Originally scheduled to be run on April 11, the Oaklawn showpiece now occupies the traditional date of the Kentucky Derby, which has been transferred to September 5 this year, and has lured several high-profile three-year-olds.
It is the first time since 1960 the track’s signature event has been divided, and Baffert will field Charlatan in the first split and Nadal in the second. Both colts are unbeaten and possess huge reputations as they put their Kentucky Derby claims on the line.
Nadal is so far the more proven of the pair and his latest victory of three came at the Hot Springs venue in the $1million Rebel Stakes. Charlatan, meanwhile, is two from two and has earned eyecatching speed figures in his efforts to date, both at Santa Anita.
Baffert said: “We’re just fortunate and just grateful that they split it and we get to run them there and keep them separated. I really did not want to run them together.”
Each division of the Arkansas Derby is worth $500,000 and will award the full complement of 170 points (100-40-20-10) to the top four finishers toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby.
Charlatan has claimed success by a combined 16 lengths in his two runs, making all on both occasions. He will be ridden for the first time by Martin Garcia and has been drawn in stall one, with the Joel Roasio-ridden Nadal in five for his race.
“I hate the one hole,” Baffert told Oaklawn publicity. “I never do like it. He’s got to break. From the one hole, you’ve got to use them up a little bit harder early, just like you would if you were on the outside.
“He (Charlatan) ran a big number, so it gave him a little extra time,” Baffert said, referring to the Arkansas Derby’s new date.
“They’re both doing fantastic. I think Nadal, for some reason, he doesn’t get the respect that he should be getting. He’s a really top horse. He’s in the middle there. Last time, we were on the inside and had to get away from there and go and then we got hooked up early by American Theorem. He came to us and they went fast.
“To me, I think he showed us that day what he’s really made of. And they came to him. He had every reason to stop and he just kept going. Jimmy Barnes (Baffert’s travelling assistant) said he was really tired when he came back. I feel pretty good. He’s got to get away from there. He’s fast. Does he have to be on the lead? I don’t know if he needs to be on the lead, but from the inside he had to get involved.”
Baffert is seeking his third Arkansas Derby victory after winning the race in 2012 with Bodemeister and 2015 with eventual Triple Crown hero American Pharoah.
Charlatan’s biggest threat could come from Gouverneur Morris, whose trainer Todd Pletcher, has a record five Arkansas Derby victories.
The Constitution colt was last seen finishing a creditable fourth to Tiz The Law in the Florida Derby, and Pletcher said: “He’s had three good breezes since he ran in the Florida Derby, so we’re happy with the progress he’s made.
“I thought he finished with good interest. He’s come back and done well since then, so we’re looking forward to it.”
Other runners in the first division include Anneau D’Or, second behind Storm The Court in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and Basin, who was third in the Rebel and fourth in the Oaklawn Stakes.
Nadal’s division looks the toughest, with opposition featuring Louisiana Derby hero Wells Bayou, drawn 11 and the mount of Florent Geroux.
His trainer Brad Cox said: “I would have probably preferred to have drawn down to the inside with this horse. It’s weird, this horse always draws down toward the inside, so this is going to be something different for him.
“I don’t think he’s going to be fast enough to break and clear. We’ll see how it unfolds. That will be Florent’s job. But I do know the horse is doing extremely well and he’s going to bring his ‘A’ race. But, once again, I don’t think he’s going to get the trip that he got in the Louisiana Derby. But I do know that he can get the distance and if he runs his race, he’s going to be a factor in the end.”
Storm The Court is seeking his first victory since his front-running triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which secured an Eclipse Award as the champion two-year-old male.
Storm The Court, who will be making his first start outside California, finished fourth behind Nadal in the San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita in February and third behind Authentic, another unbeaten Baffert trainee, in the San Felipe Stakes, also at at Santa Anita, in March.
Trainer Peter Eurton said: “He’s got natural speed and he doesn’t have to be on the lead, which I don’t think he’s going to be. But he generally breaks pretty good and we’ll let him run out of there and see how it unfolds.”
King Guillermo is another threat to Nadal, coming off a surprise success in the Tampa Bay Derby for trainer Juan Carlos Avila and owner Victor Martinez, a five-time MLB All-Star.
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