a disappointing showing here at the Rebel, finishing sixth, but is ridden by Derby legend Calvin Borel, who’s home track is here in Arkansas and is fresh off an upset win in the Florida Derby aboard Take Home Indy. Stat is the best horse of the longshots, having won three of his four races, and while none are majors, regular readers know that the team of John Velazquez/Todd Pletcher has a lot of credibility with TheSportsNotebook.

I don’t see any reason to pick against the favorites in either race and look for Hansen and Secret Circle to get a  lot of hype heading to Churchill Downs. But if I were at the betting window, Stat in the Arkansas Derby would be worth a shot. The Bluegrass goes off about 6:15 PM ET, with the Arkansas a half-hour later.