Trainer Todd Pletcher has won the Arkansas Derby a record five times and he’ll have two chances to increase that total when he sends out Gouverneur Morris and Farmington Road in Saturday’s split $500,000 Grade 1 race at 1 1/8 miles.
Gouverneur Morris is the 9-2 second choice in the program in the first division, while Farmington Road is an early 12-1 in the second division.
Gouverneur Morris (2 for 4 overall) will be making his local debut after finishing fourth in his last start, the $750,000 Florida Derby (G1) March 28 at Gulfstream Park, for his high-profile connections of Pletcher and co-owners Team Valor International and WinStar Farm LLC. Gouverneur Morris was beaten 5 ¼ lengths by Kentucky Derby points leader Tiz the Law. Both are sons of WinStar’s hot young stallion, Constitution.
Gouverneur Morris, in his two-turn debut, also finished second to unbeaten Maxfield in the $500,000 Breeders’ Futurity (G1) Oct. 5 at Keeneland.
“He’s run against the best of his generation or a lot of the best, and he’s accounted himself well,” Pletcher said Tuesday afternoon. “We feel like he has every right to take a step forward.”
Gouverneur Morris, a $600,000 2-year-old in training purchase, has alternated wins and losses throughout his brief racing career. He was a nine-length debut winner Sept. 2 at Saratoga, ran second in the Breeders’ Futurity, was a 1 ¼-length allowance winner of his 3-year-old debut Feb. 14 at Tampa Bay Downs, then ran fourth in the Florida Derby.
Late-running Farmington Road earned an automatic ticket to the Arkansas Derby with a runner-up finish in the $200,000 Oaklawn Stakes at 1 1/8 miles April 11. The son of Quality Road raced in blinkers for the first time and was beaten a half-length by Mr. Big News after a sluggish break.
“We decided after the race in the Oaklawn Stakes just to leave him there since he was guaranteed a starting position,” Pletcher said. “Just came back with one easy half-mile breeze and we’ll hopefully get a little cleaner start this time, hopefully, a little better tactical position. He would also be one who would benefit from a good, honest pace. Hopefully, he can make a good sustained run like last time.”
Farmington Road added blinkers after finishing fourth, beaten 4 ½ lengths, in the first division of the split $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (G2) Feb. 15 at Fair Grounds. The 1 1/8-mile race marked the stakes debut for Farmington Road, who races for Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners (Aaron Wellman), Chrysalis Stables (Stephanie Clark) and Robert LaPenta. Pletcher and Eclipse teamed to win the 2014 Arkansas Derby with Danza. Clark campaigns multiple Oaklawn allowance winner M G Warrior. LaPenta co-owns seven-time Oaklawn stakes winner Whitmore.
Pletcher said he doesn’t believe blinkers “made a whole lot of difference” in the Oaklawn Stakes, but opted to leave the equipment on for the Arkansas Derby.
“He’s a horse that just wants to settle back and make one run,” Pletcher said. “The blinkers didn’t change that, but I think they did have him, perhaps, a little more focused.”
Although Farmington Road landed in the tougher race – the second division includes unbeaten Rebel winner Nadal, Louisiana Derby winner Wells Bayou and champion Storm the Court – there is also more speed, on paper, than the first division.
“If there’s a good, honest pace early, it will certainly enhance his chances,” Pletcher said.
In addition to Danza, Pletcher won the Arkansas Derby in 2000 (Graeme Hall), 2001 (Balto Star), 2013 (Overanalyze) and 2018 (Magnum Moon). Pletcher also finished second in the 2010 Arkansas Derby with Super Saver, who would give the trainer his first Kentucky Derby victory three weeks later.
Tacitus has Traveled the World to Run in Arkansas.
A homebred for famed Juddmonte Farms, Inc., Tacitus is the 9-2 second choice in the program for the $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for older horses Saturday at Oaklawn. A royally bred 4-year-old gray son of Tapit, Tacitus will be making his first start since finishing fifth in the world’s richest race, the inaugural $20 million Saudi Cup, Feb. 29 in Saudi Arabia.
