It’s challenging being the champ; walking (and running) around with a bullseye plastered on your hind end. Ever since being honored as the nation’s top 2-year-old in January, Essential Quality has worn the crown well. He appeared to be on-the-ropes Saturday in the Keeneland stretch, when Highly Motivated proved a surprisingly stubborn foe in the Blue Grass but, in the end, Essential Quality did what champs do: he won…again. Trainer Brad Cox has to feel confident as his charge has cleared the final hurdle toward the Kentucky Derby still unbeaten. It would appear, as they say around the racetrack and at family holiday barbeques, ‘there’s more in the tank.’
How much more? Good question. If the champ really was rocked by Highly Motivated’s punch, it would be a negative heading toward the big race on the first Saturday in May in Louisville–hometown of ‘The Greatest’ and World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali. But, perhaps, in true Ali fashion, Essential Quality might have merely been playing ‘rope-a-dope’ in the Blue Grass, seemingly in trouble while actually in total control?
Either way, the consensus number one-ranked challenger to Essential Quality’s championship belt is in action Saturday at Oaklawn Park in the Arkansas Derby. Concert Tour hails from the Bob Baffert outfit–the top stable for 3-year-old champions ever—and, based on his last two workouts at Santa Anita, he appears ‘loaded for bear.’ Baffert has used the Arkansas Derby as the perfect launching pad toward Louisville success before and has a mind to do it again.
If there’s a stumbling block in Concert Tour’s path Saturday, we can’t see it. He should put his high cruising speed and developing talent on display for all to see. It’s notable that even though this race carries 170 points toward spots in the Kentucky Derby starting gate there are no fresh faces shipping in while attempting to add Louisville digits. That’s partly because connections nationwide were repelled by Concert Tour’s vigor in winning the Gr. 2 Rebel Stakes.
Even if he proves dominant in Razorback country, come May 1, the son of Street Sense probably won’t be favored in Louisville. That’s because there’s an unwritten rule that says you’ve got to knock out the champ before you can wear the belt. And, even though Highly Motivated got in a few good licks through the Blue Grass stretch, the referee triumphantly ultimately raised Essential Quality’s hoof for the fifth time in as many bouts.
Below is one man’s opinion of Saturday’s Arkansas Derby with a suggested play.
$1 Million – Grade 1
One Mile & One-Eighth
Post: 7:41 pm ET
Kentucky Derby Points: 100-40-20-10
#1 Super Stock Asmussen/Talamo 6-1
This guy finished a well-beaten fourth in the Gr. 2 Rebel last out behind the Baffert duo of #5 Concert Tour and #3 Hozier. That was his seventh lifetime start and first since October. He has one win—a five and one-half furlong restricted stakes at Lone Star in August–a pair of seconds and a pair of thirds to his credit. He finished third in the Gr. 1 Breeders Futurity at Keeneland, over four lengths behind 2-year-old champ and current sophomore leader Essential Quality. This son of Dialed In was 40-1 in the Rebel and outran his odds. In fact, he didn’t run badly at all. From the far outside 8-hole, he was four-wide into the first turn, steadied briefly early down the backside, and raced between horses throughout. He finished ok in the lane and barely got up for fourth, just three-quarters of a length behind runner up #3 Hosier. If he improves off that race and has a better trip, which he might while moving from the outside starting post to the inside one, he should be part of the exotics. Exotics
#2 Caddo River Cox/Geroux 7/2
Last out in the Gr. 2 Rebel Stakes, jockey Geroux and #2 Caddo River left from the number one post position. From the seven-hole, the race’s other speed horse, #5 Concert Tour outbroke the field. That left Geroux hustling and scrubbing on #2 Caddo River to hold the rail position into the first turn. They couldn’t. #5 Concert Tour was too quick for them. A similar situation appears here in the Gr. 1 Arkansas Derby. #2 Caddo River again is drawn inside #5 Concert Tour. Obviously, much depends on how alertly they break from the gate. But here’s the issue for #2 Caddo River: He wasn’t good enough to stalk #5 Concert Tour and still hang around. In fact, he faded to fifth, beaten more than six lengths. That suggests that even if #2 Caddo River outbreaks #5 Concert Tour, the latter will just stalk and take over when desirable. A more critical question for horseplayers is: When #5 Concert Tour asserts his domination, how will #2 Caddo River react? Will he hang around for a piece of the exotics or fade away in the lane? He had no answer late in the Gr. 2 Rebel Stakes. Bottom of Exotics
