Arkansas Derby Tips

As the last of the four Oaklawn Stakes races restricted to three-year-old horses (following the Smarty Jones, Southwest Stakes, and the Rebel Stakes) several of the horses entered in the Arkansas Derby every year have already raced against each other, and this gives handicappers lots of information to work with.

One of the biggest problems in handicapping is rating the performance of horses that have never run against each other, but when you have a series of races on the same track with many of the same runners, this problem is solved.

For example, Creator won the 2016 Arkansas after finishing third in the Rebel. In that race, run at 1 1/16 miles, he was last in the field out of the gate and made slow forward progress until shifting out five-wide with about a quarter-mile to go, and was gaining on the horses in front of him in the run to the finish.

One month later, in the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas, and facing six of the same horses, he used almost exactly the same strategy, but with the added distance, was able to reel in the leaders and win. Creator went on to win the Belmont Stakes and is now a stallion in Japan.

Arkansas Derby Contenders

The Arkansas Derby has been a leading prep for the Kentucky Derby in recent years. It was not given Grade 1 status until 2010 after horses like Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex proved that the race was a major Kentucky Derby stepping stone.

Afleet Alex ran an unexpected clunker in the Rebel Stakes before bouncing back to storm the Arkansas Derby in 2005. He was third in the Kentucky Derby after a sizzling pace scenario, then nearly fell in the Preakness Stakes before regaining his feet and running away to win. Afleet Alex won the Belmont Stakes by seven lengths in a quick time and was named the Eclipse Champion Three Year Old Colt.

Curlin was just a maiden winner when he added both the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby in 2007. He went on to be one of the great horses of the early century, finishing third in the Kentucky Derby before winning the Preakness Stakes, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Breeders’ Cup Classic at three. He was named Horse of the Year, then added the Dubai World Cup, Stephen Foster, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup at four. He earned $10.5 million on the track, which was then a record, and has gone on to sire Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Vino Rosso, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic, multiple Grade 1 winner Stellar Wind, and Keen Ice, who beat American Pharoah in the Travers Stakes.

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Arkansas Derby Entries

To bet the Arkansas Derby, always pay attention to horses trained by Bob Baffert. The white-haired trainer has a phenomenal record at Oaklawn, winning the Arkansas Derby in four of the last nine years. 

He also won the Rebel Stakes a record seven times since 2010, with horses like Preakness winner Lookin at Lucky, dual Breeders’ Cup winner Secret Circle, and Grade 1 winners Cupid and Hoppertunity in addition to American Pharoah. He added the Arkansas Derby with Bodemeister, who went on to run second in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and sired Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming in his first crop.

Before the Arkansas Derby was a major Grade 1 event, it was won by horses like Victory Gallop – who was second in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before winning the Belmont by a nose and earned the Eclipse Award for Champion Older Horse in 1999 when he won the Stephen Foster and Whitney Handicap.

Lawyer Ron won the Arkansas Derby in 2006, but truly blossomed as an older horse and won the Whitney (G1) and the Woodward (G1) at Saratoga after running third in the Met Mile at Belmont Park. He was trained by Todd Pletcher, winningest trainer in the Arkansas Derby, and earned $2.7 million en route to a 2007 Eclipse Award.

Sunny’s Halo won the Arkansas Derby in 1983 before winning the Kentucky Derby.

Pat Day has the most wins by a jockey with three, the most recent being 1997 before his retirement.

arkansas derby

Arkansas Derby Fields and Odds

Deserving consideration in the Arkansas Derby is any horse saddled by Todd Pletcher, as the Hall of Fame trainer has won the race a record five times, including back-to-back in 2000/2001, and 2013/14.

Although the filly Althea holds the race record time in Arkansas since winning in 1984, more recent years have not been kind to females, as no filly has won since and they rarely try as they have their own series of Kentucky Oaks preps, starting with the Martha Washington, then the Honeybee, and ending with the rich Fantasy Stakes.

Royally-bred Althea earned $1.2 million by winning Grade 1 races at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Oaklawn Park, and defeated males at Del Mar and Hollywood Park as well. She is the dam of great producer Aurora, whose son Arch sired 2011 Arkansas Derby winner Archarcharch, a 25 – 1 winner who paid $52.40 to win.

Looking down the road to the Triple Crown, since 1992 six runners in Arkansas have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby, while seven others have gone on to win the Preakness Stakes, the Belmont Stakes, or both. In 1998 Victory Gallop took Arkansas and then beat Real Quiet by the slimmest of noses at the wire in the Belmont Stakes, thus denying the Hall of Fame colt a Triple Crown title.

And two decades earlier, Golden Act won Arkansas, and then finished second in all three Triple Crown races, including the Belmont where Spectacular Bid could only run third, after winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown. In 2017, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Classic Empire won the Arkansas Derby before running second in the Preakness.

Prior to American Pharoah, the last horse to win Arkansas and then go on capture the Kentucky Derby was fan favorite Smarty Jones, who turned the trick in 2004. He went on to win the Preakness Stakes impressively and went into the Belmont Stakes bidding for the Triple Crown. He ultimately ran second and was retired, but his journey took fans from Arkansas on quite a thrill ride.

Triple Crown winner American Pharoah was undoubtedly the most famous Arkansas Derby winner. He took Oaklawn Park’s Rebel Stakes (G2) by over six lengths, then trumped himself when winning the Arkansas Derby by eight. He would go on to be the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

In 2020, the Arkansas Derby drew so many entries that it was split into two divisions. Trainer Bob Baffert won them both with the highly regarded Charlatan and the unbeaten Nadal. 

The 2021 Arkansas Derby will be held the second Saturday in April at Oaklawn Park.

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