Tacitus remained in the Middle East and was shipped to the United Arab Emirates for the $12 million Dubai World Cup (G1) March 30, but the race was canceled (Covid-19).
“We kind of had to scramble to get the horse back here to the States,” Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott’s son and traveling assistant, Riley Mott, said during training hours Friday morning. “We had to really scramble to find a flight back for the horse because everything was shut down, kind of mayhem. Finally got the horse back to New Jersey. They were able to fly him there in late March.”
Following a brief quarantine period, Mott said Tacitus joined his father’s string at Belmont Park in New York and resumed training. The menu is lean on immediate options during the Covid-19 era.
“Obviously, the horse is liked geared up, ready to run in Dubai,” Mott said. “Had to come home. Didn’t really know what to point for, as is the case for everybody. We just said if we can put in like two or three good works in New York, we could maybe have him ready to come here.”
After breezing 5 furlongs in 1:04.19 April 27 over Belmont’s training track, Mott said Tacitus was flown Tuesday to Arkansas for the Oaklawn Handicap, a race his famous father won in 1995 with future Horse of the Year Cigar and again in 1996 with Geri.
“Never what we had planned on running in, but I’m sure that’s the case for half the field,” Riley Mott said.
The consistent Tacitus (first, second or third in 8 of 10 career starts) has bankrolled $2,677,500. His resume includes victories in the $400,000 Tampa Bay Derby (G2) at Tampa Bay Downs and the $750,000 Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct and a third-place finish in the $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) Sept 28 at Belmont Park to conclude his 3-year-old campaign.
Tacitus is out of champion Close Hatches, who was also campaigned by Juddmonte and Mott, Oaklawn’s leading trainer in 1986. Mott saddled Close Hatches to victories in Oaklawn’s $200,000 Azeri Stakes (G2) and $600,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) in 2014 en route to an Eclipse Award as the country’s champion older dirt female.
“Similar in that they’re kind of scopey, elegant-looking horses,” Riley Mott said of Close Hatches and Tacitus. “They’ve probably got a little bit of the same demeanor. That’s good. She was a champion. I think he took a little bit of his mother and a little bit of his dad in Tapit. He’s got a lot Tapit in him. He’s been a fun horse to train.”
Bill Mott recorded his 4,989th career victory in Thursday’s eighth race with Blamed ($8.20), according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. Blamed was saddled by Riley Mott.
Sadler Looking to Close Out Meet with a Bang
Southern California-based trainer John Sadler holds victories in a couple of Oaklawn’s signature races – 2010 Arkansas Derby (G1) (Line of David) and 2017 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) (Stellar Wind) – but before 2020, had never had never kept a division at the Hot Springs track. He enters the final two days of the season with 15 wins, good enough for sixth in the trainer’s standings, and could add to his stakes total should Hronis Racing LLC’s Combatant win Saturday’s $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2).
“We’ve really enjoyed it,” Sadler said. “Unfortunately, due to the circumstances, I couldn’t get there as much as I would have liked. As far as an overall meet, we’ve had a good meet. We could have had a great meet. Ollie’s Candy (second, Apple Blossom Handicap) and Flagstaff (third, Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3)) had tough beats. They were really close. Ran bang up races. Overall, I’m very happy. It’s been a great experience. I can’t say enough good things about the Cella family.”
Combatant was a top 3-year-old at Oaklawn in 2018, finishing “on the board” in three of Oaklawn’s four Kentucky Derby preps and fourth in the Arkansas Derby (G1) while trained by Steve Asmussen. Combatant closed out his 4-year-old season with a victory in an allowance race at Churchill Downs and then entered the Keeneland November sale where he was purchased by his present connections for $220,000. He quickly rewarded them with a third in the San Pasqual Stakes (G2) Feb. 1 and a win the Santa Anita Handicap (G1) March 7.
“He put in a good third in the prep for the Big Cap and then ran really well in the Big Cap,” Sadler said. “He’s a horse that is doing really well right now. He was a good horse when we got him. He was coming off a win at CD. We got him out here. My thought is there’s always room in the handicap division. He’s not disappointed us. He’s training great.”
