By Gene Kershner
If the latest Wireplayers.com Derby Dozen is any indication of the talent in this weekend's $1 million Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, we're in for a whale of a race. Of the dozen horses on the listing, five of the eight horses are scheduled to run on Saturday at Oaklawn Park. The race will be seen live on the NBC Sports Network between 6-7 p.m. ET.
The Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland will be part of a 90-minute telecast on Fox Sports 1 from 4:30 - 6 p.m. Saturday afternoon preceding the Arkansas Derby. The Blue Grass drew a full field of 14 horses with one on the also-eligible list.
Trainer Bob Baffert ships in the lightly raced Bayern (2-1), who will attempt to qualify for the Derby with a top-two finish in the Arkansas Derby. Embattled trainer Steve Asmussen has his best Derby hope and morning line favorite, Tapiture (9-5), looking to increase his point total (42) to ensure a gate on the First Saturday in May.
Let's take a look at each of the horses in the Arkansas Derby (trainer, jockey, ML odds in parenthesis):
1 - Danza (Pletcher, Bravo, 15-1). This Street Boss colt won the G2 Saratoga Special last summer and has only one race in 2014 under his belt at Gulfstream. He stretches out for the first time and will need a top two finish to even sniff the Derby. Looking elsewhere.
2 - Knock Em Flat (Von Hemel, Quinonez, SCR). Trainer Von Hemel announced on Thursday that the son of Flatter will skip the Arkansas Derby and run in Saturday's $100K Nothern Spur instead.
3 - Tapiture (Asmussen, Rosario, 9-5). He ranked on top of my Wireplayers ballot, but so did Cairo Prince before the Florida Derby two weeks ago, so I could be giving him the kiss of death. Lost the Rebel to Hoppertunity last month, who came back to post a solid second behind likely Derby favorite California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby last weekend. He's a versatile colt that can go to the lead or set off it to make his run. The one to beat.
4 - Ride On Curlin (Gowan, Court, 12-1). The son of the 2007 Arkansas Derby winner will try to match his daddy's efforts on the Oaklawn strip. He finished a half-length behind the favorite in the Rebel for a respectable third. Trainer worked him 7-furlongs earlier last weekend trying to sharpen his fitness for the big one. He sits in 22nd place on the Leaderboard with 15 points, so a top three finish will be important to his Derby chances. Contender.
5 - Thundergram (Casse, Arroyo Jr., 30-1). Casse puts the blinkers on and wins at a 17 percent clip second off the layoff. Fashions a bullet workout last Saturday over the track and could be an exotics play underneath.
6 - Commissioner (Pletcher, Smith, 8-1). Any time you have these connections north of 5-1 it pays to stay attentive to the odds board. The son of A.P. Indy definitely has the stamina and was taken back on the speed-favoring surface at Sunland in his last effort. He's won two of three at the 1 1/8-mile distance and guessing Mike Smith will have him closer to the pace on Saturday. He could be sitting on a big one and he's hard to dismiss at that price. The pick.
7 - Conquest Titan (Casse, Borel, 10-1). A lot of racing pundits have been high on this colt, who just hasn't delivered on the Derby trail to date. In 35th place on the Leaderboard with 9 points, he desperately needs to succeed to make the Derby. He'll be trying his seventh different track in his last seven races. Not buying the hype.
8 - Bayern (Baffert, Stevens, 2-1). Son of Offlee Wild comes off an impressive allowance win in early February by over 15 lengths. Baffert swooped in to win this race and a Derby berth with Bodemeister two years ago, who ended up with the highest finish ever (second) in the Derby for a colt who never ran as a 2-year-old. Baffert and Bayern will hope to better that mark with a big effort on Saturday. Coming off an injury right into the fray is asking a lot of a lightly raced colt, so we're going to try and beat him at that price.
9 - Strong Mandate (Lukas, Saez, 9-2). Talented colt sits in 26the place on the Leaderboard with 11 points and will have to step up his game to qualify for a spot in Louisville. His sire is a two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner so he won't have any issues with the distance; questions persist about his consistency however.
Post Time Outlook: 1 - Commissioner; 2 - Tapiture; 3- Ride on Curlin; 4 - Strong Mandate