There are 23 horses lining up for the grade I Arkansas Derby and Toyota Blue Grass Stakes and every one of them has some kind of chance to at least hit the board. The Blue Grass is a mishmash of grass and synthetic horses, with a few proven dirt horses sprinkled in.
In the Blue Grass, which is the last gasp of hope for the majority of the field, only Santiva apparently needs no earnings help, but even a third or fourth wouldn’t hurt. With only $150,000 for second, everyone else, with the exception of Willcox Inn and to a lesser degree Wilkinson, needs a victory to assure a spot in the Derby, so the pressure is on. With a grade I win on the resume to go along with a Derby start, this is not a race where you’re going to take any comfort in getting beat a nose. It might as well be 10 lengths.
There are so many good grass horses in here that look so similar in form it’s hard to separate them. The sentimental choice would be King Congie, whose story has been told many times and will be even more should he win the Blue Grass and go on to the Derby.
One horse in particular who would deprive the Derby of his presence is Crimson China, a horse who caught our eye in his allowance victory on grass in February. Although he has never run on dirt, the feeling here is that this is a very good horse, period. We just love the way he moves and covers ground, and of all the grass/synthetic horses in here, he has the look of a potential Kentucky Derby contender.
Unfortunately, by falling just a few dollars short of making it into the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. III) and having to go into the non-graded Rushaway Stakes instead, it makes this last shot in the Blue Grass all or nothing. The irony of it is that the horse that deprived him from getting in the Spiral was his own stablemate Animal Kingdom, who wound up winning the race and securing his spot in the Derby. While both are talented horses who run all day, Crimson China has much better dirt breeding than Animal Kingdom, who has virtually none.
On top of that, Crimson China drew post 11 in the 12-horse field. But the son of Giant's Causeway is a stone closer and will probably take back near the rear of the pack anyway, and then will need luck to put himself in a position to win, something he wasn’t able to do in the Rushaway, where he was victimized by a slow pace, two full seconds slower than the Spiral. That race would have set up perfectly for him, just as it did Animal Kingdom. His stablemate, however, did show his adaptability by making a big middle move to reach contention, something Crimson China has not displayed yet.
So, despite the pressure on him to win and the outside post, we’ll still pick him to upset the field, although Santiva is going to be extremely tough to beat. The best bet might be to box the two sons of Giant’s Causeway (Crimson China and Santiva) in the exacta, and if you’re really a Giant’s Causeway fan you can always throw in a third son, Praetereo, in the trifecta. But Crimson China and Santiva looks like the smart play, with a win bet on Crimson China at a much better price.
As crazy as the Blue Grass is to handicap, unless The Factor is as brilliant as he was in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II), the Arkansas Derby is a total crap shoot. Anyone can win this race, and we have already touted Archarcharch a couple of weeks ago. But because of the confusing nature of this race, we’re just going to use the same approach as the Blue Grass. Who is the most dominant winner in the history of the Arkansas Derby? You got it, Afleet Alex , who romped by eight lengths in 2005. So, there is your exacta box—Elite Alex and Sway Away, the two sons of Afleet Alex who should be flying down the stretch. If there is any chink in The Factor’s armor, with the expected pace pressure and the extra furlong, then this looks like a solid exacta box as well. Both horses rank #34 and #35 on the graded earnings list and both need to finish no worse than second, so the pressure is on them as well.
Another early season tout, Alternation, needs to win after self-destructing in the gate of the Rebel. The recent Robert LaPenta purchase, Truman's Commander, also needs to win, as does Dance City and a host of others. The first-time blinkered Brethren needs to finish third just to put himself on the bubble. Archarcharch has the luxury of needing only a third to assure himself of making the Derby cut. But as we said, this is one tough race, with a lot of pressure, as is the Blue Grass. Happy hunting.