Combatant will be cutting back from a 1 ¼ miles to 1 1/8 miles, but Sadler doesn’t think that will be a problem for the Scat Daddy horse.
“A mile and one eighth is good for him,” Sadler said. “He’s proven he can go farther. He’s shortening up a bit and that’s the handicapping factor, but you usually get a good pace (at Oaklawn). We have a good rider (Joel Rosario). “We’re just hoping we can catch a good pace upfront. We came close a few years ago with Accelerate. We put on a good show with him and City of Light. I don’t think this horse will disappoint.”
Nadal and Charlatan (split Arkansas Derby) aren’t the only unbeaten heavy program favorites Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has Saturday at Oaklawn.
Baffert is also scheduled to send out Gamine (7-5) in the seventh race, an entry-level allowance for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles. A $1.8 million 2-year-old in training purchase, Gamine makes her two-turn debut after a 6 ¼-length victory March 7 at Santa Anita. The daughter of super sire Into Mischief earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 87 for her flashy career debut. Gamine was steered to Oaklawn after Santa Anita suspended racing March 27.
“I was trying to get her in at Santa Anita and I couldn’t get her in because a lot of people knew about her, so the race wouldn’t fill,” Baffert said Tuesday afternoon. “She had been ready to run for a month. I wanted to run her back short one more time. I’d like to have run her seven-eighths or something, but then they quit running here. I was going to run her short there, but her date wouldn’t have been good enough to get in. Then, this race came up. I would have preferred like a mile, but we need to get going. We’ll see what she does going two turns for the first time.”
Gamine tuned up for Saturday’s race by recording a 5-furlong bullet workout out of the gate (:59.20) April 24 at Santa Anita. She led at every point of call in her blowout debut victory.
“I think she’s a nice filly,” Baffert said. “We gave a lot of money for her. She broke her maiden the right way. Until they do it, they’ve got to do it. She has to go two turns.”
Probable post time for Saturday’s seventh race is 3:16 p.m. (Central).
Tom and Chelsey
While the Covid-19 crisis has fractured the racing industry, the virus brought Tom’s d’Etat and trainer Chelsey Coady together in late March at Oaklawn, where the millionaire Grade 1 winner has taken the track’s 2019 promotional slogan to heart: “Stay Until May.”
Tom’s d’Etat returned to the work tab Friday morning, breezing a half-mile in :48.80 under Joe Talamo immediately after the first surface renovation break. Clockers caught the son of Smart Strike galloping out 5 furlongs in 1:01.40 over the fast track.
Stall had hoped to have Tom’s d’Etat back at Churchill Downs around May 1, but that was before the track postponed its stable opening, again.The new date, a staggered May 11 start, means the horse’s stay in Hot Springs will be extended several more days.
“I’m not sad,” Coady said. “I’m not complaining.”
Tom’s d’Etat had been scheduled to make his 2020 debut in the $200,000 Ben Ali Stakes (G3) April 11 at Keeneland before the Lexington, Ky., venue canceled its spring meeting. Stall then rerouted Tom’s d’Etat to Oaklawn, and because of restrictions, threw the keys to Coady, who regularly gallops the horse and saddled him for his victory in the $150,000 Oaklawn Mile April 11. Coady, 26, was an assistant/exercise rider for trainer Buff Bradley before going out on her own before the 2019 Oaklawn meet.
“I love him,” Coady said of Tom’s d’Etat. “I’ve been around a lot of great horses, definitely when I was an assistant. We had Brass Hat, Groupie Doll, The Player, Divisidero. But this horse, by far, is the most special. It’s cool. He’s great.”
Stall, who annually winters at Fair Grounds, said he had no reservations about sending Tom’s d’Etat to Coady because they knew each other and had a similar arrangement at the 2019 Oaklawn meet. Coady said she only had a handful of horses in 2019, so it was easier to oversee ones that Stall shipped into her barn to run.
“It never crossed my mind, as far as moving him from one place to another,” Stall said. “She’s a top rider and he’s easy to ride, anyway, and he had done all the heavy lifting at Fair Grounds, like company works and things like that. We actually breezed him one time at Oaklawn. We canceled our last workout due to track conditions the weekend before the race. She gets along with him great. You’ve obviously seen him galloping around with her all the time. We worked together last year, towards the end of Oaklawn. This is our second go-around.”
