04/14/2011 2:12PM

Arkansas Derby: The Factor likely to face more early pressure

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – The Factor has dictated the pace in all three of his dazzling victories. Whether he will be able to do so again Saturday in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby is the central question surrounding the 1 1/8-mile race that closes out the meet at Oaklawn Park.

There are reasons to believe the $1 million Arkansas Derby will unfold differently than last month’s Grade 2, $300,000 Rebel. The Factor took quick command of that race and his dominant performance made him an instant favorite for the Kentucky Derby. On Saturday, he could find the surroundings more hostile.

“I’m sure he’ll get a little bit more pressure this time,” said Bob Baffert, who trains The Factor.

A field of 13 is set for the Arkansas Derby, the meet’s centerpiece that will be supported by two other stakes for 3-year-olds, the $100,000 Northern Spur and the $100,000 Instant Racing. Temperatures are forecast for the low 70s, and the agreeable weather could help Oaklawn match the crowd of 61,531 it drew for last year’s Arkansas Derby. Those on hand could be in for a rumble. Five horses will add blinkers for the Arkansas Derby – J P’s Gusto, Sway Away, Brethren, Elite Alex, and J W Blue – and a serious new source of pace is Dance City, who comes off a mile allowance win at Gulfstream Park.

ARKANSAS DERBY: View contenders' workouts and profiles, watch past replays

“He’s kind of a free-running horse with natural speed and we’ll let him place himself forwardly,” said the horse’s trainer, Todd Pletcher. “We don’t plan to let The Factor walk the dog.”

J P’s Gusto is another who has the speed to keep The Factor in his sights. He will break from post 11.

“You’ve got to ride him away from there with that post,” said his trainer, Joe Petalino.

The start will also be key for The Factor.

“The break is so important with him,” Baffert said. “He has to break clean. I can’t really worry about the pace with him, because he is the pace. There’s nothing I can do. He’s a fast horse. I can’t slow him down.

“He has that cruising speed that is just so brilliant.”

The Factor needed just 1:06.98 to win a maiden special weight at six furlongs in December at Santa Anita in a track-record performance. He backed it up one start later in February, when he wired the field in the Grade 2 San Vicente. The Rebel in March was his two-turn debut, and he earned a 103 Beyer Speed Figure.

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Martin Garcia has the mount from post 3.

Oaklawn’s leading rider Cliff Berry will ride J P’s Gusto, who has raced farther off the pace than usual of late. As a result he will add blinkers.

“I think the blinkers have made him a little more in the game,” Petalino said of the equipment the horse wore when he breezed five furlongs in a bullet 58.60 seconds April 9.

J P’s Gusto’s was aggressive early in the work, firing off an opening eighth of a mile in 11.60 seconds. He continued the strong pace to the wire, then galloped out six furlongs in 1:11.60.

Others who could be prominent include Saratoga Red, who chased The Factor in the Rebel, and perhaps Sway Away, who was caught behind a traffic jam in the race’s first turn. If there’s a pace meltdown, the Arkansas Derby could set up for either Caleb’s Posse or Archarcharch, who ran second and third in the Rebel, or Brethren, the half-brother to last year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Super Saver.

Earlier this meet, Archarcharch closed from midpack to win the Grade 3 Southwest.

“I’m hoping to just sit off the pace a little bit and see where it falls from there,” said Jinks Fires, who trains Archarcharch. “I think the mile and an eighth will be fine for him.”

The distance could test Caleb’s Posse, winner of the $100,000 Smarty Jones at a mile in January.

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“A mile and an eighth is going to be probably right at the top, distance-wise, of what he’s going to do,” said his trainer, Donnie Von Hemel. “But if he continues to improve a little, and settles the way he has been – and you get a little help on The Factor on the front end – you’ve got a shot.”

Pletcher trains Brethren, and would like to see him relax early. The horse won the first three races of his career, then was third as the favorite last out in the Grade 2 Tampa Derby on March 12.

“The only real excuse is that he went out pretty quickly the first quarter then seemed a little lost when he made the lead,” said Pletcher, who will add blinkers to focus Brethren.

Elite Alex will also add blinkers Saturday after lagging some 15 lengths off the pace early in the Louisiana Derby. He closed well for fourth, and has since turned in one of the quickest six-furlong workouts of the meet, going in 1:11.60 in company from the gate April 6. [VIDEO: Watch Elite Alex's work »]

The Louisiana Derby gives Elite Alex the benefit of having a 1 1/8-mile race under his belt. The same can be said for Nehro, who was second by a neck in the Louisiana Derby. Both horses have been based all winter at Oaklawn. Calvin Borel will be on Elite Alex for trainer Tim Ritchey. Corey Nakatani has the mount on Nehro for trainer Steve Asmussen.

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