"He worked really well the other day at Palm Meadows," trainer Mark Casse said while referring to the colt's five-furlong move March 29 in 1:00.70, the second-fastest of 20 horses working the same distance that day. "We moved him to Churchill Downs with the rest of the gang and the plan is to breeze him a little there this weekend, and if all goes well, we're going to Hot Springs."
The Arkansas Derby, which highlights Oaklawn's Racing Festival of the South on closing day of the meet, is one of the final prep races for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). The race is part of the "championship series" on the road to the Kentucky Derby, with 170 qualifying points up for the taking on a 100-40-20-10 scale for finishing first through fourth.
Conquest Titan currently stands in 35th place for one of the 20 spots in the Kentucky Derby starting gate with nine points, so he needs a breakthrough race in the Arkansas Derby to make it to Louisville on the first Saturday in May.
"You not only have to get the points, you need to run well enough to show that you belong, said Casse. "He's got to step up his game. If he's good enough he will, and if not, we'll have to go to a Plan B."
Conquest Titan, a $475,000 purchase out of the 2013 Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.'s auction of 2-year-olds-in-training, has won two of his seven starts and finished second once for $208,995 in earnings. He flashed his potential in the Holy Bull (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park Jan. 25, closing for second to grade II winner Cairo Prince, but then disappointed with a fourth in the March 8 Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II).
"He ran well in the Holy Bull," said Casse. "I'm not really sure why he didn't run better in Tampa, but I don't think it's because of a lack of ability. It was possibly due to a few different circumstances, but all that being said there is no more time for excuses. He's got to step up."
The final prep races serve to separate the pretenders from the contenders. Reputations gained earlier in their young careers no longer count for the 3-year-olds.
"There are some who rise to the occasion and some who fall," said Casse. "It really doesn't matter who was good in November, December, or January. It matters who's good in April and May. As I've gotten older, and over the years, I've learned not to get all worked up over that kind of stuff. You just do the best you can and what will be, will be. You don't know who's going to step forward and who isn't, so you've just got to keep trying."
Conquest Titan, who will accompanied to Hot Springs by Casse's top assistant and son Norman, is a son of Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone out of a Mineshaft mare, so he has the pedigree to stay the trip in the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby and then in the Kentucky Derby at a mile and a quarter.
"He's bred for it and he's shown he's got talent," Casse said. "We also know he loves Churchill Downs, and that is a big, big plus. Now he needs to show us he can compete with the higher level horses."
Hall of Fame rider Calvin Borel, winner of three editions of the Kentucky Derby between 2007 and 2010, will be the colt's new partner in the Arkansas Derby.
"There wasn't really any big reason for the switch," said Casse. "Calvin is already there and he seems to be what I thought was a good fit for this horse. He wants to come from way out of it, and Calvin's pretty good at that. He knows the track like the back of his hand."
This season was Casse's first time sending a division to Hot Springs. Going into the April 3 card, he had won six of 49 starts with five seconds and seven thirds.
"I would have liked to have done better, although we did fine," said Casse. "From the owners' standpoint, the purses are good. The most important thing for us is where does this take us? The horses come out of Oaklawn happy and sound, and that's really important because our bread and butter is the spring, summer, and fall.
"Sometimes you have to judge success on different levels. Of course, we would have liked to have won more races in Hot Springs, but more importantly, it's how they come out of Hot Springs for the rest of the year and that remains to be seen. But, at this point, we are very pleased and we hope to be back next year."