Pletcher Horses Finalize Derby Day Preparations
Todd Pletcher’s trio of hopefuls for the Racing Festival of the South at Oaklawn Park went out for their last preparatory gallops before competing on Saturday’s Arkansas Derby Day card, and Blofeld, Gettysburg and Decorated Soldier aced their report cards.
Gettysburg seeks his first stakes win in the 80th edition of the $1 million (G1) Arkansas Derby for WinStar Farms and is 6-1 on the morning line, Glencrest Farm’s Blofeld is the 4-1 third choice for the 70th running of the $750,000 (G2) Oaklawn Handicap and Eclipse Thoroughbred Partner’s Decorated Soldier is the co-third choice at 4-1 in the 19th running of the $150,000 Northern Spur Stakes.
“They all galloped a nice and easy mile-and-a-quarter, and they couldn’t be better,” said Adele Bellinger, the assistant trainer and exercise rider for all. “Blofeld is such a pleasure to be on. He’s like driving a car. I think they are all ready to run a good race and I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”
Bellinger, who will saddle the group and give a leg up to Hall of Famer John Velazquez on each, tightened the girth on Danza when he was the upset winner of the 2014 Arkansas Derby for Pletcher and Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners.
The ownership group hopes Decorated Soldier, who is jumping up into stakes company after a dazzling 7 1/2 length maiden win last out at Tampa Bay Downs March 12 in only his second start, can carry the stable colors back into the winner’s circle.
“Whenever a horse draws off like that in the stretch and really drops his shoulder, and runs to the wire and gallop out like he did while absolutely dominating his competition, you have to appreciate the performance,” said Aron Wellman, the president of the syndicate which merged with Dogwood Stable a few years ago. “It definitely brought a smile to my face. He had been hinting throughout the winter in his training at Palm Beach Downs that he could be a serious racehorse in the making.”
When Pletcher sent the son of Proud Citizen, who was bought for $120,000 as a yearling, to Hot Springs, were there any thoughts of entering him in the Arkansas Derby?
“We had a mild flirtation with the idea but didn’t think that it was a prudent move for his long-term development. The Northern Spur at this point is ambitious enough. It’s definitely a good field with a lot of nice horses in it. If he jumps through that hoop, then we can get a little more ambitious. This is plenty aggressive for where he is at this juncture of his career,” said Wellman, who oversees the 60-horse enterprise.
Should Decorated Soldier win, Wellman won’t be here to accept the trophy. But he has a legitimate excuse as he’s staying home in Del Mar, California for the fourth birthday party of his son, Jack.
“We like Hot Springs, Arkansas and Oaklawn Park, that’s for sure. We tend to show up for some big races. The first one we came for was Danza’s Arkansas Derby and we were very luck there. We weren’t so lucky last year with Feathered in the (G3) Fantasy, but we did use that race as a springboard for some great things that she did,” he said. “This will be our third consecutive year of bringing something to Oaklawn for the festival, and we hope that Decorated Soldier makes a name for himself on the Derby undercard. This will be a stern challenge for him but we have conviction that he will certainly make his presence felt when it matters most in the race.
ARKANSAS DERBY UPDATES
Dazzling Gem “probably” wouldn’t be in Saturday’s $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) if he had finished second in his last start, trainer Brad Cox said. But, a third in the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) March 26 at Fair Grounds netted only 20 points, pushing the lightly raced colt back to Oaklawn to try and punch his ticket to the Kentucky Derby.
“Need the points more than anything, although he is doing well,” Cox said.
If more than 20 enter the Kentucky Derby, starting preference is given to horses with the highest points accumulated in the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” race series.
Dazzling Gem, owned by prominent Arkansas automobile dealer Steve Landers, has 20 points – all from the Louisiana Derby – to rank 25th. Dazzling Gem was beaten 1 ¼ lengths for second, a spot that would have meant 40 points and a guaranteed spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.
Like the Louisiana Derby, the Arkansas Derby offers 170 points to the top four finishers, including 100 to the winner.
Cox gave Dazzling Gem the green light for the Arkansas Derby following a half-mile workout (:49.40) last Saturday at Oaklawn.
