Brian’s Derby preps: The Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass recaps

Recapping the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby, by Brian Nadeau

And then there was one. With the Arkansas Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes safely behind us, the upcoming Lexington Stakes rates as the last major prep for the Kentucky Derby. This past weekend saw a feel-good story reemerge and the strength of the West Coast contingent gain further validation. It also saw the loss of a courageous colt that seemed poised to make some serious noise on May 2. Let’s look back on the aforementioned Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass Stakes and see how they might factor in to the Run for the Roses.

Arkansas Derby: Though only a Grade II, anyone paying attention (sans the graded stakes committee) over the past five years knows that this is about as big as it gets in terms of Derby preps. And Saturday’s renewal did little to disappoint, in terms of both quality and on-track performance.

Old Fashioned, who many were leery of after his slow come home time in the Rebel, was back to show that he was still the horse many had as their number one choice over the winter months. Standing in his way was the upset winner of the Rebel, Win Willy, as well as California invader Papa Clem.

Old Fashioned wasted little time once the gates sprung and immediately went to the front under new rider Terry Thompson. He carved out insane splits of 22.65 and 46.19 while Papa Clem and Win Willy sat back and waited to make their move. Old Fashioned turned for home after getting 6 furlongs in 1:11.15, and with Papa Clem and the rest of the field closing in, he looked destined to also-ran status. Hitting the eighth-pole, Papa Clem assumed command, but Old Fashioned refused to yield and dug in to the wire. The final margin was just a half-length, with maiden winner Summer Bird three-quarters of a length back in third. Win Willy was a disappointing fourth, considering the race flow.

The sad news came shortly after, when it was revealed that Old Fashioned suffered a slab fracture in his right knee that will most likely cause his retirement. Taking nothing away from the winner, but this was a remarkable effort by Old Fashioned. It’s quite possible that he gained more admirers in defeat than he ever did in victory. That line forms behind me.

Papa Clem got a dream setup for his win, but it’s worth mentioning that jockey Rafael Bejarano was able to get the son of Smart Strike to rate on Saturday, an impressive feat considering his rail draw and early speed. He is yet another California horse that has shown he can take his game on the road–and over conventional dirt–and have resounding success. It all adds up to his being a player come Derby time.

Summer Bird and Win Willy both closed from far back, 10th and 9th respectively, so it’s a bit hard to gauge their efforts, as well as the overall quality of the race. As impressive as Papa Clem and Old Fashioned were, you can’t overlook the fact that Summer Bird was a recent maiden winner with only two lifetime starts to his credit. Did he jump up and run the race of his life, or did the others come back to him a bit in the lane? If anything, Win Willy probably bounced off that monster win in the Rebel, and with his running style, he could surely pick up some pieces in three weeks.

Blue Grass Stakes: It doesn’t matter what you think of the upset winner General Quarters and if he can or can’t make an impact in Louisville; it’s a great story and it’s what makes our game so exciting. Owned and trained by Tom McCarthy, the only horse in his stable, General Quarters rebounded from a sub-par effort in the Tampa Bay Derby and drew off from a field of non-descript 3-year-olds to win the Grade I Blue Grass by 1 ½ lengths. Recent Lane’s End winner and 2-1 favorite Hold Me Back was second, with Massone 1 ¼ lengths back in third.

General Quarters stalked in midpack while Join In The Dance set the pace in the 9-furlong Blue Grass. Massone made an early move along the inside on the backstretch and drew up into second while Hold Me Back was rated in ninth early. As the field hit the far turn, General Quarters swung up on the outside, Hold Me Back followed that move well out into the turn, and Massone continued up the inside. Inside the furlong ground General Quarters surged clear, leaving Hold Me Back, who looked loaded turning for home, well back in second.

Terrain closed belatedly from 10th to be a non-threatening fourth, Charitable Man was asked to do the impossible and checked in seventh, Theregoesjojo proved he wants no part of 9 furlongs while finishing ninth, and Patena proved that there was much more pomp than circumstance and ran 10th. And let’s not forget our friend the European invader Mafaaz, who is guaranteed a spot in the Derby, should his connections want it. Saturday he was rank and climbed early only to retreat late and finish eighth. Do the right thing, guys, take him home and fight another day.

As for the winner, why the heck can’t he factor in the Derby? He’s already run huge on dirt once, when he won the Sam Davis at Tampa, and he sure looked good running away from them all in the lane on Saturday. Sure, he’s still no better than about a half dozen others, but this was a big time effort. Not sure what to make of Hold Me Back, who entered perfect in three starts over synthetics and awful in his lone dirt start (last November’s Remsen). He ran credible here, and maybe he bounced off that big win at Turfway, but turning for home, it wasn’t if he would win, but by how many. Massone ran solid and hard every step of the way, and it’s worth noting he was the only part of the early pace that was still fighting at the end. Terrain has the running style to get a small piece in the Derby, though he’s another that has done his best running on the fake stuff. [Update: Terrain off the Derby trail, according to Jennie Rees.]

As someone who can’t stand synthetic racing, I’m extremely happy that a horse with dirt form won this race. The Blue Grass has lost a lot of its luster the past few years–and rightfully so–and so therefore the win was much needed…though the bad guy in me has to point out that synthetic lovers finished second, third and fourth, and now have Grade I black type in one of the most famous Derby preps around.

And then there was one.

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