By Ed McNamara
Bob Baffert has ruled Santa Anita and Del Mar for a quarter of a century, during which he’s also owned so many spring weekends at Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park.
The rich always manage to get richer, and in the past decade the Hall of Famer expanded his empire to Arkansas. His dominance of the Rebel Stakes, Oaklawn Park’s No. 2 Derby prep, is unprecedented — eight wins, four seconds and a third with 15 starters after running 1-2 with Concert Tour and Hozier last month.
Jimmy Barnes, Baffert’s longtime assistant, is deputized to run the show on the lucrative trips to Hot Springs. “It’s amazing,” Barnes said. “Our horses, they suit this track. They run well over it.”
Over and over again.
Concert Tour and Hozier are back for Saturday’s 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby, in which front-running Concert Tour, who’s 3-for-3, is the even-money, morning-line favorite in a field of only six. “These horses are starting to come around at the right time,” Baffert said. “That’s what you want.”
The Arkansas Derby will award 100, 40, 20 and 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the first four finishers. Concert Tour earned 50 in the Rebel and is 11th on the list, but the other five need a win or at least a second in their last chance to earn a spot in the 147th Derby on May 1.
Baffert has won the Arkansas Derby three times, with Bodemeister (2012), Triple Crown hero American Pharoah (2015) and Nadal (last year). Concert Tour’s jockey, Joel Rosario, likes his chances to give Baffert his fourth trophy.
“He’s a very nice horse, easy to ride,” Rosario said. “He’s really talented, and it seems like he won’t have any problem with the distance.”
The Arkansas Derby tops a four-stakes card with some intimidating favorites like Concert Tour. Let’s see if we can make a little money anyway.
The 7-5 favorite Frank’s Rockette (4) could get a challenge from Edgeway (5), who was third, only a neck behind her, last year in only her second career start.
Frank’s Rockette has been out of the exacta only once in 12 starts, and that was against males in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Edgeway is 5-for-5 in the money lifetime (0-for-2 in stakes), but I think she has upside and a chance for a minor upset.
If anybody can pull that off, it’s Rosario, who’s an amazing 16-for-37 in graded stakes this year. Edgeway is training brilliantly and gets my vote, partly based on price potential.
Picks: 1. Edgeway 2. Frank’s Rockette 3. Casual
Here’s the card’s most intriguing handicapping puzzle. I settled on 5-2 favorite By My Standards (6), who was 4-for-6 (two seconds) before being thrown in above his head in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (eighth) and Clark Stakes (seventh). The four-time graded-stakes winner for trainer Bret Calhoun gets class relief and is working impressively for his 5-year-old debut.
Picks: 1. By My Standards 2. Rushie 3. Wells Bayou
It’s the third consecutive meeting between two grand old geldings, 8-year-old Whitmore (9-5), last year’s Eclipse Award-winning sprinter, and 7-year-old C Z Rocket (2-1). They ran 1-2 both times, with Whitmore (2) taking the Breeders’ Cup Sprint by 3 1/4 lengths at Keeneland and C Z Rocket (6) surging late to get there by a neck in the Hot Springs at Oaklawn, Whitmore’s domain.
Whitmore has won the Count Fleet a record three times for trainer Ron Moquette, and he’ll have to work hard for a fourth.
“These two seem to have started a rivalry, and this is the rubber match,” said Peter Miller, who trains C Z Rocket.
Whitmore is 21-for-25 in the exacta at 6 furlongs and 9-for-15 (five seconds) at Oaklawn, where C Z Rocket is only 1-for-5. Likely front-runner Parole, who’ll be going hard early from the rail, should have company up front from Strike Power, Mojo Man and Mr. Jagermeister. The hot pace should set up another stretch duel between the top two. I’ll take Whitmore to reverse the finish of the Hot Springs.
Picks: 1. Whitmore 2. C Z Rocket 3. No Parole
Concert Tour (5) got away with a moderate pace on a speed-favoring track in the Rebel. The 6-5 favorite, Caddo River (2) was taken out of his preferred front-running game and faded after pressing the pace to the stretch under Florent Geroux. Trainer Brad Cox and owner John Ed Anthony don’t want him to be restrained again.
“The horse resented being rated in second,” Anthony said. “We wouldn’t let him utilize his running style because of an anticipated fast pace, and nothing seemed to work out for us that day.”
Cox also said they would take a more aggressive approach.
In his previous race, Concert Tour rated in third before taking the 7-furlong San Vicente, and I don’t see why he couldn’t stalk and pounce on Saturday.
Picks: 1. Concert Tour 2. Caddo River 3. Hozier
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.