HOT SPRINGS Bodemeister pulled away for a convincing 9 ½-length victory in the Grade 1 $1 million Arkansas Derby before a crowd of 63,804 on Saturday at a warm and windy Oaklawn Park.
Bodemeister broke wide coming out of the gate, but quickly took the lead and never relinquished it, in the 76th running of the race, which is a major prep for the Kentucky Derby in May. The finish was a spectacular outcome for trainer Bob Baffert, who named the winner after his son, Bode. Baffert also trains Secret Circle, who finished a distant second in the field of 11 3-year olds.
"The key to this horse is keeping him quiet in the post parade," Baffert said. "He got really hot in his last race. It's exciting to see a young horse develop like this. I told both riders that I didn't care what they did as long as they ran one-two. I let them each run their own race. Bodemeister really ran huge. It's a great feeling to run one-two in a million dollar race."
Hall of Fame Jockey Mike Smith took Bodemeister right to the front. A number of horses were within a few lengths as they made the final turn, including Secret Circle. But Bodemeister found another gear, leaving a deflated field in the dust. He covered the 1 1/8 miles in 1.48 3/4 to claim the $600,000 purse.
"It was extremely impressive," Smith said." You could see it as well as I could feel it. I had been watching him work, watching him run. I had seen his last two works and I was very impressed. I'm just going to enjoy this right now. I don't even know if I'm going to get to ride this horse back, because I was really just kind of filling in. I'm just going to enjoy it and we'll see. We all know how much things can change this time of year before the Derby."
Bodemeister most likely needed to win the Arkansas to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, due to his low amount of graded stakes winnings. The colt had just three career starts all in California, before flying in to Hot Springs on Tuesday. After the impressive win on Saturday, Bodemeister looks to be among the favorites at Churchill Downs.
"We'll see what this took out of them and then we'll start talking (Kentucky) Derby," Baffert said. "Oaklawn is a very kind surface and the horses have been coming back great. Bodemeister should be in great shape. He ran hard and fast. We know distance won't be a problem."
Secret Circle was looking to pull off a rare triple at Oaklawn. The stablemate of Bodemeister won the Southwest Stakes on February 20 and the Rebel Stakes on March 17. Secret Circle would have joined such legendary names as Smarty Jones, Lawyer Ron and Demons Begone as horses who have swept Oaklawn's 3-year-old stakes series.
"Secret Circle ran a great race too," Baffert said. "He's shipped in there three times and ran hard each time. That's pretty impressive."
The winner paid $6.80, $4.60 and $3.60. Secret Circle, ridden by Rafael Bejarano paid $4 and $3. Sabercat, trained by Steve Asmussen who had five winners on Saturday's card, ran third, paying $4.80, with Corey Nakatani aboard. The $2 exacta paid $21.40 and the dollar trifecta paid $119.60.
Jon Court, aboard Optimizer, was looking to become the first jockey to win the Arkansas Derby three straight times, but his horse was never really a factor and finished ninth.
"A little rough leaving the gate, but my horse settled and got position," Court said. "In the late going, I didn't have as much horse as I hoped and couldn't make up much ground."