ARKANSAS DERBY | PURSE: $1 MILLION | 3-YEAR-OLDS | GRADE 1 | 1 1/8 MILES
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- Though he was the least-experienced horse in the race, the sheer, raw talent of Bodemeister was too much for his rivals on Saturday in the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, as Bodemeister romped to a dazzling, 9 1/2-length victory, firmly placing himself among the elite contenders for the Kentucky Derby on May 5 at Churchill Downs.
Secret Circle, like Bodemeister trained by Bob Baffert, held on for second, a neck in front of Sabercat, whose trainer, Steve Asmussen, and jockey, Corey Nakatani, combined for five wins earlier on the card.
Cozzetti was fourth and was followed, in order, by Atigun, Stat, Najjaar, Isn't He Clever, Optimizer, Jake Mo, and Raconteur in the field of 11.
Bodemeister, under jockey Mike Smith, was timed in 1:48.71 for 1 1/8 miles on the fast main track.
Most importantly, the $600,000 first prize easily put Bodemeister among the top 20 for earnings for the Kentucky Derby. He had just $60,000 going into the race, and was in danger of not making the Derby field if he did not win.
"I just wanted to get this one out of the way," Baffert said via telephone from California. "The main concern was to win the race."
The Arkansas Derby was only the fourth career start for Bodemeister, and he had won just once previously. But his second-place finish in last month's San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita against the highly regarded Creative Cause was illustrative of his ability, and he improved markedly off that effort in the Arkansas Derby. He was favored at 2-1, and paid $6.80.
"That was an exciting win. So impressive," said Baffert, who trains Bodemeister for the Zayat Stables of Ahmed Zayat, who named Bodemeister for Baffert's son, Bode, 7. "When he broke his maiden, he ran a race like that, and he had been working really well, too, at Santa Anita."
Once again, Baffert dispatched his top assistant, Jim Barnes, to Oaklawn Park. Barnes had traveled here twice previously this meet for 3-year-old stakes, and had come away with victories by Secret Circle and Castaway in divisions of the Southwest Stakes, and Secret Circle in the Rebel.
Barnes, who has worked for Baffert for a dozen years, has been even more instrumental in recent weeks, overseeing training at Santa Anita while Baffert was in Dubai, where he suffered a heart attack.
"Jimmy Barnes does a great job," Baffert said. "He knows the routine."
Bodemeister will head straight to Churchill Downs from here on Monday, and he will do so trying to become the first horse to win the Derby without having started at 2 since Apollo in 1882. Bodemeister did not make his first start until Jan. 16.
"That'll be our excuse if we get beat," Baffert said. "He's a legitimate contender. I was really impressed myself. We were hoping he'd do something like that."
Who will ride him is a question. There was a report earlier in the week that Smith had committed to Daddy Nose Best, the Sunland Derby winner, for the Kentucky Derby, but he artfully dodged the subject after the race.
"I'm just going to enjoy it and we'll see," Smith said. "We all know how much things can change this time of year before the Derby."
"I'll run out of money before I run out of jockeys for that horse," Baffert said.
Although Bodemeister broke to the right from his outside post in the Arkansas Derby, he quickly was righted by Smith and sped to the lead. He set fractions of 23.05 seconds for the opening quarter-mile, 46.55 seconds for a half-mile, and 1:11.36 for six furlongs. By that point, he was starting to pull away from the field.
Secret Circle gave futile chase, but bravely held off the late-running Sabercat for second.
The first three from the Arkansas Derby all have plenty of graded cash and are all expected to run in the Kentucky Derby.
Bodemeister is by Empire Maker, the son of Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled who won the 2003 Belmont Stakes after finishing second in that year's Derby to Funny Cide.
"He ran hard, he ran fast, and the distance won't be a problem," Baffert said of Bodemeister. "That was a mile and an eighth workout for him."