By Mike Farrell
Our journey on the trail to the Triple Crown has one major stop. So far, it’s been a fascinating trip.
The Arkansas Derby (G1) on Saturday is the final key prep leading to the Kentucky Derby (G1). The winner secures the last basket of 100 Derby qualifying points. Win, and you’re in the starting gate at Churchill Downs three weeks later.
Yes, there are also some minor spoils still on the table. The Lexington Stakes (G3) at Keeneland on Saturday awards 20 points to the victor, perhaps enough to get a horse off the bubble and into the race.
Realistically, the focus is on Oaklawn for the remaining top contenders with the race expected to draw a small but select field.
The duo of Concert Tour and Hozier, both from the Bob Baffert barn, headline the renewal following their 1-2 finish in the Rebel Stakes (G2) last month.
Concert Tour, unbeaten in three starts, cruised to a dominant win in the Rebel and now represents Baffert’s best Derby hope following the injury that sidelined Life Is Good and the second-place finish by Medina Spirit in the Santa Anita Derby (G1).
Super Stock, Caddo River and Get Her Number are back for another try after finishing up the track in the Rebel. Last Samurai, idle since a fifth-place finish in the Southwest Stakes (G3) in February, completes the roster of expected Arkansas Derby runners.
Essential Quality will undoubtedly be favored in the Derby following his victory in the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) on Saturday.
And why not? He is undefeated in five races. He has already picked up an Eclipse Award as 2-year-old champion, captured the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and is returning to Churchill Downs where he posted his maiden victory. What’s not to like?
As the risk of putting too fine a point on the Blue Grass victory, this observer came away with nagging doubts.
The Essential Quality camp praised the Blue Grass effort as a gut check that proved the colt would engage in an eyeball-to-eyeball battle and come out on top. That’s the positive spin.
“It was probably what he needed,” winning trainer Brad Cox said. “It was good for him to get a good test today.”
Let’s turn that around. The 1-2 favorite was locked in a fierce struggle with Highly Motivated, a colt no better than third most recently in the weak Gotham Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct.
It wasn’t until the sixteenth pole when Essential Quality finally switched leads and found the energy to prevail. And one can also speculate that the track helped carry Essential Quality to victory. He is 3-for-3 at Keeneland.
He has plenty of time to regroup. After the Blue Grass, it looks like he’ll need every day of that gap until the Derby.
Kendrick Carmouche was the “Ice Man” in the Wood Memorial (G2), sitting very chilly aboard 72-1 outsider Bourbonic.
Waiting until the last possible second, Carmouche turned the colt loose for the stunning upset as they swept by the field.
Not a bad effort for a horse that failed to win a first-level allowance race at Parx in his previous outing.
Good for Carmouche, a consummate professional who spent a good portion of his career tolling in relative obscurity at Parx. This will be his first Derby mount.
At 37, Carmouche has finally reached the pinnacle. He won his first Grade 1 stakes in December with True Timber in the Cigar Mile. Now he’s in the Derby.
“These past six months of my career have just been what you dream of,” he said.
The two-time champion jockey in his native Italy, Umberto Rispoli appropriately celebrated his victory in the Santa Anita Derby with a flying dismount in the winner’s circle, saluting the tradition of the legendary Frankie Dettori.
Like Carmouche, Rispoli will also be making his Derby debut thanks to Rock Your World, a mild upset winner at 5-1.
The versatile colt is now undefeated in three races with the first two victories on the turf.
Rispoli, 32, has a wealth of international experience having ridden at tracks across Europe and in Hong Kong. Unlike Carmouche, who rallied from a distant zip code in the Wood, Rispoli was in command every step of the Santa Anita Derby.
Rock Your World set a solid pace and easily fended off the challenge of Medina Spirit by a decisive 4 ¼ lengths to earn a spot in the Kentucky Derby. And his jockey, after a wealth of global victories, finally gets a chance to shine on racing’s biggest stage.
Mike Farrell has worked in thoroughbred and harness racing for much of his career in journalism. Mike is a turf writer, harness writer, and handicapper, covering and analyzing races at dozens of racetracks around the country. Based on the East Coast, Mike has covered the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup for a number of publications, including Daily Racing Form, as well as The Associated Press. He spends time at Gulfstream Park taking in the races, and also hits the harness racing circuit in the Northeast region. He’s been a fixture at The Hambletonian and the Haskell Invitational for longer than he’d like to remember.