HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- For several, it's the last train to Kentucky. Miss this and you can start thinking about blue crabs in Baltimore. Bayern, Commissioner, Conquest Titan and Strong Mandate -- they all need to catch this train, these points that are available in Saturday's Arkansas Derby, if they're traveling to Kentucky. A very good horse, or maybe two or three, won't make the trip.
And who would have thought Strong Mandate would be in this position of having to finish at least third in Oaklawn Park's traditional closing-day showcase, the Arkansas Derby? His Hall of Fame trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, didn't. Nine months ago at Saratoga, before Strong Mandate ever found the winner's circle, Lukas nodded in the direction of the big bay colt and said this could be a good one. This was his Derby horse. And after Strong Mandate won the Hopeful Stakes by nearly 10 lengths, well, going to the Kentucky Derby seemed inevitable, or as inevitable as things ever get in this game, where hardship and misfortune can suddenly fall out of a cerulean crevice and rain down upon any unsuspecting head.
But here he is, three weeks before the Kentucky Derby, with only 11 qualifying points in his pocket, good for 26th on the leaderboard. The Derby field, of course, will be limited 20 based on points earned in designated races. The Arkansas Derby, which over the last decade has been the most productive Triple Crown prep, awards 100 qualifying points for a victory, 40 for second, 20 for third and 10 for fourth.
Who would have thought Strong Mandate would be in this position of having to finish at least third in Oaklawn Park's traditional closing-day showcase, the Arkansas Derby?
Ever since Strong Mandate began running in qualifying races, he has struggled to outrun bad luck. As a result, his trainer must be starting to feel like a guy Mark Twain once traveled with named Oliver, a serene soul who never complained. Appointed to a judgeship in the Nevada Territory, Oliver traveled west by wagon. When the wagon broke down, he walked, morning to night, for days, sleeping on the frozen ground, as the story goes, and then he crossed the Great American Desert, finally arriving in Humboldt County a haggard man. Like many of the miners there, for accommodations he built himself a hillside lean-to. Almost as soon as Oliver eased into a comfortable chair in his modest residence, a mule fell down the chimney. The judge rebuilt, and a few days later another mule fell down his chimney, spreading fire and cinder everywhere. And so Oliver, ever prudent, relocated to an area free of mules and rebuilt yet again. When a cow crashed through his ceiling, finally Oliver complained: "This thing is growing monotonous."
And so it has. You can almost picture Lukas watching last month's Rebel Stakes and thinking that finally Strong Mandate was going to have a good trip, but only almost, because in mid-stretch a four-horse bumping incident left the colt back in fourth. That had to be the moment when Lukas finally complained, or could have, that this was growing monotonous.
Strong Mandate drew the No. 13 post position in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and so, to avoid a wide trip, he had to gun for the lead; as it turned, out he didn't quite avoid a wide journey after all and set a self-destructive pace in the bargain. Still, he finished third.
Before making his seasonal debut in the Southwest Stakes here at Oaklawn, the colt missed several days of training because the track was frozen, Lukas explained. And when the latches of the gate opened, things got only worse: Strong Mandate missed the break, raced wide, got stopped and raced even wider, finishing second. Before the Rebel, he developed a skin rash. And so when the bumping began, trouble indeed became monotonous.
"He keeps drawing bad," Lukas said, referring to Strong Mandate's post position, No. 9 in a field of nine for the Arkansas Derby. "This horse just can't seem to get a break I thought we'd be in a lot better shape with him at this point, and now there's no wiggle room. Now, he's got to step up."
But several are in the same position, which is what makes this Arakansas Derby such a significant and meaningful race. Back in February, when Bayern, making only his second start, beat a good field by 15 lengths in an allowance race at Santa Anita, he seemed to be on his way; but because of a foot bruise, he hasn't raced since. He has no qualifying points.
"You don't really know how good he is until you run him in this kind of race," said Jim Barnes, trainer Bob Baffert's assistant who's here with Bayern. "He needs to continue on It's time for him to step up now."
Among the horses in the Arkansas Derby, only Tapiture, the 9-5 favorite, has reserved his stall in the starting gate at Churchill Downs. He has 42 points. All the others, as Barnes and Lukas said, have to step up. That's the beauty of the qualifying system: The points don't come easy, and the designated races swell with quality.
When he defeated Top Billing in his seasonal debut, Commissioner looked every inch a Triple Crown contender, but his late-running style was unsuitable for Gufstream Park. He has only 10 points, and Ride On Curlin just 15. Conquest Titan, who finished second in the Holy Bull, has only nine points, and Danza, who ran third in the Saratoga Special, none. And the train is leaving the station.