“If he wouldn’t have worked the way we wanted, we wouldn’t have been in here,” Cox said. “We would have given him more time. But he worked really well. It was two weeks between his race and his work. He bounced out of it really well.”
After winning his first two career starts this year at Oaklawn, Dazzling Gem was scheduled to run in the $900,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) March 19. But a foot abscess shelved plans to run in Oaklawn’s final major Kentucky Derby prep.
Cox said Dazzling Gem, a son of Misremembered, was “pressed a little bit” to make the Louisiana Derby.
“I don’t think that was a perfect setup,” Cox said. “But we also knew that if we were going to take any shot, we had to go on with him. He ran a good race in the Louisiana Derby. Was it a great race? It was good race, but he needs to step up and move forward.”
Joe Talamo will ride Dazzling Gem for the first time in the Arkansas Derby.
Co-owner/trainer Ron Moquett of Hot Springs said Whitmore’s namesake plans to be at Oaklawn Saturday to watch him run for the first time in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1). Moquett named the Pleasantly Perfect gelding after Wilbur Whitmore, a childhood friend and star running back in the late 1980s at Pocola (Okla.) High School.
Moquett said he believed the name was appropriate after watching the gelding train with a stablemate last year.
“We were galloping a horse that everyone liked, that was a 3-year-old,” Moquett said. “And Whitmore’s galloping, and he’s just going around there and he’s not even tired. This other horse was struggling to stay up. The next day, I put another horse with him and that horse just got exhausted.”
Impressed by Whitmore’s ability, Moquett said the name “just came to him” and he called Wilbur Whitmore about the idea. Moquett said the gelding had already been named when he was purchased privately last year. The gelding was renamed “Whitmore” in early September, about two months before his Nov. 6 career debut victory at Churchill Downs, Moquett said.
“He was cool with it,” Moquett said of Wilbur Whitmore.
Whitmore won a Jan. 16 entry-level allowance/optional claimer at Oaklawn before finishing second in the $500,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Feb. 15 and $900,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) March 19. The Southwest and Rebel are Oaklawn’s final major preps for the Arkansas Derby.
Wilbur Whitmore’s family has owned a barbeque restaurant in Pocola, which is just southwest of Fort Smith, Ark.
OAKLAWN HANDICAP UPDATES
Two-time Oaklawn leading owner Danny Caldwell claimed Domain’s Rap for $10,000 Nov. 20 at Remington Park. A week later, Effinex won the $500,000 Clark Handicap (G1) at Churchill Downs.
Saturday afternoon, Domain’s Rap and Effinex will be running against other in the $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for older horses. Domain’s Rap punched his ticket to the Oaklawn Handicap with a runner-up finish behind Upstart in the $350,000 Razorback Handicap (G3) March 19 at Oaklawn.
Domain’s Rap had won his previous four starts, including a Feb. 21 allowance/optional claimer at Oaklawn against a field that included Grade I winner Noble Bird.
“We thought if we could get him back close to where his old form was, he might make a $20,000, $30,000 claimer down the road,” Caldwell said. “We were hoping he would be useful here at Oaklawn.”
An 8-year-old Cherokee Rap gelding, Domain’s Rap competed in allowance and stakes races before tumbling down the class ladder last year.
Caldwell said he passed on claiming Domain’s Rap once last fall at Remington before taking him for $10,000 in his next start. The horse had won three consecutive races at Oaklawn before finishing second in the Razorback.
“Figured he would like the track here,” Caldwell said. “I was claiming him for Oaklawn Park, but he has went way above my expectations.”
Caldwell, who leans heavily on claimers, has clinched his third consecutive Oaklawn owner’s title with 21 victories. His horses are trained by Federico Villafranco.
Brad Cox finished second and third in the Oaklawn Handicap (G2) the last two years with Carve. He will take another swing in Saturday’s $750,000 event for older horses with Financial Modeling, privately purchased about six weeks ago by Memphis-based Ten Strike Racing.
Financial Modeling, a 5-year-old son of Street Sense, made his first nine career starts for trainer Chad Brown, including a fifth-place finish in the $500,000 Donn Handicap (G1) Feb. 6 at Gulfstream Park in his last race.