Tom’s d’Etat, in his 7-year-old debut, won the Oaklawn Mile by three-quarters of a length over Grade 1 winner Improbable. Despite a wide trip and jockey Joel Rosario never going to the whip, Tom’s d’Etat ran the distance over a wet-fast surface in a meet-best 1:35.83. Tom’s d’Etat was making his first start since winning the $600,000 Clark Stakes (G1) Nov. 29 at Churchill Downs.
Immediately following the Oaklawn Mile, Stall said Tom’s d’Etat would target still-scheduled races at the Churchill Downs spring meeting – $150,000 Blame Stakes May 30 and the $700,000 Stephen Foster (G2) June 27. Both races are 1 1/8 miles. The Stephen Foster is a “Win and You’re In” event for the $7 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) Nov. 7 at Keeneland, the year-end goal for Tom’s d’Etat.
“Al’s such a great guy,” Coady said. “For someone to just trust another person with your best horse says a lot. He makes it easy. I’ve saddled a lot of good horses, but it was without spectators, too. There wasn’t a lot of pressure. The horse was just so classy. There was nothing to worry about. It was exciting. It felt like one of our wins.”
Coady spent approximately six years under Bradley before going out on her own and saddled her first winner (Fish Trappe Road) Aug. 9, 2019, at Belterra Park. Coady recorded her third career winner, and first at Oaklawn, with Arkansas-bred Babadook March 6. She also gallops her own horses.
“You can definitely feel a difference,” Coady said. “I have, personally, a lot of cheaper horses – some of them I love to pieces. But definitely horses like him (Tom’s d’Etat), he could do this … everybody says they could do it with a monkey on their back. He could do it with a monkey on his back. He is 7 years old and he knows everything he’s supposed to do. He knows himself. He knows his body. He knows what he’s capable of, but he’s smart enough that he never, ever does anything. He does just enough.”
Owned by G M B Racing (Gayle Benson), Tom’s d’Etat has a 10-2-1 record from 17 lifetime starts and earnings of $1,326,572. Benson owns the NFL’s New Orleans Saints and the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans.
Coady said she began the Oaklawn meeting with roughly six horses and will leave with maybe eight when the 57-day season concludes Saturday. Along with Bradley, Coady said Stall has been instrumental in shaping her career. Coady also oversaw preparations and saddled multiple stakes winner Bobby’s Wicked One for Stall in the $350,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3) April 18. She continues to gallop Bobby’s Wicked One, too, because he’s in a holding pattern and unable to ship to Churchill Downs.
“Al’s very giving,” Coady said. “We share mutual owners and he’s more than happy to share the wealth, so to speak. He’s a great guy.”
Leading rider Ricardo Santana Jr. rode three winners Thursday to increase his lead over runner-up Martin Garcia to 57-53 with two days remaining in the meeting. Santana is seeking his seventh local riding title. Garcia and Joe Talamo each rode two winners Thursday. Talamo entered Friday with 52 victories to rank third in the standings. … Robertino Diodoro leads perennial champion Steve Asmussen 51-46 in the trainer standings entering the final two days of the meeting. Asmussen is seeking his fifth consecutive local training title and record-tying 11th overall (all since 2007). … Recent Apple Blossom winner Ce Ce “is doing great,” trainer Michael McCarthy said Friday morning, adding her immediate racing future remains unclear because of Covid-19. The Southern California-based McCarthy has returned to Hot Springs to start five horses over the final two days of the meeting. … Grade I winner Eight Rings emerged in good order from his fifth-place finish as the odds-on favorite in last Saturday’s $100,000 Bachelor Stakes for 3-year-old sprinters, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said Tuesday afternoon. “He looked fine afterwards,” Baffert said. “They outfooted him away from there and after that he just lost interest. We’ll have to go back to the drawing board with him. Might be a little too short for him, too.” Eight Rings was making his first start since finishing sixth in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at 1 1/16 miles Nov. 1 at Santa Anita.