04/12/2015 10:46AM

Road to the Derby analysis: Arkansas Derby

Coady Photography
American Pharoah wins the Arkansas Derby by eight lengths Saturday at Oaklawn Park.

Grade 1, $1 million, Arkansas Derby, 1 1/8 miles, Oaklawn Park, April 11, 2015
(100 Derby qualifying points for a win, 40 for second, 20 for third, 10 for fourth)

Winner: American Pharoah
Trainer: Bob Baffert
Jockey: Victor Espinoza
Owner: Zayat Stables, LLC
Beyer Speed Figure: 105

AMERICAN PHAROAH solidified his position as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby on May 2 with this laughably easy win, his fourth straight since a debut loss that has become an outlier in an otherwise brilliant, flawless career.

This was his third victory in a race with points offered toward a Kentucky Derby berth. Back in September, American Pharoah won the FrontRunner Stakes to become the favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, a race he ultimately was forced to miss.

He returned off a lengthy layoff and splashed to victory in the Rebel, after which I opined that he would move forward off that race owing to the tight schedule he had been under to make the Rebel. Back at Santa Anita in the weeks between the Rebel and Arkansas Derby, American Pharoah trained sensationally, with enthusiastic gallops and dazzling workouts that indicated he was continuing to do even better. Then he went out and ran like he had trained, coasting home under jockey Victor Espinoza, who won last year’s Derby on California Chrome.

In the Arkansas Derby, American Pharoah went into the first turn outside the longshot BRIDGET’S BIG LUVY, who was intent on the lead. This afforded American Pharoah the chance to sit off a target. He was about 2 1/2 lengths behind the leader entering the backstretch, then moved up to engage Bridget’s Big Luvy on the far turn as MR. Z ranged up three paths wide.

American Pharoah hit the front near the quarter pole, and his ears went straight up, a sign he was going well within himself. He cruised through the lane under merely a hand ride from Espinoza, who never even drew his whip. With about 50 yards to go, Espinoza started to ease up on American Pharoah, who crossed the wire in 1:48.52 for 1 1/8 miles.

The time was a bit slower than that turned in by the older horse Race Day when winning the Oaklawn Handicap earlier in the day in 1:47.93. Race Day’s fractions were 46.71 for a half-mile and 1:10.51 for six furlongs. American Pharoah, based on how far he was behind Bridget’s Big Luvy at those points of call, ran his first half in approximately 46.50 seconds and his first six furlongs in about 1:10.70.

This was a dominant performance, and a fairly easy one at that, which should leave American Pharoah in position for another big effort three weeks hence. His trainer, Bob Baffert, is sitting with a strong hand as he also trains the unbeaten Dortmund, as well as One Lucky Dane, the 1-2 finishers from the Santa Anita Derby.

:: ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays

FAR RIGHT, who ran on for second, trailed the eight-horse field early, began to rally with three furlongs remaining, was in the two path much of the far turn before being fanned to the four path entering the stretch, was guided to the middle of the track, and closed with interest while never getting near the winner. He picked up 40 points and secured a spot in the Derby field.

Mr. Z held on for third, and though this was his 11th straight loss since a debut win last June, he picked up enough points to get a spot in the Derby field, which would give his owners, Zayat Stables, three runners, along with American Pharoah and El Kabeir. Mr. Z, who stirred a bit in the gate – apparently in reaction to the fractiousness of Bridget’s Big Luvy – broke a bit to the outside at the start, was inside rivals in third heading into the first turn, then was guided outside American Pharoah while going around the first turn. He made a nice run around the far turn while three paths wide to get to the hip of American Pharoah with a quarter-mile to go, but like every other horse in here, watched American Pharoah sail off into the sunset. Mr. Z drifted out through the final furlong and surrendered second in the closing yards to Far Right.

MADEFROMLUCKY, who finished fourth, was bumped at the start but ended up in a gorgeous spot heading around the first turn in fourth, with no one near him. He was asked to try to keep up when THE TRUTH OR ELSE passed him along the rail while going down the backstretch, could not keep pace on the far turn, fell back as though he might finish far back, but steadily kept to his task while one-paced and passed some tired rivals in the lane.

BOLD CONQUEST, who finished fifth, had no early speed after being jostled between horses leaving the gate and was in front of only Far Right heading into the first turn. He was outrun heading into the far turn and fell back to last, made a decent run along the rail in upper stretch, but failed to sustain enough momentum to get a better placing.

WIN THE SPACE, who was sixth, started from the outside post and was three paths wide entering the first turn, was forced to remain wide down the backstretch and ended up three to four lanes wide on the far turn, made a good run to get within hailing distance of the leaders nearing the quarter pole, was then pushed wider still by The Truth Or Else, but hung in there as best he could. Considering how overmatched he looked on paper, to only miss second by 2 1/2 lengths after a wide trip wasn’t a bad performance at all by him, but it also indicts the runners who wound up second through fifth.

The Truth Or Else, who finished seventh, broke a step slow, saved ground near the back of the pack on the first turn, made a sustained, mid-race move down the backstretch to advance as far as third with three furlongs to go, then began to tire, drifted out with a quarter-mile remaining to bump Win the Space, and retreated. He must be a tough horse to ride because this isn’t the first time he’s made that odd, mid-race move. That run might be served best as a late-running sprinter.

Bridget’s Big Luvy was fractious in the gate before the start, broke to his outside, and then took a bump from Mr. Z from his inside, but was intent on getting to the front, and did so before reaching the wire for the first time, took the bit aggressively to lead American Pharoah around the turn and into the backstretch, began to tire while still leading with three furlongs to go, came under an aggressive ride midway on the far turn, but had nothing to offer and faded.