#3 Hozier Baffert/Garcia 3-1
He’s finished behind stablemate #5 Concert Tour twice in three races and there’s no reason to think he’ll flip the script this time. This son of Pioneerof the Nile had a rail skimming, dream trip in the Gr. 2 Rebel last out and finished well enough to hold second. Jockey Martin Garcia will attempt to drop back a bit early, save ground and maintain another rail-skimming trip. If that works out, this colt could get another nice check for his owners. The morning line price isn’t attractive but he’s a Baffert pupil and was second to the favorite last out. He’s also made just three lifetime starts, so he could have upside. Must use in exotics a bit but is no bargain at the listed price. Exotics Defensively
#4 Get Her Number Miller/Arrieta 6-1
He comes out of the Gr.2 Rebel along with everyone else in the field except for #6 Last Samurai. That was this son of Dialed In’s first start since September and he appeared to need the race. He was running ok until he was sideswiped at the eighth pole, losing all momentum and shifting back to his right lead. This colt showed ability at two and is a Grade 1 winner—American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita where he defeated Rombauer and Spielberg—two colts of some repute. He also won a maiden turf sprint first time out going five furlongs at Del Mar. Jockey Arrieta replaces Hall of Fame member Javier Castellano in the saddle but no worries, the replacement knows his way around Oaklawn. This is a runner that could improve while having a race under his belt and a clean trip. Count him firmly in exotics. Exotics
#5 Concert Tour Baffert/Rosario Even
Unbeaten in three starts, this colt appears as Bob Baffert’s best chance to win the 2021 Kentucky Derby. The son of Street Sense faces much the same group he soundly defeated in mid-March and there’s absolutely no reason to think he won’t do the same Saturday. He’s got speed, a great post position, the ability to get the distance and he’s already dominated all but one of these foes. Is he a cinch? There’s no such thing. But he’s as close to one as you’ll find. There may be some concern that he could become embroiled in a speed duel with #2 Caddo River early and that such a confrontation might open the door for a closer to take advantage. We don’t see that. #5 Concert Tour is quicker than #2 Caddo River and a better horse. If #2 Caddo River outbreaks him, #5 Concert Tour can just sit off that one and take him whenever jockey Joel Rosario decides it’s time. All considered, a victory in this race will set this colt up perfectly for a big run at the brass ring in Louisville May 1. Win Only
#6 Last Samurai Stewart/Court 15-1
Trainer Dallas Stewart is not opposed to taking a shot in graded stakes races. And he’s had some successes at huge odds. Don’t see that this is one of those occasions, but Stewart’s triumphs often are invisible just before appearing in the exacta at boxcar payoffs. This colt was 56-1 last out in the Southwest Stakes when fifth, beaten over 13 lengths over a ‘sloppy’ track. That was his first start since he beat one horse in an allowance race at Churchill in October. PASS
This really isn’t much of a betting race, but you could play around with Tris or Supers for some action. #5 Concert Tour is best. The wonder is how to stack the rest in the proper order. Two runners who could improve off previous efforts in the Gr. 2 Rebel are #1 Super Stock and #4 Get Her Number. #3 Hosier should run well again, but he got a perfect trip in the Gr. 2 Rebel and he’s a shorter price than the preceding pair. #2 Caddo River may hang around for an exotic slice, but he didn’t last time going a shorter distance and he’s probably not going to be much price.
$1 Superfecta ($12 Total)
Second: #1, #4
Third: #1, #2 #3, #4
Fourth: #1, #2, #3, #4