This is scheduling as brilliant as the race its talent promises. In between the split Arkansas Derby divisions on Oaklawn Park’s dynamic closing day card rests the $600,000 Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap – a race punching far above its Grade 2 status.

Oaklawn favorite Combatant winning Big Cap
Combatant pulled off a mild upset in winning March’s Santa Anita Handicap. The 5-year-old is a 4/1 favorite to win the Oaklawn Handicap. (Image: Benoit Photo for AP)

Put the grade aside. Far aside. This year’s Oaklawn Handicap could be a preview of November’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, such is the field depth for this 1 1/8-mile race. There are nine graded stakes winners and 13 stakes winners in the 13-horse field.

The Oaklawn Handicap is one of country’s premier races for older horses, so the deep field shouldn’t be surprising, even in the COVID-19 era. After all, this is a race with Snow Chief, Best Pal, Cigar, Medaglia d’Oro, and Will Take Charge on its winner’s list.

But this gives you an idea of how deep the Oaklawn Handicap talent pool is. Tacitus finished second in both the 2019 Belmont Stakes and Travers Stakes. He has hit the board in eight of his 10 races, won two Derby preps last year (Tampa Bay Derby and the Wood Memorial), and owns $2,677,500 in career earnings. He debuted as a 4-year-old with a fifth in January’s $20 million Saudi Cup, the world’s richest race.

And at 9/2, he’s not your Oaklawn Handicap favorite.

Back to His 3-Year-Old Home

That would be Combatant (4/1), who returns to a comfort zone of sorts. One of Oaklawn’s top 3-year-olds in 2018, Combatant finished second or third in three of the track’s four Derby prep races and fourth in the flagship Arkansas Derby. The Hronis brothers purchased him in late 2019 and turned him over to trainer John Sadler, who treated them to a Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap victory in early March.

Post Positions (weight) and Morning Line (jockey)

    1. Chess Chief (114), 30/1 (Brian Hernandez Jr.)
    2. Trophy Chaser (115), 12/1 (Samy Camacho)
    3. Bravazo (115), 30/1 (Miguel Mena)
    4. Freeze (118), 6/1 (Joe Talamo)
    5. Identifier (116), 20/1 (Stewart Elliott)
    6. Warrior’s Charge (118), 8/1 (Florent Geroux)
    7. Combatant (120), 4/1 (Joel Rosario)
    8. Sky Promise (114), 20/1 (Orlando Mojica)
    9. Tacitus (121), 9/2 (John Velazquez)
    10. Captivating Moon (113), 20/1 (Julien Leparoux)
    11. Tax (117), 15/1 (Kendrick Carmouche)
    12. By My Standards (118), 9/2 (Gabriel Saez)
    13. Night Ops (116), 15/1 (Javier Castellano)

“He put in a good third in the prep for the Big Cap, and then ran really well in the Big Cap,” Sadler told Oaklawn’s Jennifer Hoyt. “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 Churchill Downs. We got him out here (to California). My thought is there’s always room in the handicap division. He’s not disappointed us.”

Time Off Served By My Standards Well

Nor has By My Standards (9/2) disappointed his connections. Not after winning both his 2020 starts: a February allowance by six lengths and the Grade 2 New Orleans Classic by three in March. The 2019 Louisiana Derby winner took nine months off after finishing a disappointing 12th in the Kentucky Derby. He owns four victories, two seconds and a third in eight starts, along with nearly $922,000.

“He was very impressive off the layoff,” trainer Bret Calhoun said. “He didn’t run against top horses, but he came back against good horses and did the same thing, so it was very impressive … I think there’s more in the tank. I always thought all along that he could be one of the top older horses in the country this year.”

Mr. Freeze is in Sizzling Form

And we haven’t gotten to Mr. Freeze (6/1), who owns five wins and four seconds in 11 starts on dirt. This includes winning the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Mile Stakes in February with a career-high 115 Equibase Speed Figure. Nor Warrior’s Charge (8/1), the home-track hero, who won three of five starts at Oaklawn and finished third in the other two. He opened his 4-year-old campaign by winning the Grade 3 Razorback Handicap in February.

Bob Baffert’s talented, troubled Improbable carried 8/1 odds before scratching Saturday morning.