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Noble's Promise will have to outrun his pedigree to win the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby on Saturday at Oaklawn Park. The race will be his first start at 1 1/8 miles, which many consider a distance that determines who might be effective in next month's Kentucky Derby.
Noble's Promise is a top prospect for the 1 1/4-mile classic because of a record that includes a win in at Oaklawn last month.
Despite the resume, it's difficult to overlook that Noble's Promise is by Cuvee and out of a mare by Clever Trick. It is a pedigree that screams sprinter. Cuvee's wins came at distances of 4 1/2 furlongs to a mile, all at one turn. Clever Trick, meanwhile, registered the bulk of his 18 wins in sprints.
Still, Noble's Promise has never been beaten by more than three-quarters of a length in a two-turn start, and has made four of them, winning one, the Breeders' Futurity. It is a record that quells some concerns about his pedigree heading into the Arkansas Derby.
"I'm not worried about the distance with him," said Ken McPeek, who trains Noble's Promise for Chasing Dreams Racing. "I think we've had a couple of times where maybe the move was a notch too soon. But the horse is very rateable. He's easy to handle. I don't think the distance is going to be a major deal. I think it's more of the timing of the ride."
Making his season debut in the Rebel on March 13, Noble's Promise put in a sustained run over 1 1/16 miles, impressing Robby Albarado, who rode Noble's Promise for the first time.
"His performance the other day - first time on the dirt - he was pressed at the half-mile pole, so he made a really long run," Albarado said. "And they came home fast, and they distanced themselves from the third-place horse, Dublin, and he's a nice horse, too. I like this horse. I like him a lot."
Noble's Promise earned a career-best Beyer Figure of 98 in the Rebel. He has one other key quality going for him Saturday.
"He's got gear on top of gear on top of gear, and that's what you need to be a top horse," McPeek said.
Noble's Promise could go favored in the Arkansas Derby, and he fits the profile of horses who have had success in the race since the purse was boosted to $1 million in 2004.
For starters, none of the winners had run 1 1/8 miles before the Arkansas Derby. And four of them, like Noble's Promise, had their final prep in the Rebel. In addition, all of the recent winners had natural speed, as does Noble's Promise.
Smarty Jones took the Arkansas Derby in front-running fashion in 2004 and was followed into the history books by Afleet Alex, Lawyer Ron, Curlin, Gayego, and Papa Clem.
It has taken a triple-digit Beyer Figure to win five of the last six runnings of the Arkansas Derby. The high Beyer was a 109, by Smarty Jones; Lawyer Ron won the race with a 98 in 2006. Last year, Papa Clem tracked the pace in second and went on to win with a Beyer of 101.
Albarado is another plus for Noble's Promise; he won the race in 2007 with Curlin.
KEY WORK FOR DUBLIN
Kentucky Derby prospect Dublin has trained all winter at Oaklawn and turned in his best work of the season March 27. He breezed six furlongs in a deceptive 1:11.60, a work his trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, said was his most serious for the Arkansas Derby.
Terry Thompson, who will ride Dublin on Saturday, was aboard for the drill, which came in company. Dublin broke off about three lengths behind two workmates, moved between them at the three-eighths pole, then left them in the stretch to finish more than five lengths clear at the wire.
"That was his best work since I've been on him," said Thompson, who since last fall has regularly worked Dublin. "The way he did that, by far it was his best work."
Lukas said he was thrilled with the work, particularly the way Dublin relaxed behind horses the first part of the drill. Thompson and he believe Dublin, a son of 2005 Arkansas Derby winner Afleet Alex, will like the added distance Saturday.
ON TO DELAWARE PARK
Many horses with Oaklawn form will race at the upcoming meet at Delaware Park. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas said he is sending a division to the track for the first time in his career and also will have runners at Churchill Downs.
Trainer Bret Calhoun will also head to Delaware after the meet closes here Saturday. Calhoun said he plans to have a larger contingent of horses at the track this year than he did a few seasons ago, when he tested the waters with a small string. Trainers Brad Cox, Steve Hobby, and Mac Robertson will also be new faces at Delaware.
Pat Pope is the racing secretary at Delaware and Oaklawn. For some horsemen, the appeal of Delaware is keeping horses on a dirt surface. For others, the track's proximity to several racing jurisdictions makes for more options. And still others like the duration of the season in Delaware.
"It's a long meet," Lukas said. "It's getting so expensive to set up these barns and get your people in place, and we can go up there and start in May and go all the way to November and then come right back here. And the condition book fits us very well."
Among those who have long been Oaklawn-Delaware regulars are trainers Cindy Jones and Tim Ritchey.
Jockey Terry Thompson, who is the leading rider at Oaklawn, said after this meet he was leaning toward moving his tack to Delaware. His other option, he said, is to return to Prairie Meadows.
Zenyatta was to run here Friday in the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom in what was sure to be one of the most memorable races of the meet. Other highlights of the season included Lookin At Lucky overcoming trouble to rerally and win the Rebel, and Blind Luck closing like a locomotive to win on April 2 in her final prep for the Kentucky Oaks.
HORSES TO WATCH
Trainer: Steve Asmussen
Last race: April 1, 9th
Finish: 1st by 10 3/4
He overwhelmed his competition in a first-level allowance sprint, when he won the six-furlong race in a meet-best time of 1:08.56, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 106. The race was his first start against winners, and he set the pace before finishing with a flourish. Majesticperfection, a 4-year-old son of Harlan's Holiday, would seem to have a future in the sprint stakes ranks for Padua Stables.
Trainer: Allen Milligan
Last race: April 2, 7th
Finish: 1st by 2 1/2
She cut back to one turn for the first time since winning a maiden special weight in October, and closed from last to capture an optional $65,000 claiming race with a career-best Beyer Figure of 82. Bella Diamante reeled in a sharp front-runner while in hand. The win was against quality sprinters, and remember that Bella Diamante was second to future Kentucky Oaks candidate Quiet Temper in last year's Grade 3, $500,000 Delta Princess at Delta Downs.
Trainer: Jerry Hollendorfer
Last race: April 3, 10th
Finish: 7th by 13
The Oaklawn Handicap might be something of a toss-out for runner who was making a rare dirt start after placing in consecutive graded stakes on the Pro-Ride synthetic surface at Santa Anita. He did not appear to handle the surface when the real running began. In addition, Dakota Phone was surprisingly with the pace on the turnback from 1 1/4 miles. In the past, he seems to have done his best running from a stalking position. Perhaps being on the lead here was a means to avoid kickback in his rare dirt start.