Cox said an agent orchestrated the deal, adding he didn’t know much about the horse, “other than watching a few of his races.”
“Didn’t have a clue he could be in the barn two weeks later, or whatever it was,” Cox said.
Before running in the Donn Handicap, Financial Modeling won the $100,000 Queens County Stakes Dec. 19 at Aqueduct.
“The way he’s training, I think he should be very competitive,” Cox said. “This is a very tough edition of the Oaklawn Handicap. It says G2, but it’s a G1. I don’t care what that thing says. It’s a G1.”
Financial Modeling has a 4-0-2 record from nine lifetime starts and earnings of $220,500.
In addition to Cox, Ten Strike has had horses with trainer Randy Matthews at this year’s Oaklawn meeting.
Carve is also in Saturday’s Oaklawn Handicap field. The gelding returned to trainer Steve Asmussen following a sixth-place finish in the $200,000 West Virginia Governor’s Stakes Aug. 1 at Mountaineer. The trainer Asmussen claimed Carve out of his 2013 career debut victory at Oaklawn for $30,000.
When Melatonin was the easy winner of the (G1) Santa Anita Handicap at 16-1 last out while defeating 7-5 favorite Effinex in the process, some considered it a chance occurrence or perhaps even a stroke of pure luck.
David Hofmans, who will saddle the 5yo gelding in Saturday’s $750,000 (G2) Oaklawn Handicap against seven other older horses including Effinex, and regular rider Joe Talamo are not among them.
“A lot of people say, ‘well, he was a longshot, it was a fluke.’ Most people think he got on an easy lead. It wasn’t an easy lead when you look at the film,” said Hofmans, who arrived in Hot Springs after a flight from Southern California with Talamo and the Tarabella Farms owners Thursday.
“The sky is the limit with him. He ran hard last time against a real nice field. I’m so proud of him, coming all the way from an allowance win to a grade one win like that,” said Talamo, who is also Melatonin’s exercise rider and took him out for a 1 1/2 miles gallop over Oaklawn’s strip Friday morning. “You could feel his progression in the mornings. It felt like he was getting better with each work. If he runs like he’s been working, he should be tough tomorrow.”
Hoffmans wanted to buy Melatonin for Tarabilla Farms after the horse ran third in a February 2014 maiden race but the previous owners wouldn’t bite. When the offer was upped the next time Melatonin ran, it was accepted. But, then Melatonin contracted a severe case of the serious neurological disease Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM) and was idle for about 18 months.
“We had to kick him out to the farm and run a series of medications through him and give him plenty of time, and he’s come back quite strong from it, which is unusual,” said the trainer, who added other grade one winners in his barn have bounced back from EPM but not had been as ill as Melatonin “He really has blossomed this year. Once we got him back in 2015, each race he got a little stronger and little more mature. And every jockey who rode him told me, ‘Man this horse wants to run long.’”
Melatonin, the 7-2 co-second choice with (G3) Razorback Handicap winner Upstart, will get his chance around two turns in the 1 1/8 mile Oaklawn Handicap. Grade 1 winner Effinex, who was third in the Santa Anita Handicap last out and contracted a case of hives during his trip from trainer Jimmy Jerkens New York base, is the 2-1 favorite in the field of eight.
“Effinex is the tough horse, he’s the horse to beat,” said Hofmans. “I think he was compromised a little bit shipping into California. I think they probably straightened him out now. We’re hoping for a repeat, but we’ll see.”
Talamo, who has ridden the horse three times and and posed for as many winner’s circle photos with him, wouldn’t trade places with anyone.
“I think if we get a good break and a good trip, my horse will be tough,” he said. “As a jockey, I can tell you he’s a dream to ride because he does whatever you want. He really can do anything. If somebody wants to go to the front, he can lay second or third. If not, he can go to the lead. It’s so good to have so many options with a horse like this.”
Sharing strategy, Talamo said he doesn’t see a lot of speed in the race and therefore plans to ride him right out of the gate for the first furlong. But if they are not in front, he will work out good position and then go on with it.
“He’s such a cool horse and it’s good to have so many options with a horse like that,” said Talamo. “He’s a real nice horse and he should be tough.”