LITTLE ROCK — Based solely on trainers who are regularly represented in Oaklawn Park’s important 3-year-old races, the Hot Springs track will again be front and center on the road to the Triple Crown.
D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert, and Todd Pletcher train six of the 23 thoroughbreds who did enough during their 2-year-old seasons to merit an individual slot in a new Kentucky Derby future wager offered through Churchill Downs.
Stabled in Hot Springs, Lukas has won the Kentucky Derby four times and when Oaklawn runs a big race, he practices what he preaches: "You can’t win if you’re not in." The California-based Baffert and Pletcher, with a far-flung stable, have had success in the Arkansas Derby and they separate their best 3-year-olds in the prep races leading up to the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May.
Last year, Pletcher trained Arkansas Derby winner Overanalyze and Baffert had the race favorite, War Academy. In 2012, Baffert won the Arkansas Derby with Bodemeister, part of the trainer’s dominance of Oaklawn’s 3-year-old series since 2010.
In addition to the high-profile trainers, little known "Bronco" Billy Gowan, who has sent horses to Oaklawn in the past and who is an integral part of a compelling storyline with Ride On Curlin, is expected to stable his colt in Hot Springs during the winter. Already, the background story on the horse and trainer has received national attention.
Louisville furniture dealer Dan Dougherty paid $25,000 for the son of the great Curlin and reportedly turned down $1 million after the 2-year-old set a track record at Ellis Park. Trainers normally get 10 percent of the sales price and, at the time, two of the other three horses in Gowan’s stable had never won a race.
Gowan said he encouraged Dougherty to sell, but admitted he was in the catbird seat because he was either going to train a fast horse or bank a bundle. The 48-year-old trainer has been on the short end of a no-sale before. His in-laws paid $67,000 for a horse who won his first start by seven lengths. Gowan said that performance prompted an offer of $750,00. No thanks, the owners said. The horse earned $28,250.
Even though the record-setting race at Ellis was Ride on Curlin’s only victory in five starts, his impressive third in the $500,000 Champagne Stakes in October was enough to earmark him as one of the 2-year-olds to watch in 2014. Far back early and eight wide into the stretch, he finished less than two lengths behind Havana and Honor Code.
In the future wagering that closed Sunday, Ride On Curlin is one of 17 horses at 30-1 or more.
Honor Code, who won in New York last weekend, is the favorite in the pool at 10-1 — about twice the price of the favorite when Churchill offers futue wagering three times in February and March. Odds are inflated in December because the form of a young thoroughbred can fluctuate wildly between now and the Derby.
Trained by Baffert, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner New Year’s Day is 15-1. The Pletcher-trained Havana, second in the Juvenile, is 26-1. Lukas’ Strong Mandate is 27-1. At 43-1 is Misconnect from the Repole Stable that sent Overanalyze to Hot Springs last year.
Remember, there are only 23 horses with individual odds. At 4-5, hundreds of other 2-year-olds are grouped together.
Advance wagers are replete with risks and the Derby picture will evolve almost weekly once the prep races begin in January, but that process is more anticipated than bowl games with 6-6 teams. Oaklawn’s four-race series starts with the $150,000 Smarty Jones on Jan. 20 and ends with the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 12.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.