Jockey Donnie Meche raises his whip as he wins the $500,000 Arkansas Derby aboard Private Emblem.

Jockey Donnie Meche raises his whip as he wins the $500,000 Arkansas Derby aboard Private Emblem.


Private Emblem Earns Third Straight Win in Arkansas Derby

by Harry King

Trainer Steve Asmussen is going to the Kentucky Derby with a colt that has some meat on his bones.

Months ago, Asmussen mapped out a plan to space the races of Private Emblem so the lanky colt would have some heft on the first Saturday of May. The last piece fell into place Saturday when Private Emblem scored a 4 1/2-length victory over Wild Horses in the $500,000 Arkansas Derby (gr. II) at Oaklawn Park.

It was only the third race of the year for the son of Our Emblem, owned by James Cassels and Bob Zollars, and his third straight victory.

"He's a tall horse ... and Steve wanted to get some more muscle on him," Zollars said. "Steve wanted to get some more muscle on him and he said if we ran him every three weeks, if we got to the Derby, by the time we get there, we wouldn't have a horse left."

Winning jockey Donnie Meche agreed.

"We're going in with a loaded gun," he said. "It's not like we're going with no bullets."

Despite breaking from the outside in the 11-horse field, Private Emblem easily reached a contending spot about two lengths off pacesetting Outstander. Mr. Mellon, the 5-2 favorite, was just to the outside of the leader and the three of them continued that way down the backstretch. Heading into the far turn, Bay Monster started to gain ground on Private Emblem and Meche let out a notch. He said he could see that Larry Melancon was already working on Mr. Mellon and that he knew he had the favorite collared.

"I sat on him as long as I could and I heard horses coming up to me on the outside just about the quarter pole," Meche said. "When he responded, I didn't think anybody would get by me and if he did, he would really have to be running."

Turning into the stretch, Outstander and Mr. Mellon gave up the fight and Private Emblem inherited the lead. With little urging, he quickly expanded the margin. Wild Horses emerged from a mid-stretch pack to finish second, but did not threaten the winner.

As the third choice in the wagering, Private Emblem returned $10.40, $6. and $3.80. Wild Horses, second to Mr. Mellon in the Rushaway in his last start, paid $12.20 and $6.60. It was another 1 1/2 back to Windward Passage and Bay Monster, who finished in a dead heat for third. Windward Passage paid $2.60 and Bay Monster returned $5.60. The winning exacta paid $145.

Mr. Mellon struggled home sixth and trainer Elliott Walden said the colt was out of the Kentucky Derby. Melancon said he was expecting a late kick from the colt, but that he "just had no finish."

Holdthehelm finished fifth, just ahead of Mr. Mellon, with Dusty Spike, Gold Dollar, It'sallinthechase, Outstander, and Guppie's Secret completing the order of finish.

Cassels and Zollars paid $35,000 for Private Emblem at the Keeneland yearling sale. Never worse than third, Private Emblem earned $300,000 for his fourth victory in seven starts, boosting his career bankroll to $459,300.

Private Emblem was one of four 3-year-old stakes winners in the field -- the others were Mr. Mellon, Outstander and Windward Passage. Private Emblem and those three are nominated for the Triple Crown along with Gold Dollar, Holdthehelm, It'sallinthechase, and Wild Horses.

Private Emblem earned $300,000 for his fourth victory in seven starts, boosting his career bankroll to $459,300. He won a restricted maiden race in the second start of his career at Belmont and then finished second in a small stake. After six weeks off, Private Emblem was third in a $150,000 race in Houston. He began 2002 with a head victory in a stakes race on the turf in New Orleans and two months later captured one division of the $75,000 Southwest at Oaklawn.

Wild Horses earned $100,000 for his runner-up finish, boosting his career bankroll to $142,400. The son of Saint Ballado has not been out of the money in five starts this year. He kicked off his career with a sixth-place finish in a maiden race at Saratoga in July and then was sidelined until Feb. 21. That day, he was second in a maiden race in New Orleans. Two weeks later, he won on a sloppy track and another two weeks later was in the $100,000 Rushaway at Turfway Park. He set the pace that day before losing to Mr. Mellon by more than two lengths.

The "Big Three Pick Three" linking Saturday's three major Kentucky Derby preps, concluding with the Arkansas Derby, returned $128. Handle for the wager dropped to under $1 million for the first time since 1998, the second year of the wager. (Chart, Equibase)