November 28, 2021

Four points to ponder: 2021 Lexington Stakes, Arkansas Derby

Concert Tour pictured training at Oaklawn Park prior to the Rebel (Coady Photography)

Compared to last year’s pandemic-prolonged Road to the Kentucky Derby that stretched through the summer, this year’s trail feels like we’re on a fast track to Churchill Downs. Already the final destination is in sight, and after the last two stops on Saturday, all of the points will be in the books.

The $200,000 Lexington S. (G3) has the flavor of a “last chance saloon” worth points on the 20-8-4-2 scale, but its post time at Keeneland is a couple of hours ahead of the actual grand finale – the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1). With its bonanza of 100-40-20-10 points, the Oaklawn feature promises to have a bearing on Kentucky Derby favoritism, in addition to finalizing the field.

Free past performances courtesy of Brisnet!
Lexington PPs (5:30 p.m. ET)
Arkansas Derby PPs (7:41 p.m. ET)

Here are my points to ponder:

1. Caddo River will pull no punches.

Both times Caddo River has made the lead, he’s won in a romp. Once he was out-hustled by Concert Tour in the Rebel (G2), his best chance was gone, and he faded to fifth. Trainer Brad Cox has indicated that Caddo River will make it a point to use his early speed in the Arkansas Derby. With only 10 Derby points in his account, it’s now or never to qualify for the Run for the Roses.

It’s not exactly an original thought to say that the break is decisive. Caddo River wasn’t as quick into stride from the rail last time, and as a result, played a catch-up game that clearly didn’t suit him. If the Hard Spun colt can blast out of the gate and seize control of the race dynamic, we’ll see how far he can take it.

On the other hand, note that Caddo River is drawn toward the inside again in post 2, and again Concert Tour is stationed wider out, this time in post 5. Caddo River has yet to win from an inside gate, having finished runner-up in his first two starts from post 2. Post 5 launched him to his Churchill maiden conquest, and Caddo River broke from the outside post 7 when crushing his foes in the Smarty Jones here. Saturday will reveal if he’s learned more in the interim.

2. Concert Tour can make his case for Derby favoritism.

The concern for Caddo River, and the rest of the Rebel alumni hoping to turn the tables, is that Concert Tour was miles too good. The Bob Baffert trainee imposed his will throughout, opening up in the stretch while Joel Rosario had all the time in the world for a couple of under-the-arm peeks back at the field. And that was his two-turn debut!

Baffert actually called it an American Pharoah-style performance. A similar tour de force would stamp Concert Tour as the leading alternative to champion Essential Quality in Derby 147, or challenge him for favoritism.

If there’s a caveat, it’s the potential for a determined Caddo River and a naturally fast Concert Tour to get embroiled in a pace war over 1 1/8 miles. But Concert Tour proved an effective stalker in the San Vicente (G2). That sprint pace was several orders of magnitude quicker than he’d find here, but at least he has more options than a need-the-lead type. Rosario has flexibility to adjust as prudent aboard the son of 2007 Kentucky Derby star Street Sense.

3. Is Bezos ready to resume an accelerated program?

Baffert will go for a points race double beginning with Bezos in the Lexington. Unlike heavily favored Concert Tour in Arkansas, however, Bezos is listed at 8-1 on the morning line for a reason. After flopping as the 3-5 favorite in his Santa Anita unveiling Feb. 7, he regrouped, ditched the blinkers, stretched out to a mile, and broke his maiden by daylight March 26. But his win shaped up as more of a useful building block than a launching pad.

Of course, as a $400,000 son of Empire Maker and an A.P. Indy mare, Bezos has plenty of upside. Time is the key, though. After the relief of getting the maiden score out of the way, Baffert told Santa Anita publicity that with the Derby no longer a theoretical goal, Bezos would take his time:

“We missed the window. We were trying to get him there (the Derby trail), but he’s a beautiful horse…This was good what he did today. Going two turns, that’s gonna be his game, so he’ll develop. We’ll just let him develop on his own now. We’re not in a hurry now.”

Santa Anita press release

Now he wheels back in just 15 days. Maybe Bezos is getting good in a hurry, as his five-furlong bullet in :58.80 April 5 could portend. Or does the Lexington offer a vague parallel with his debut – i.e., pitched in to an assignment that’s a bit too much at this point?

4. Proxy and Hockey Dad might have different levels of urgency.

Proxy ranks as the 6-5 favorite on the Lexington morning line, thanks to his promising efforts through the Fair Grounds sophomore series. Had he run better than fourth to California shipper Hot Rod Charlie in the March 26 Louisiana Derby (G2), however, the Godolphin homebred wouldn’t be here.

That’s not Derby fever for a team that already has Essential Quality, and deliberately skipped Churchill with UAE Derby (G2) winner Rebel’s Romance. Rather, it’s about Proxy’s stage of development. The Tapit colt has been trying to figure things out all winter. Despite that, he’s still earned 34 points, a tally that could well be sufficient to make the field. But connections need to see more to know which direction to go. Proxy can persuade the brain trust that he’s moving forward on the Triple Crown trail, or if he underperforms, trainer Michael Stidham would likely lower his sights.

Hockey Dad, on the other hand, arguably intends to run himself out of bubble territory and into the Derby’s 20-horse field. A late nominee to the Triple Crown for two-time Derby winners Reddam Racing and Doug O’Neill, he’s a homebred son of their 2016 hero Nyquist. Hockey Dad performed creditably in his stakes debut, and first start outside of Cal-restricted company, when third in the March 26 Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) on the Turfway Park Tapeta. Those 20 points put him 25th on the leaderboard going into Saturday, and he can chart his own destiny if good enough. The slight cutback to 1 1/16 miles helps.