Southern California shipper Papa Clem outfought even-money choice Old Fashioned in a thrilling stretch duel at Oaklawn Park to win the $1 million Arkansas Derby (gr. II) (VIDEO) by a half-length April 11.
Rafael Bejarano was able to get the speedy Papa Clem to relax mid-pack for much of the 1 1/8-mile journey, rallying four paths wide off the final turn to challenge Old Fashioned in the lane. Papa Clem had the lead at the eighth pole but Old Fashioned wasn't done, battling back along the inside for Terry Thompson and refusing to give way until the final strides. The final time was 1:49.01 on a fast track.
Papa Clem's second win in six starts was worth $600,000 and assured the bay colt of a spot in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) on May 2 at Churchill Downs.
It was the first graded win for the Bo Hirsch homebred Papa Clem. Hirsch named the colt for his father, Clement L. Hirsch. The son of Smart Strike is out of the Belong to Me mare Miss Houdini, another Bo Hirsch homebred who won the 2002 Del Mar Debutante (gr. I) in 2002.
Winning trainer Gary Stute is the nephew of Warren Stute, who trained Miss Houdini. Gary Stute's father, Mel Stute, trained Snow Chief, who established the Oaklawn Park record for 1 1/8 miles of 1:46 3/5 in the 1987 Oaklawn Handicap.
Papa Clem was coming off back-to-back runner-up finishes. He ran second in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II), a half-length behind the victorious Pioneerof the Nile at Santa Anita Feb. 7, and in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) on a sloppy track at Fair Grounds March 14, when he came home 7 1/4 lengths behind Friesan Fire . The Louisiana Derby was Papa Clem's first try on a dirt track.
Stute said the difference between this race and the Louisiana Derby was that Papa Clem was flown in two days before the race at Fair Grounds.
"Here we came in three weeks early, and he got in three good works on the track," he told a nationwide ESPN audience afterward.
"He has done everything so perfect here at Oaklawn," Stute said. "He doesn't want to get beat. He has a ton of heart."
Stute said he was a little nervous that Papa Clem was not on the lead, which is where he expected him to be. "But then when I saw him make his move, I thought — please, God, don't let him hang."
Papa Clem will now try to follow in the footsteps of recent Arkansas Derby winners Smarty Jones , Afleet Alex and Curlin , who went on to success in the Triple Crown races.
Old Fashioned sustained a potentially careeer-ending knee injury in the race, trainer Larry Jones said. After winning the first four races of his career, the son of Unbridled's Song faded to second in Oaklawn's Rebel (gr. II) when he got the worst of a hard speed duel. He was able to set the pace on his own terms this time. The fractions in the Arkansas Derby were almost identical to those of the 1 1/16-mile Rebel — :22.65, :46.19 and 1:11.15 — but the one-time favorite for the Kentucky Derby fought all the way to the wire in a game effort.
"He ran a very game race. We are proud of him, and proud of the team effort," Jones said.
Summer Bird, last in the field of 10 for the first half-mile, ran on impressively for third, three-quarters of a length behind Old Fashioned at 26-1 odds for jockey Chris Rosier. Win Willy, who went from last to first to spring a 56-1 upset in the Rebel by 2 1/4 lengths, could offer only a mild response in the lane to finish fourth, two lengths farther back.
Old Fashioned went directly to the front and cleared the field from his wide starting slot before completing a quarter-mile. Ziegfeld chased the pacesetter but stopped abruptly on the final turn as Danger to Society and Flat Out took up the challenge. Papa Clem, who had moved up a place to fourth on the far turn while racing off the rail, was on top of the leaders as they straightened for home. Old Fashioned and Papa Clem hooked up as the others dropped back, with Papa Clem eventually proving best in a terrific finish.
"My horse was kind of relaxed," a breathless Bejarano said immediately after the race. "I just tried to stay out of trouble on the turn. But he really came running at the quarter pole. I thought I had a lot of horse."
The fast-improving Papa Clem heads for the Derby with a 2-2-0 record in six starts and lifetime earnings of $790,940. Of that total, $760,000 was accumulated in graded stakes races this year. Papa Clem broke his maiden in his third start Dec. 29 at Santa Anita.
Sent off as the second choice, Papa Clem carried 118 pounds — four fewer than Old Fashioned — and paid $10, $4.40 and $3.60.
Stute said he considered entering Papa Clem in the Illinois Derby (gr. II) last weekend but opted to come to Arkansas when it was clear that Old Fashioned wasn't invincible.
"When I saw Old Fashioned get beat in the Rebel, I knew we had a shot," Stute said. "Why go for $500,000 when you could get a million?"
Old Fashioned returned $3 and $2.20 while completing a $2 exacta worth $26.80. Old Fashioned won Oaklawn's Southwest Stakes (gr. III) in February but has lost two in a row over the track since then. Though Old Fashioned won't compete in the Derby, Jones also trains Louisiana Derby (gr. II) winner Friesan Fire, considered a leading contender.
Summer Bird, a maiden winner in his most recent race and making just his third lifetime start for trainer Tim Ice, was $6.20 to show.
Win Willy was followed by Flying Private, Flat Out, Poltergeist, Captain Cherokee, Danger to Society and Ziegfeld.