If you picture Saturday’s Arkansas Derby’s two divisions as a high school sport, the first division would be the junior varsity. And not just because it goes to post an hour and 44 minutes before the second division.

Charlatan After Allowance
Rarely has Charlatan had to stare down his opponents. He faces his first true test in the first division of Saturday’s Arkansas Derby. (Image: Mark Terrill/AP)

With few exceptions, the first division is the JV. There’s no other way to put it, other to understand that when you split divisions in a race – which Oaklawn Park did with the Arkansas Derby for the first time since 1960 – a talent discrepancy may result. And one resulted here.

Half of the first division’s horses own only maiden wins and none of them won a stakes race in 2020. Only two of the nine horses placed in a stakes race this year. Outside of Basin and Anneau d’Or, the rest of the division is 10 for 41. None sniffed the winner’s circle of a major Derby prep.

Hardly a field you’d expect to see racing for the 100-40-20-10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points available. But amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Arkansas Derby is the last remaining Derby prep until Churchill Downs lays out the remainder of the Derby Trail.

First Division Pales in Comparison to Second Division

Meanwhile, the second division — a.k.a. the Arkansas Derby varsity — features five graded-stakes winners: Nadal, Wells Bayou, Storm the Court, King Guillermo, and Silver Prospector. Three of those: Nadal (Rebel Stakes) Wells Bayou (Louisiana Derby), and King Guillermo (Tampa Bay Derby) come off wins in major Derby preps.

What buzz factor this 1 1/8-mile race has comes from one horse: Charlatan. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s latest wonder-colt makes his graded-stakes debut in a race he wouldn’t have entered had the event not been split into two divisions. Because Arkansas Derby entries are based on earnings, Charlatan’s $67,200 in earnings wouldn’t have cracked the 14-entry earnings threshold if there was only one race.

Arkansas Derby-First Division

Post Positions and Morning Line (jockey)

  1. Charlatan, Even (Martin Garcia)
  2. My Friends Beer, 20/1 (Declan Cannon)
  3. Mo Mosa, 30/1 (Kendrick Carmouche)
  4. Gouverneur Morris, 9/2 (John Velazquez)
  5. Jungle Runner, 30/1 (Tyler Baze)
  6. Anneau d’Or, 6/1 (Juan Hernandez)
  7. Winning Impression, 15/1 (Julien Leparoux)
  8. Crypto Cash, 20/1 (Corey Lanerie)
  9. Basin, 8/1 (Ricardo Santana Jr.)

But he’s in, bringing the unmistakable buzz from a Baffert 3-year-old who destroyed his competition in two races — a six-furlong maiden and two-turn mile allowance — by a combined 16 lengths. Aside from Baffert’s two previous Arkansas Derby winners, Bodemeister in 2012 and Triple Crown-winner American Pharoah in 2015, we’ve seen this script before.

Two years ago, Baffert reeled out a colt who didn’t race as a 2-year-old in the winter, introducing Justify to the world with maiden and allowance wins. Then, Justify won the Santa Anita Derby and, well, you know the rest. Three Triple Crown wins later and he retired to the breeding shed after six victories in six races.

Charlatan starts as the even-money favorite on the rail. Given the buzz and given the lack of speed in this race, expect those odds to drop by post time. Once the gate opens, expect Martin Garcia, among Oaklawn’s leading jockeys this season, to turn him loose.

“I hate the 1 hole,” Baffert told Oaklawn’s Jennifer Hoyt. “I never do like it. He’s got to break. From the 1 hole, you’ve got to use them up a little bit harder early, just like you would if you were on the outside.”

Exotic Possibilities Exist

Nobody is weeping tears for Baffert or a colt who chalked up 105 and 106 Beyer Speed Figures in his two victories. Least of all, fellow Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, who sends Gouverneur Morris out at 9/2 as one of Charlatan’s few possible threats. When we last saw Gouverneur Morris, he was finishing fourth behind Tiz the Law in the March 28 Florida Derby.

“I think he’s a horse that’s looking to kind of settle and make a run,” said Pletcher, winner of five Arkansas Derbys. “It was difficult to do that last time at Gulfstream, with the track being kind of speed favoring and not much pace on in the race. Kind of had to chase them a little bit the whole way. I thought he finished with good interest. He’s come back and done well since then, so we’re looking forward to it.”

Further down the list and useful for exotics are Anneau d’Or (6/1) and Basin (8/1). Anneau d’Or finished second behind Storm the Court at the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and in his only start this year, finished a distant ninth in one of the Risen Star divisions at Fair Grounds. The blinkers he wore in that race come off for this one.

Basin, who owns a Grade 1 win in the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga last September, ran third in the Rebel Stakes and fourth in the Oaklawn Stakes in April.

“We definitely haven’t gotten the best of Basin this year,” said trainer Steve Asmussen. “This is his third start off the layoff, so it’s time to get it done. The weather looks good this weekend after catching two off tracks. There’s a lot more there.”

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