Favored Afleet Alex bounced back from the worst race of his career, a last-place finish in the Rebel (gr. III) a month ago, to win the $1 million Arkansas Derby (gr. II) as much the best Saturday before 71,010 at Oaklawn Park.
Reunited with Jeremy Rose, who was replaced in the Rebel by John Velazquez, Afleet Alex moved up on the far turn while four wide to challenge for the lead. As pacesetters Batson Challenge and the maiden Canteen fell back, Afleet Alex and Flower Alley hooked up briefly in the stretch. But Afleet Alex, who surged away for an impressive win, quickly decided that duel and went on to victory by an Arkansas Derby record eight lengths in 1:48 4/5 for the 1 1/8-mile test.
"This was the first time in a major race that I got a clean trip aboard him," said Rose. "He settled in nicely, and I moved him up easily around the final turn."
There were plenty of concerns about Afleet Alex coming into the race. With his big victory, his first going two turns, he's back to being a leading contender for the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) May 7.
After a stellar 2-year-old campaign that included wins in the Sanford (gr. II) and Hopeful (gr. I) and second-place finishes in the Champagne (gr. I) and Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), the Tim Ritchey-trained son of Northern Afleet
-Maggy Hawk (Hawkster) had a bit of a rocky start in 2005. He won the six-furlong Mountain Valley at Oaklawn over a lackluster field March 5 and then threw in the Rebel clunker. He was found to have had a throat infection following his 12 1/2-length defeat.
"He ran the race I knew he could run," Ritchey said. "I don't want to sound like I am blowing my own horn, but in the back of my mind I started thinking about the Kentucky Derby when he won the Sanford, then the Hopeful" last summer at Saratoga.
In a field lacking much early lick, Afleet Alex raced in mid-pack in the field of 10 as Batson Challenge, breaking from the rail, took them through early modest fractions of :23 and :47 4/5. Canteen, tough for jockey Victor Espinoza to hold, forced his way to the front after six furlongs in 1:12 3/5. But Afleet Alex was moving up easily on the outside and was soon even with leaders as they came off the turn.
While tiring, Lane's End (gr. II) winner Flower Alley was a game second, with Andromeda's Hero coming on for third. Trainer Todd Pletcher said afterward that he was inclined to give the inexperienced Flower Alley a start in the Kentucky Derby.
Real Dandy finished fourth and Oaklawn's Southwest and Rebel winner Greater Good finished fifth as the 5-2 second choice.
"I was worried about Greater Good," Rose said. "The crowd was roaring so loud, and I didn't know if that meant that he was making a big move at us or not." Rose hit his colt five times - "and I only did that because it was a million-dollar race, not because he needed it."
Trainer Bob Holthus said Greater Good will also go on to Churchill Downs.
"He has done a lot in his career so far, and we'll get another chance," Holthus said after his horse drifted wide in the second turn and never made his usual challenge down the stretch.
Canteen, Rush Bay, Wild Desert, Cat Shaker and Batson Challenge completed the order.
Afleet Alex won for the sixth time in nine lifetime starts while pushing his earnings total to $1,315,800 with the $600,000 winner's share Saturday for owner Cash is King LLC.
John Martin Silvertand bred the bay colt, a $75,000 sale last May, in Florida.
Afleet Alex paid $6.80, $4.60, and $3.80. Flower Alley returned $5.20 and $4. Andromeda's Hero was $6 to show.