Ignore for the moment that there are no Kentucky Derby qualifying points up for grabs at Saturday’s $200,000 Oaklawn Stakes. Instead, follow the lead of Hall of Fame trainers Bob Baffert and Steve Asmussen and pay attention to the opportunity.

Thousand Words
Seeking a spot in the Arkansas Derby, Bob Baffert’s Thousand Words ships in from California as a vulnerable 5/2 favorite for the Oaklawn Stakes. (Image: OG News)

In Baffert’s case, it’s an opportunity to see how Thousand Words rebounds from a tough race last month. In Asmussen’s case, it’s the opportunity to see how his trio of 3-year-old Kentucky Derby hopefuls, Basin, Gold Street, and Shoplifted, compare to the competition. And for both trainers, it’s simply the opportunity to race in this era of coronavirus-enforced shutdowns of tracks all over the country.

“I think we’re lucky Oaklawn is running at all,” Asmussen told the Daily Racing Form.

Oaklawn Becomes Oasis for Trainers, Bettors

The Arkansas track is one of a handful of United States thoroughbred tracks still featuring live racing, and horsemen from both coasts have crashed the party. Baffert and Thousand Words came in from California, while Todd Pletcher went west from Florida with Farmington Road.

In normal times, the 1 1/8-mile Oaklawn Stakes is a nice, graded stakes. And you would have seen it next month with horses hailing primarily from Arkansas and Louisiana. But Oaklawn officials used the coronavirus pandemic to flip the race with the Arkansas Derby, with the Oaklawn Stakes moving to April.

Meanwhile, with the Kentucky Derby moving to September and the Arkansas Derby moving to May, race-starved trainers and bet-starved racing fans latched onto this race with keen interest.

There is reason for the interest because there is opportunity in the race. The first three finishers earn spots in the Arkansas Derby, while the winner gets a spot in the Preakness Stakes. Given the Arkansas Derby is the only scheduled Derby prep until Churchill Downs officials map out the rest of the Derby Trail, those spots are highly coveted.

Thousand Words Speaks Loudest as Favorite

This explains the 13-horse field for the Oaklawn Stakes, led by Thousand Words. The progeny of Pioneer of The Nile – the sire of American Pharoah – Thousand Words is the 5/2 favorite and winner of his first three races. Two of those were graded stakes.

He’s also a vulnerable favorite, coming off a pedestrian fourth-place finish to stablemate Nadal in the San Felipe last month. Along with that, questions abound about Thousand Words’ ability to go nine furlongs, since his pedigree on his dam’s side weighs toward sprinters, not stamina.

“I think he’s a good horse and he got beat by a good horse,” Baffert told reporters this week. “He didn’t show up that day.”

Of the other 12 horses standing in Thousand Words’ way, eight own graded stakes experience. But none of the eight finished better than third in their last starts. That third belongs to Basin (7/2), who broke a six-month layoff by finishing third in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn last month. Like Thousand Words, his pedigree isn’t complementary to this distance, but he did win a Grade 1 last September at Saratoga.

Pedigree Problems Stalk Asmussen’s Duo

Asmussen’s other horses, Shoplifted (10/1) and Gold Street (12/1), don’t have Basin’s speed, and are best used underneath in exotics. In Shoplifted’s case, he struggled at 1 1/16 miles in a slow Southwest Stakes, finishing fourth. The 1 1/8-mile Oaklawn Stakes is a big ask for him. As for Gold Street, he’s not only fighting the outside 13 post and his own distance-lacking pedigree, but an inability to adapt to any situation that keeps him out of the lead.

That leaves two intriguing choices that scream value — and opportunity — for handicappers. The first is Taishan (8/1), who has the stamina, resilience, and a field-high 98 Equibase Speed Figure in his last race – a 4 ¾-length victory in an allowance March 14 – many of his counterparts lack. That effort came after a subpar fifth in the Southwest Stakes six weeks earlier, and it came after a jockey change to the in-form Joel Rosario.

The other is Pletcher’s Farmington Road (6/1), who also enjoys a hot jockey in Martin Garcia. The former Santa Anita mainstay has won 19% of his races at Oaklawn this season, and pilots a horse who rallied from 10th to fourth in the first division of the Risen Star. Farmington Road’s price makes him irresistible in exotics and a calculated choice in win bets.

Oaklawn Stakes Morning Line

  1. Basin, 7/2
  2. Coach Bahe, 20/1
  3. Mr. Big News, 30/1
  4. Thousand Words, 5/2
  5. Sir Rick, 15/1
  6. Shoplifted, 10/1
  7. Flap Jack, 20/1
  8. Taishan, 8/1
  9. Digital, 8/1
  10. Something Natural, 20/1
  11. Background, 12/1
  12. Farmington Road, 10/1
  13. Gold Street, 20/1