Derby the biggest part of Oaklawn’s big show

Jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. (above) will ride Mystik Dan, who sits at 5-2 on the morning line, in today’s Grade I $1.5 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs.
(AP/Kichiro Sato)
Jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. (above) will ride Mystik Dan, who sits at 5-2 on the morning line, in today’s Grade I $1.5 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs. (AP/Kichiro Sato)

HOT SPRINGS -- Three stakes races today at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort have combined purses totaling $1.5 million. The signature race today, and of the meeting, is worth that alone.

Is it any wonder why the Arkansas Derby brings attention to Hot Springs unlike any attraction?

The $1.5 million Grade I Arkansas Derby, a 1 1/8-mile event that is a major steppingstone to the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, is today's 12th race on Oaklawn's 13-race card. Post time is scheduled for 6:47 p.m.

In addition to the Arkansas Derby, there are three other stakes races on the program -- the $750,000 Grade II Fantasy for 3-year-old fillies, the $500,000 Grade III Oaklawn Mile for older horses and the $250,000 Matron for older fillies and mares.

The Arkansas Derby could award as many as 200 points to its top five eligible finishers (100-50-25-15-10, respectively) for the Kentucky Derby on May 4 at Churchill Downs at Louisville, Ky.

Mystik Dan, which is at 5-2 on the morning line odds and is slated to start from the No. 9 gate in the Arkansas Derby, collected 20 points for a dazzling eight-length victory in his last start, the $800,000 Grade III Southwest Stakes on Feb. 3 at Oaklawn. Trained by Kenny McPeek, Mystik Dan generated the second-highest Beyer Speed Figure for a 3-year-old in 2024 with that performance.

But was it the product of a muddy track and/or an off-the-pace, ground-saving ride by jockey Brian Hernandez Jr.?

"That's kind of the unknown, the sloppy track that day," Hernandez said. "But, I mean, he's a horse that we've liked all along. We've always thought a lot of him and he went ahead and proved it in the Southwest.

"The nice thing about him is he's so tactical. He's naturally fast, but now he's kind of learning his lessons. We got him to settle the other day. He sat midpack and kind of cruised along and finished it off well."

A son of two-time Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Goldencents, Mystik Dan had been based at the Fair Grounds for McPeek since frigid temperatures forced Oaklawn to cancel 11 days of training (Jan. 13-23). The Southwest was Oaklawn's second Kentucky Derby points race.

McPeek passed on Oaklawn's $1.25 million Grade II Rebel Stakes Feb. 24 and opted to train Mytik Dan for the Arkansas Derby. Mystik Dan finished fifth in Oaklawn's first Kentucky Derby points race, the $300,000 Smarty Jones Stakes on Jan. 1.

Although the Southwest was run over a muddy track, McPeek noted that Mystik Dan received a 96 Beyer Speed Figure for his front-running 7 3/4-length maiden special weight victory Nov. 12 at Churchill Downs. The 5 1/2-furlong race was contested over a fast surface.

"He's a fast horse -- period," McPeek said. "He did that on a dry track. That didn't have anything to do with the mud. Spaced him a lot. Skipped the Rebel. He's had plenty of time in between. One bad thing is all of our eggs are in this basket to get points. But if he's good enough, he'll get there."

The Kentucky Derby is limited to 20 starters. Mystik Dan has 21 points currently to rank 20th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard compiled by Churchill Downs.

Conversely, Timberlake (66 points) ranks fifth on the latest Kentucky Derby leaderboard after winning the Rebel in his 3-year-old debut. It was trainer Brad Cox's seventh victory in Oaklawn's past 15 Kentucky Derby qualifying races.

Cox is seeking a record third consecutive victory in Oaklawn's Arkansas Derby after winning the race in 2022 with Cyberknife and again last year with Angel of Empire.

"[Going] to have a deeper field for the Arkansas Derby," Cox said. "We're excited about giving him the opportunity there. We'll see what happens. Hope he continues his march to the Kentucky Derby after that."

Muth, the 8-5 program favorite, is running for style points, owing to trainer Bob Baffert's suspension from Churchill Downs after Medina Spirit, his 2021 Kentucky Derby winner, was disqualified for a medication violation.

Muth was a finalist for an Eclipse Award as the county's champion 2-year-old male after compiling a 2-2-0 mark from four starts. The son of champion Good Magic, unraced outside California, recorded his biggest career victory to date in the $300,000 Grade I American Pharoah Stakes Oct. 7 at Santa Anita. Muth closed 2023 with a runner-up finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Bob Wisener of the Sentinel-Record and Robert Yates of Oaklawn media relations contributed to this report

At a glance


WHAT Grade I race and Kentucky Derby qualifier

WHEN 6:47 p.m. today (12th of 13 races on card)

WHERE Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, Hot Springs

LENGTH 1 1/8 miles

PURSE $1.5 million

TV Fox Sports 2 (part of "America's Day at the Races" coverage)

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