Smile Politely

The rematch is on

OF workoutI could tell you about the Blue Grass Stakes, about the wide-open field of horses aiming to get their last shot in the Kentucky Derby, but I’m not. I’m not going to bother with the statistics of these hapless contenders, because your Derby winner is not going to be galumphing over Keeneland’s despicable Polytrack this weekend. But he might just be running at Oaklawn this Saturday in the Grade II Arkansas Derby.

If you’ve been paying attention to anyone’s top ten list outside of this writer, you’ll notice that the name Old Fashioned has dropped from those lists like a hot potato. But after he runs this Saturday, expect that name to be reappearing like a rampant dandelion. Expect the winner of the Southwest Stakes to come back in a big way, and brace yourself for a showdown if his nemesis, Win Willy, dares to challenge him again.

The Arkansas Derby renews the rivalry between the champion and the spoiler, along with the familiar faces of Flat Out, Poltergeist, and Captain Cherokee. Papa Clem will be facing this group for the first time, after being outdone by Old Fashioned’s stablemate, Friesan Fire, and the newly crowned “Best in the West” Pioneerof the Nile. Look for a big effort of this son of Smart Strike; coming in second place to these two champs is nothing to scoff at, and he will serve as a good comparison as to how good Old Fashioned really is. Papa Clem is expected to set the pace, and since Silver City will not be in this round, slower fractions should set things up all the better for Old Fashioned. Win Willy could still come flying late, but he won’t get away with highway robbery this time.

Terry Thompson, the jockey who rode Old Fashioned to victory in his maiden and second races, and is also his regular exercise rider, will be replacing Ramon Dominguez for the Arkansas Derby. Though his trainer, Larry Jones, has stated the rider change was purely for the sake of Thompson being Oaklawn’s winningest jockey, pretty much anyone you talk to will tell you Dominguez probably cost Old Fashioned the Rebel, and thus his mount for the $1 million race. There are two glaring things Dominguez did and didn’t do in the Rebel that hopefully Thompson will be keenly aware of: one, not to send Old Fashioned too early; two, to keep his horse in the middle of the track when he hits the stretch so that he can look any late-runners in the eye. In the Rebel, Win Willy was so far away from Old Fashioned in the stretch, the champ probably didn’t even register they were in the same race. Lest we forget the tactic Chris McCarron used to best the Triple Crown hopeful Silver Charm in the final furlong of the 1997 Belmont Stakes; it was well known the Charm wouldn’t let a horse by him he could look in the eye, and so while Silver Charm was busy staring down Free House, Touch Gold came flying on the outside and pounced while the grays were duking it out to steal the classic and deny him the Triple Crown.

As the last weekend of Kentucky Derby prep races falls upon us, the stage is almost completely set as to who will enter the gates for the most prestigious three-year-old race in the world. It’s turning out to be one of the most talented fields in the past decade, but three weeks is a long time, and the world can change in a day. The sidelining of The Pamplemousse is a reminder to all of the contenders of how fragile these horses are, and how the course can change at any given moment. So for now, we must hold our breath, cross our fingers, and wait. It’s still a long road to Kentucky, even if you’ve got your airplane ticket and your bags packed. Just hang on tight to that lucky horseshoe.

The Grade II $1 million Arkansas Derby will air live on ESPN2 and HRTV; ESPN2’s coverage begins at 6:00 p.m. ET. Post time is set for 5:41 CT.

The Grade I $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes will air live on TVG. Post time is scheduled for approximately 5:15 p.m. ET.

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