04/12/2012 1:24PM

Arkansas Derby: Baffert holds strong pair in Bodemeister, Secret Circle

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Oaklawn Park/Coady Photography
Secret Circle, with Rafael Bejarano riding, wins the Rebel as a follow-up to his Southwest victory at Oaklawn.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Secret Circle has developed into one of the nation’s top Kentucky Derby prospects without a lot of fanfare. Even though he will be going for a sweep of Oaklawn Park’s series for 3-year-olds on Saturday in the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby, it is a stablemate of his, Bodemeister, who has been grabbing a good deal of attention after being made the morning-line favorite for the race.

Both horses are trained by Bob Baffert, who has been on an incredible stakes streak the last two months at Oaklawn. He has won four graded races from five local starters through Thursday, and in Secret Circle and Bodemeister has the favorites for the biggest race of the meet.

The Arkansas Derby closes out the Oaklawn season. And this year, it will also anchor the track’s richest day ever after officials moved the Grade 2, $400,000 Oaklawn Handicap – a showdown between recent Grade 1 winners Hymn Book and Ron the Greek – and the Grade 3, $250,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap – led by Apriority – to the season’s final card. Along with the $100,000 Northern Spur that drew Drill, the four stakes Saturday are worth a combined $1,750,000.

The Arkansas Derby, at 1 1/8 miles, drew 11 horses, including Isn’t He Clever, the runner-up in the Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Derby who will remove blinkers; Sabercat, winner of last year’s Grade 3, $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot; Atigun, who will be first-time Lasix; and Optimizer and Najjaar, a pair of emerging runners based at Oaklawn.

[ARKANSAS DERBY: Get PPs and handicapping analysis on Saturday's Oaklawn card]

But most of the focus will be on Bodemeister and Secret Circle, whose running styles complement each other Saturday. Bodemeister will break from post 11 under Mike Smith, while Secret Circle will start from gate 5 under Rafael Bejarano.

“Bodemeister is probably the speed of the race, he’s a speed horse,” said Baffert. “Secret Circle, he’s proven he likes something to run at.”

Secret Circle’s ability to get a mile was in question back in February, when he first shipped in from Southern California for a division of the Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest Stakes. But he passed the two-turn test by putting up one of the division’s best Beyer Speed Figures, a 102. Secret Circle then returned to Oaklawn for the Grade 2, $500,000 Rebel on March 17 and conquered 1 1/16 miles, while giving seven pounds to runner-up Optimizer. With an Arkansas Derby win, Secret Circle would join Lawyer Ron in 2006, Smarty Jones (2004), Demons Begone (1987), Bold Ego (1981), and Promised City (1975), as horses who have swept Oaklawn’s 3-year-old series.

“Rarely would you ship a horse three times like that,” said Baffert. “Usually a horse has trouble handling it. But that Secret Circle – he’s handled everything we’ve thrown at him. He’s a pretty remarkable horse.”

Secret Circle, a winner of 5 of 6 starts, including last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint, has tactical speed and could get a stalking trip behind Bodemeister, Stat, and perhaps Isn’t He Clever.

Bodemeister, who will remove blinkers for the race, finished second to leading Kentucky Derby candidate Creative Cause in the Grade 2 San Felipe at Santa Anita in his last start March 10. For the effort, Bodemeister earned his second straight Beyer Figure of 101, which is the best last-race number in the field. Saturday’s race will be Bodemeister’s fourth career start, and his first outside of California.

“It’s all new to him,” said Baffert. “He’s shipping and running, so you never know how they’re going to react to that. We’re going to find out a lot about him. But he’s been training well. He looks great. I expect him to run a big race.”

Bodemeister, who only has $60,000 in graded earnings, will need to finish second or better in the Arkansas Derby to have a chance to get into the Kentucky Derby field if the race overfills.

If the pace is strong, the Arkansas Derby could setup for any number of late-runners, including Raconteur, a winner of 3 of his last 4 starts for trainer Todd Pletcher. In his most recent outing, the horse won for the $76,000 Private Terms at Laurel. Before that race, he was seventh in the Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct.

“He’s the kind of horse that would benefit from a hot pace in front of him,” Pletcher said. “In his last start, he settled well and really got to rolling down the lane. He just got up in the final strides. In the [Gotham], he was bounced around quite a bit. The race was not a true indication of his ability.

“He always tries, and he’s a well-bred horse suited for the distance.”

Cozzetti rallied from next to last to finish third in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby in his last start March 10.

“We tried to let him settle and make one run, and it worked out,” said trainer Dale Romans. “We’ll probably let him do the same thing, depending on the pace scenario.”

Optimizer put in a big kick when beaten just three-quarters of a length in the Rebel.

“He was flying, and we saw enough to give us hope for this one,” said trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

The Arkansas Derby will go as the 11th race on a 12-race card, with a post of 5:45 p.m. Central. It is to be shown on CNBC as part of a broadcast that will include the Blue Grass from Keeneland.

Oaklawn will open its infield Saturday in anticipation of a crowd that should exceed 50,000.

Arkansas Derby (G1), Post Time: 5:45 CT Saturday

Purse: $1,000,000; 1 1/8 miles

Post

Horse

Trainer

Jockey

ML Odds

1

Cozzetti

D. Romans

J. Lezcano

15-1

1

Stat

T. Pletcher

J. Velasquez

10-1

1

Najjaar

D. Peitz

C. Borel

15-1

1

Jake Mo

A. Milligan

M. Berry

30-1

1

Secret Circle

B. Baffert

R. Bejarano

5-2

1

Isn't He Clever

H. Dominguez

R. Albarado

6-1

1

Optimizer

D. Lukas

J. Court

6-1

1

Atigun

K. McPeek

T. Thompson

30-1

1

Sabercat

S. Asmussen

C. Nakatani

15-1

1

Raconteur

T. Pletcher

C. DeCarlo

15-1

1

Bodemiester

B. Baffert

M. Smith

9-5