The worst kept secret on the Oaklawn Park backstretch last week was that Old Fashioned could not rate. Trainer Gary Stute used this information to his advantage as he and jockey Rafael Bejarano changed tactics and brought Papa Clem off the pace to capture the 73rd running of the $1 million Arkansas Derby. The colt still eligible for a NW1/X finally recorded his break-through victory in an easier spot after chasing such stars as Pioneer of the Nile in California and Friesan Fire in Louisiana.
That was not an attempt to discount the Derby field or runner-up, Old Fashioned, who again laid down zippy fractions while staying into the bit in the ninth furlong to finish a determined second. But later that evening trainer Larry Jones was dealt another blow as Old Fashioned was found to have a broken knee and will likely never race again. That leaves stablemate Friesan Fire as his last hope prior to retirement to capture the run for the roses after two runner-up finishes with Hard Spun and Eight Belles. Lightly raced Summer Bird picked up the pieces for the show spot, meaning that Papa Clem will likely be the lone representative from Arkansas in Louisville.
In the other major final prep at Keeneland, the $20,000 claimer from last May - General Quarters - was a surprise winner of The Blue Grass Stakes over favorite Hold Me Back and fellow long-shot (and my pick) Massone. Theregoesjojo and Terrain threw in clunkers to put an end to their Derby dreams.
So with most if not all of the projected Derby starters now primed for the big one, that makes Quality Road the leader in the clubhouse (it is Masters Sunday, after all!). Even though the colt developed a slight quarter crack in his Florida Derby triumph, apparently it is not as severe as Big Brown's hoof problems from a year ago, which obviously didn't slow him down. Many of you have heard me talk about "key races" early on The Derby trail. It's easy to look back and circle the February 7th Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita as such a race, where Papa Clem finished just behind Pioneer of the Nile and a length ahead of I Want Revenge. Neither of those horses have lost again, so it's going to be tough to try to separate these three come the first Saturday in May!
Hope you all had a blessed Easter.