04/10/2012 1:47PM

Oaklawn Park: Court targets first Arkansas Derby three-peat

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Oaklawn Park/Coady Photography
Jockey Jon Court celebrates his second straight Arkansas Derby victory aboard Archarcharch last year.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – There has been one constant in the Arkansas Derby the last two years – Jon Court.

Court rode Line of David to victory in 2010 and last year won aboard Archarcharch. On Saturday, Court will be out to win an unprecedented third consecutive running of Oaklawn Park’s richest race when he teams with the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Optimizer.

“I love my chances,” said Court, 51. “I love the way the horse is training.”

Court teamed with Optimizer for the first time in last month’s Grade 2, $500,000 Rebel, and the horse came rolling for second, beaten three-quarters of a length by favorite Secret Circle at 27-1. In the interim, Optimizer has turned in two strong works for the Arkansas Derby, a 1 1/8-mile race that dropped to 10 probables on Tuesday after trainer Doug O’Neill said Handsome Mike would pass because his “energy level wasn’t where we wanted.”

O’Neill said Handsome Mike would be pointed to the Grade 2, $200,000 American Turf at Churchill Downs on May 4. Also on Tuesday, Bodemeister and Secret Circle flew in from California for the Arkansas Derby.

Court is one of just three riders in the 75-year history of the Arkansas Derby to have won back-to-back runnings of the race. Pat Day did so in 1986-87, with Rampage and Demons Begone, and Garrett Gomez accomplished the same in 1994-95 with Concern and Dazzling Falls. But no rider can claim three straight Arkansas Derby wins.

[MORE: Dan Illman's "Under the Radar" profile of Optimizer]

“I’d love the record, and to have it late in my career, I’d be very fortunate,” Court said. “A lot of people stigmatize older riders. But I’m very athletic and I feel stronger now as a rider, and I’m far more seasoned than I ever was. I’m very confident.”

It is for many of those reasons that Lukas said he wanted Court to ride Optimizer, the third-place finisher in last year’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity who races for the Kentucky-based Bluegrass Hall operation of Brad Kelly.

“The thing with Jon is, this horse is still learning, so as a trainer, you don’t want to team him up with someone else who’s learning,” Lukas said. “It’s enough that the horse is trying to find himself without us schooling a jockey.

“Jon’s been there, done that, so to speak. He has that experience. I wanted a seasoned rider, and that’s why I chose Jon.”

Court, who returned to Oaklawn in 2009 after being based in Southern California, registered his first Grade 1 win since the 2007 Citation at Hollywood Park in the 2010 Arkansas Derby. The race was his first aboard Line of David, but Court was closely involved with development of his 2011 winner, Archarcharch, who was trained by his father-in-law, Jinks Fires. Court has been working Optimizer up to the Arkansas Derby.

“He has progressed forward in his education and his training,” Court said. “A lot of 3-year-olds don’t have the dialed-in experience it’s assumed they have. We’re always looking forward to them stepping up in their progress, and that’s just what he’s doing now.”

Lukas, who won the Arkansas Derby in 1984 with the filly Althea and in 1985 with Tank’s Prospect, feels the same way about Optimizer.

“I think that he’s developed mentally,” Lukas said. “Again, we’ll have to see it. You have to keep proving it in this game. But I think he’s developed enough mentally that we should see a more professional horse in the Arkansas Derby.

“I think he’s getting his lead changes better. He’s more focused on the horse up in front of him, going after him, getting into it. I think he’s getting the idea that we’re going to lay it down and run.”

If Optimizer does, Court could make Arkansas Derby history on Saturday.

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