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Baffert Has the Favorites for Arkansas Derby

Bodemeister, on the outside in 11-horse field, joins Rebel winner Secret Circle.

Trainer Bob Baffert looks to continue his strong run of recent success at Oaklawn Park when he saddles Bodemeister  and Secret Circle , the morning line favorites for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (gr. I) April 14.

Bodemeister was made the 9-5 favorite after drawing the outside post in the field of 11 3-year-olds. Stablemate Secret Circle, a two-time graded stakes winner over the Oaklawn track, drew post 5 and is the 5-2 morning line choice.

With his two standouts, Baffert is seeking his first win in the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby. The Hall of Fame conditioner won his third consecutive Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn March 17 when Secret Circle bounded home by thee-quarters of a length over the late-charging Optimizer . The victory was Baffert's 13th from 21 starters at the Hot Springs, Ark., track including a 10-for-13 streak over the past three years.

The Arkansas Derby is the 11th on a 12-race program Saturday with a 5:45 p.m. CDT post. The race is part of a one-hour television presentation including the Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I) from Keeneland on CNBC that begins at 6 p.m. EDT.

Zayat Stables' lightly raced Bodemeister, to be ridden for the first time by Mike Smith, is coming off a narrow runner-up finish to Creative Cause  in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita Park March 10. That was the stakes debut for the Empire Maker  colt who has a win and two seconds in three lifetime starts. The bay, bred in Virginia by Audley Farm, was a $260,000 Keeneland September yearling in 2010. He is out of the Storm Cat mare Untouched Talent.

Smith won the Arkansas Derby in 2008 aboard Gayego.

Bodemeister led by a half-length at mid-stretch in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe as the 2-1 favorite but drifted out and could not hold off Creative Cause, who won by three parts of a length in a fast time. Bodemeister, who will race without blinkers for the first time in the Arkansas Derby, has posted back-to-back Beyer Speed Figures of 101.

Light on graded earnings with $60,000, Bodemeister needs a victory to be completely assured of a starting berth in the 20102 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) May 5.

Secret Circle, who races for owners Karl Watson, Mike Pegram, and Paul Weitman, has won five of six lifetime starts, his only loss coming in a runner-up finish in Santa Anita's Sham Stakes (gr. III) to begin the year Jan. 7. The son of Eddington  makes his third consecutive start at Oaklawn after big victories in a division of the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) Feb. 20 and the Rebel. He was favored in both races.

In the Rebel, Secret Circle was immersed in traffic difficulty at the quarter pole but rallied to get the lead and then outlasted Optimizer in the final strides. Rafael Bejarano, who has been aboard the bay colt in all of his races, retains the mount. Bejarano won the Arkansas Derby atop Papa Clem in 2009.

Out of the Dixieland Band mare Ragtime Hope, Secret Circle sold for $165,000 as a 2-year-old in training at Ocala in March 2011. He has earned $818,990 in his career to pace the Arkansas Derby field. Though believed to have distance limitations, Secret Circle's $470,000 in graded earnings put him 11th on the Kentucky Derby eligibility list.

“Secret Circle has been getting the distance so far,” said Baffert. “He hasn’t shown me he can’t get it – they can all get it until they show you they can’t.”

“This’ll be a good race with some nice horses in there,” he continued. “I think Bodemeister will be tough. These are two really good horses and even though I don’t like to get ahead of myself, it’s always special just to have a horse that has a chance in the Kentucky Derby, so hopefully we wind up with one of those on Saturday.”

After four consecutive sub-par performances beginning with an eighth-place finish in last year's Grey Goose Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), Optimizer woke up with a big effort in the Rebel for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Bluegrass Hall's Kentucky homebred son of English Channel  rallied from eighth to finish a clear second while ridden for the first time by Jon Court.

Court, who has won the past two renewals of the Arkansas Derby with Line of David in 2010 and Archarcharch last year, retains the mount on Optimizer, who drew post 7. Optimizer has won once in eight lifetime starts.

Like Baffert, trainer Todd Pletcher will have two shots in this year's Arkansas Derby with Stat and Raconteur.

Stat, a $400,000 Keeneland purchase last April, is coming off a 6 1/4-length romp in an allowance/optional claiming event at one mile at Gulfstream Park March 17. Bartolazzo Stable's gray/roan son of Unbridled's Song has won two of four lifetime starts and was second in last summer's Saratoga Special (gr. II). John Velazquez is aboard once more.

Dogwood Stable's Raconteur picked up his first stakes win at Laurel Park March 17, taking the one-mile Private Terms by a head with a strong finish. He's had nine lifetime starts with three victories and seven in-the-money performances. Chris DeCarlo, who rode the son of A.P. Indy for the first time in the Private Terms, has been tabbed once again by Pletcher.

Other contenders in this year's Arkansas Derby are Cozzetti, Isn't He Clever, and Sabercat.

Cozzetti, who drew the rail for trainer Dale Romans, closed nicely to finish third behind the victorious Prospective  in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) March 10. He's by Cozzene.

Isn't He Clever invades from New Mexico for Henry Dominguez, where he finished a close second to Daddy Nose Best  in the Sunland Derby (gr. III) after opening a 2 1/2-length lead in the stretch. He won the Borderland Derby handily at Sunland Park prior to that. The son of 2004 Arkansas Derby winner Smarty Jones  will race without blinkers for the first time. His sire, of course went on to win that year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness (gr. I) and finished second in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

Sabercat won last November's Delta Jackpot (gr. III) by four lengths to earn a spot in the Kentucky Derby. Trained by Steve Asmussen for Winchell Thoroughbreds, the Bluegrass Cat  colt has taken his time coming back. He has raced just once in 2012, finishing eighth in the Rebel.

Rounding out the field are Jake Mo, Najjaar, and Atigun, fourth, sixth, and 11th respectively, in the Rebel.

$1 Million Arkansas Derby (gr. II, Race 11, 5:45 p.m.), 3YOs, 1 1/8 Miles
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, ML Odds
1. Cozzetti (KY), J Lezcano, 118, D L Romans, 15/1
2. Stat (KY), J R Velazquez, 118, T A Pletcher, 10/1
3. Najjaar (KY), C H Borel, 118, D C Peitz, 15/1
4. Jake Mo (KY), M C Berry, 122, A Milligan, 30/1
5. Secret Circle (KY), R Bejarano, 122, B Baffert, 5/2
6. Isn't He Clever (KY), R Albarado, 122, H Dominguez, 6/1
7. Optimizer (KY), J K Court, 118, D W Lukas, 6/1
8. Atigun (KY), T J Thompson, 118, K G McPeek, 30/1
9. Sabercat (KY), C S Nakatani, 122, S M Asmussen, 15/1
10. Raconteur (KY), C P DeCarlo, 122, T A Pletcher, 15/1
11. Bodemeister (VA), M E Smith, 118, B Baffert, 9/5
Blinkers Off: Isn't He Clever, Bodemeister