Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher. Three titans of the turf will go to battle in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (gr. I) Apr. 6 at Oaklawn Park in an attempt to strengthen their forces for the ultimate conflict, the May 4 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
Lukas, who already has Rebel Stakes (gr. II) winner Will Take Charge headed toward Churchill Downs, will send out his big weapon, Oxbow , the Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) winner who has had his share of bad posts and trips this year. Unfortunately, Calumet Farm's Rebel runner-up again drew an outside post under new rider Gary Stevens while the 5-2 second choice in a field of 10.
Bafftert, who has seen several of his big horses fall off the Derby trail, including Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) runner-up Flashback, will launch a two-pronged attack with War Academy and Westrock Stables' indefatigable Den's Legacy. The former, who is coming off an impressive allowance score at Santa Anita Park, drew down on the inside in post 2, while Den's Legacy, who won the Generous Stakes (gr. IIIT) on turf and placed in six stakes on grass, synthetic, and dirt (including a third last time out in the Rebel), will break from post 5 under Robby Albarado.
War Academy, despite never having won or placed in a stakes, was made the 2-1 favorite for the 1 1/8-mile test. The son of Giant's Causeway will have the services of Mike Smith while looking for his first stakes victory for owners Michael Tabor, John Magnier, and Derrick Smith.
Pletcher has gotten two of the Derby favorites, Verrazano and Revolutionary, safely through their preps and on their way to Kentucky. He will attempt to add Mike Repole's Overanalyze to the mix. Winner of the Remsen (gr. II) and Futurity (gr. II) stakes last year, the son of Dixie Union was a disappointing fifth in the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) in his 3-year-old debut.
Overanalyze has been turning in some strong works and should be much tougher in this race. He will break from post 9 under Rafael Bejarano.
"He probably has been a little overshadowed by Verrazano and Revolutionary," said assistant trainer Ginny DePasquale, who has worked for Pletcher for 16 years. "This is his time to shine."
Said Pletcher, "Overanalyze seems to have moved forward in his training since the Gotham. We expect improvement in his second start after the layoff. Rafael has had a lot of success at Oaklawn Park and we were lucky to get him on short notice."
The Arkansas Derby, worth $1 million, is listed as the 10th race on the Oaklawn program with a scheduled post time of 5:28 p.m. EDT.
Looking to get back to his winning ways is the John Terranova-trained Falling Sky, who won back-to-back races, including a front-running victory in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) at Tampa Bay Downs before finishing third behind Verrazano and Java's War in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II).
The son of Lion Heart also gets a jockey change, with Martin Garcia replacing Jose Espinoza. He will break from post 4.
James Covello, who owns Falling Sky as part of a partnership that includes Joseph Bulger, admitted he's already come down with an acute case of Derby Fever.
"This is incredibly exciting; I'm not sleeping well and I can't wait until Saturday," Covello said "I've had graded stakes horses before, but I've never had one with a chance to run in the Derby. This is something that all of the horse's connections are excited about and we're going to soak up every minute of it."
Others looking to rebound off defeats are the Steve Asmussen-trained Carve, with Ricardo Santa Jr. aboard; the hard-knocking Texas Bling, ridden by Calvin Borel; and last year's Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) runner-up Frac Daddy, who has been trying to bounce back from physical ailments, including a throat ulcer. He will be ridden by Victor Lebron.
1. Carve (KY), R Santana Jr., 118, S M Asmussen, 20/1
2. War Academy (KY), M E Smith, 118, B Baffert, 2/1
3. Divine Ambition (KY), J Graham, 118, D Miller, 20/1
4. Falling Sky (PA), M Garcia, 122, J P Terranova II, 10/1
5. Den's Legacy (FL), R Albarado, 122, B Baffert, 6/1
6. Heaven's Runway (KY), I Ocampo, 122, J R Martin, 30/1
7. Texas Bling (TX), C H Borel, 122, D Durham, 20/1
8. Frac Daddy (KY), V Lebron, 118, K G McPeek, 15/1
9. Overanalyze (KY), R Bejarano, 122, T A Pletcher, 4/1
10. Oxbow (KY), G L Stevens, 122, D W Lukas, 5/2