By Dick Jerardi
There were no spectators. No roses. No “My Old Kentucky Home.’’
But, for one glorious afternoon and early evening, on this first Saturday of May, Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. became America’s track, racing fans, serious and casual, gathering around their televisions to celebrate Derby Day.
The record handle for Arkansas Derby Day, with 60,000 fans, was $19 million. This year, with no fans, but with bettors staring at computer screens and punching in bets around the country, the handle was $40 million. The players were ready to fire on Derby Day, even without “the’’ Derby.
It was not like being at Churchill Downs in Louisville, but there was still a connection. I’ve been to the Derby 33 times, once as a fan and 32 times to cover it. The day and the race never disappoint. Don’t know what it will be like in September, if huge crowds are a thing by then. We can hope.
Meanwhile, I was dazzled watching the races at the track Smarty Jones put on the national map. I was especially dazzled by what the man who has won more Triple Crown races than any trainer put on the track as afternoon was turning to evening.
There had been so few major 3-year-old preps that 22 horses were entered for the Arkansas Derby so the race was split into divisions for the first time since 1960. And that man, Bob Baffert, had the favorite in each division. Both entered the gate unbeaten. Each remains unbeaten. It was the Baffert-Baffert sweep with Charlatan and Nadal and neither race was ever in doubt.
Charlatan is just raw speed. In three starts, he has not been behind a horse at any stage. After blowing away the Arkansas Derby by 6 lengths, Charlatan has now won his races by a combined 22 lengths. That is domination.
It is true Charlatan was slowing down in the final eighth, but it really didn’t matter as he had already run the competition into a state of exhaustion.
Baffert has been trying to teach Charlatan to relax in his morning workouts. The lessons are not taking yet. The colt just desires to go so Baffert instructed jockey Martin Garcia to ride him like he was on Bayern, the colt that set the Parx 9-furlong record when he won the 2014 Pennsylvania Derby on the lead.
Nadal was just as impressive as Charlatan. His second division win came against a much stronger field that included the winners of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Tampa Bay Derby and Louisiana Derby.
Unlike Charlatan, Nadal, who is certainly fast, is not speed crazy. Baffert has been teaching him to rate in his workouts. Nadal clearly has learned his lessons. The colt stayed just off a solid pace, took a real challenge from King Guillermo in the stretch and stormed home a 3-length winner.
So that’s 7-for-7 for Charlatan and Nadal, but a 4-month wait for the Derby. Baffert would have liked to run the Derby on Saturday. Clearly, his horses were ready and so were we.
But he will have to wait as will we. Meanwhile, the good feelings from Arkansas Derby Day remain.