Tapiture, Strong Mandate, and Ride On Curlin butt heads once more at Oaklawn Park in the The $1 million Arkansas Derby (gr. I) April 12, and they'll be joined by another new shooter from the Bob Baffert barn in Bayern.
Nine 3-year-old colts were entered April 9 in the 1 1/8-mile event, with the unbeaten Bayern, trying stakes company for the first time, slotted in post 8 with Gary Stevens to ride. Kaleem Shah's Offlee Wild colt will have grade I winner Strong Mandate to his outside, while Tapiture and Ride On Curlin are together in posts 3 and 4, respectively.
Tapiture is the slight 9-5 morning line favorite over Bayern, at 2-1, with Strong Mandate listed at 9-2. Ride On Curlin is 12-1 on the early line.
Other leading contenders in the final grade I prep race for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) are Commissioner (8-1) and Conquest Titan (10-1), and they are joined by maiden winners Danza (15-1), Knock Em Flat (20-1), and Thundergram (30-1). The Arkansas Derby, the 11th race on Oaklawn's closing day 12-race program Saturday, is set for a 6:07 p.m. CDT post. The race is worth 170 points toward a possible start in the Derby on a 100-40-20-10 basis for the first four finishers.
Baffert, the Hall of Fame conditioner from Southern California with a long history of major wins at Oaklawn, shipped in Hoppertunity to successfully play the spoiler over the locally-based contingent in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) March 15. He'll try to do the same thing with Bayern in the Arkansas Derby, a race Baffert won two years ago with Bodemeister .
Kentucky-bred Bayern will need to mature in a hurry if he is to land the top-two finish he requires to move on to the May 3 Kentucky Derby. The flashy dark bay colt was two-for-two at Santa Anita Park this season, breaking his maiden in his debut Jan. 4 going seven furlongs by 3 1/4 lengths. He returned Feb. 13 with an eye-catching 15-length allowance triumph, running a mile in 1:35.77.
Bayern was entered in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) one month ago but had to be withdrawn with a foot bruise, which Baffert has said was only a minor setback but poorly timed. Baffert skipped the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) April 5 with his promising runner, opting to give him an additional week of training instead.
Stevens, who has ridden Bayern in his prior starts, makes the trip to Hot Springs in search of his first Arkansas Derby win since 1990 with the Ron McAnally-trained Silver Ending. Stevens also won the race in 1985 with Tank's Prospect, who would go to capture the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) for trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
Lukas sends out Strong Mandate, who set a contested pace over a wet/fast track in the Rebel, then got into tight quarters while battling Hoppertunity and Tapiture mid-stretch. He finished fourth, beaten by 2 1/2 lengths. Luis Saez picks up the mount on the well-regarded Tiznow colt, owned by Robert Baker and William Mack. Saez replaces Joel Rosario, who lands on Tapiture.
"Strong Mandate's doing fine. He's ready," said Lukas, who also won the 1984 edition of the race with stakes record holder Althea (1:46 4/5), the only filly to win the race.
"I hope he'll get better racing luck this time and I think he has a little better conditioning now, too. I think he's had a good thirty days so I'm looking for a much better effort from him," Lukas said.
In his first start of the year, Strong Mandate ran second to Tapiture in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III). A 9 3/4-length winner of the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) in the mud last summer at Saratoga Race Course, the strapping bay colt finished his 2-year-old campaign with a good third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I).
But Tapiture has gotten the better of his rival in their two starts this season for trainer Steve Asmussen. Ron and Joan Winchell's Tapit colt won the Southwest in his seasonal debut by 4 1/4 lengths before finishing half a length behind Hoppertunity when second in a bumpy finish to the Rebel as the slight favorite over Strong Mandate.
"He's run two good races here and he seems to like it here. Hopefully, he'll get a little smoother trip this time," said Darren Fleming, Asmussen's Oaklawn-based assistant.
Winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) at Churchill Downs at 2, Tapiture is currently 14th in the points standings employed to determine the 20-horse starting field. He has 42 points, while Strong Mandate is 28th with 11 points and will probably need to finish first or second Saturday.
Ride On Curlin, third in both the Southwest and Rebel, and also third in the Foxwoods Champagne Stakes (gr. I) at 2, is also in need of points to make a Derby appearance. He currently sits 23rd with 15.
Billy Gowan trains the improving son of 2007 Arkansas Derby winner Curlin for Daniel J. Dougherty. Ride On Curlin was beaten by just one length in the Rebel after dueling on the front end throughout and weakening a bit late. Seeking his first stakes victory, he has won two of eight starts but has been worse than third just once.
"I think he's ready to move forward from his third place in the Rebel, and he should," said Gowan, who added that Ride On Curlin was by far the best horse he's trained. Jon Court handles the bay colt for the first time, replacing Kent Desormeaux.
Trainer Todd Pletcher enters WinStar Farm homebred Commissioner as well as outsider Danza for Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners. Pletcher, who took last year's Arkansas Derby with Overanalyze , has won the race a record three times.
Commissioner looks to improve in his third-place finish in the Sunland Derby (gr. III) March 23 when he broke poorly and lost a shoe, finishing seven lengths behind Chitu after also bobbling at the start. The son of A.P. Indy was sixth in the Besilu Stables Fountain of Youth (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park prior to that. He'll be ridden by Mike Smith, who delivered Bodemeister 's victory in 2012 and also won the race in 2008 with Gayego.
Danza has had just one start since a third-place effort in the Saratoga Special (gr. II) last August in Upstate New York. In his most recent effort March 1 at Gulfstream, the son of Street Boss was third in a first-level allowance/optional claiming race at seven furlongs. He will be making his first start at two turns.
Trainer Mark Casse also doubles up with Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) runner-up Conquest Titan for Conquest Stables, and John Oxley's Thundergram, stepping up into stakes company for the first time after breaking his maiden earlier in the Oaklawn meet on a sloppy track.
Conquest Titan disappointed in his return following the Jan. 25 Holy Bull, finishing a well-beaten fourth as the favorite in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) March 8. Thundergram just missed in his first try against winners, losing by a head when second in a first level allowance on a muddy Oaklawn strip March 16. The son of 2000 Arkansas Derby winner Graeme Hall will wear blinkers for the first time.
Trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel sends out Knock Em Flat, a 5 3/4-length maiden winner in his fifth lifetime start March 27 over a sloppy Oaklawn track.
$1 Million Arkansas Derby (gr. I, Race 11, 6:07 p.m.), 3YOs, 1 1/8 Miles
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, ML Odds
1. Danza (KY), J Bravo, 118, T A Pletcher, 15/1
2. Knock Em Flat (KY), L S Quinonez, 118, D K Von Hemel, 20/1
3. Tapiture (KY), J Rosario, 122, S M Asmussen, 9/5
4. Ride On Curlin (KY), J K Court, 118, W G Gowan, 12/1
5. Thundergram (FL), N Arroyo Jr., 118, M E Casse, 30/1
6. Commissioner (KY), M E Smith, 118, T A Pletcher, 8/1
7. Conquest Titan (KY), C H Borel, 122, M E Casse, 10/1
8. Bayern (KY), G L Stevens, 118, B Baffert, 2/1
9. Strong Mandate (KY), L Saez, 122, D W Lukas, 9/2
Blinkers On: Thundergram