Bodemeister , needing a victory in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) to take the next step on the Triple Crown trail, produced an emphatic triumph in the $1 million race on closing day at Oaklawn Park April 14 (VIDEO).
Trainer Bob Baffert, winning his second grade I event in as many days at the Hot Springs, Ark. track, could breathe a little easier after Zayat Stables' lightly raced Bodemeister took a front-running path to romp by 9 1/2 lengths under jockey Mike Smith.
A crowd of 63,804 jammed into Oaklawn for a big 12-race program that included the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II).
Bodemeister, named for Baffert's youngest son Bode, was making just his fourth lifetime start in the Arkansas Derby and needed the win in order to make the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) starting gate. The 2-1 favorite in the field of 11, Bodemeister had to overcome the far outside post and raced without blinkers for the first time.
Bodemeister's stablemate Secret Circle held on for second, edging Sabercat. The final time for the 1 1/8-mile event for 3-year-olds was 1:48.71. It was nearly a second faster than older horses ran the same distance a race earlier in the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II).
A son of Empire Maker out of the Storm Cat mare Untouched Talent, Bodemeister was bred in Virginia by Audley Farm. The bay colt was a $260,000 Keeneland September yearling sale in 2010.
In his only prior stakes race, Bodemeister ran second by three-quarters of a length to Creative Cause in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) in his most recent start March 10 at Santa Anita Park. He drifted out in the stretch run of that race, prompting Baffert to try him without blinkers this time.
The 59-year-old Baffert, less than three weeks after suffering a heart attack in Dubai, won the Arkansas Derby for the first time in his Hall of Fame career. The win capped an Oaklawn meet in which he won all six graded stakes he entered and swept the four graded races in the track's series for 3-year-olds. A day before the Arkansas Derby, Baffert also won the Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) with Plum Pretty in a romp.
“We took some really nice horses there. They all ran well and had been training well," said Baffert, who has won in 16 of the 25 races he has entered at Oaklawn during his career. "I have a great staff and (assistant trainer) Jimmy Barnes does a great job.”
“We’ll see what this took out of them and then we’ll start talking (Kentucky) Derby,” added Baffert. “Oaklawn is a very kind surface and the horses have been coming back great. Bodemeister should be in great shape. He ran hard and fast. We know distance won’t be a problem.”
Bodemeister broke outward at the start but quickly straightened out and dragged Smith to the lead on the outside of Stat. Racing on the front end, he led at every call over Stat and Secret Circle, posting quarter-mile fractions of :23.02, :46.55, and 1:11.36. Bodemeister gradually increased his advantage to two lengths rounding the final bend and was in firm control at the top of the stretch.
There were no dangers as Bodemeister led by three lengths at the furlong mark and then finished up impressively under steady handling.
Second choice Secret Circle, looking to sweep Oaklawn's 3-year-old series with Rafael Bejarano aboard, outfought the weakening Stat in the lane. He held on for second despite drifting out in the drive as Sabercat and Corey Nakatani ran on late but came up a neck short. Cozzetti, a 32-1 outsider ridden by Jose Lezcano, also rallied in the stretch and was just a head farther back in fourth.
"He's really talented," said Smith after riding Bodemeister for the first time. "That was a good bunch of 3-year-olds he toyed with. Cool, calm, collected--he did everything right."
"There was plenty left in the tank," Smith added. "He came back really good. Distance shouldn't be a problem for him."
Smith, who earlier in the week committed to ride Daddy Nose Best in the May 5 Kentucky Derby, replaced Bejarano on Bodemeister.
"I was just filling in," Smith said when asked if he might change his mind and stick with Bodemeister. "He wasn't mine to begin with. I just want to enjoy this for awhile."
Smith previously won the Arkansas Derby with Gayego in 2008.
The victory was worth $600,000 to Bodemeister's connections, assuring the colt of a slot in the Kentucky Derby, which is limited to 20 entrants based on graded earnings.
Bodemeister did not race as a 2-year-old, debuting with a second-place finish against maidens at Santa Anita going 5 1/2 furlongs in Janaury. Stretched out to mile in his next start, Bodemeister graduated with a 9 1/4-length tally. His next race was the San Felipe, in which he led at mid-stretch but could not hold off the talented Creative Cause in a game effort. His total earnings now stand at $704,800.
Secret Circle, losing for just the second time in seven lifetime starts, had already earned enough to qualify the Kentucky Derby but picked up a $200,000 runner-up check.
Sabercat, too, has the earnings to make the Derby field after winning the rich Delta Downs Jackpot as a 2-year-old. He was making just his second start of the year for trainer Steve Asmussen, who teamed with Nakatani to win five races on the closing day Oaklawn program. Asmussen sewed up the training title with the impressive finish.
Bodemeister paid $6.80, $4.60, $3.60 and keyed a $21.40 exacta with his stablemate, who returned $4 and $3. Sabercat paid $4.80 to show.
Cozzetti was followed by Atigun, Stat, Najjaar, Isn't He Clever, Optimizer, Jake Mo, and Raconteur.