The Oaklawn Stakes – its inaugural edition last year was known as the Oaklawn Invitational – will offer an automatic spot in the $750,000 Arkansas Derby (G1) May 2 to the top three finishers.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s Thousand Words is the 5-2 program favorite for the Oaklawn Stakes, which lured a field of 13, including Grade 1 winner Basin.
With two unbeaten horses ticketed for Oaklawn’s closing-day feature, Nadal and Charlatan, Baffert said Saturday’s race is a chance for Thousand Words, a multiple graded stakes winner, to hit the reset button after he finished 11 ¼ lengths behind unbeaten stablemate Authentic in the San Felipe, a major 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Derby prep race.
Baffert didn’t need a thousand words to summarize Thousand Words’ performance in his last start, a dull fourth-place finish in the $400,000 San Felipe Stakes (G2) March 7 at Santa Anita that marked the first career defeat for the $1 million yearling purchase.
Thousand Words, Baffert said, simply didn’t show up. “I was really disappointed with his race,” Baffert said. “He’s a much better horse than that.”
Making his first start outside California, Thousand Words had been scheduled to run in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby (G1) last Saturday at Santa Anita before the track was temporarily closed due to the Covid-19 crisis. Oaklawn, in response to the Covid-19 situation, flipped the dates of the Arkansas Derby and Oaklawn Stakes.
“This race came up and that’s the reason he’s there,” Baffert said. “It’s a mile and an eighth and I think that will be better suited for him. He’s a horse that I think last time was just a little rank, a little fresh. He was rank early. He’s usually a horse that settles pretty well and comes running. Hopefully, he can save ground and find a seam and come running. I really think the distance will help him.”
Thousand Words recorded three works at Santa Anita leading up to the Oaklawn Stakes, the last a 6-furlong bullet (1:12.40) April 4. Joe Talamo, who topped the Oaklawn jockey standings through Thursday, is scheduled to ride Thousand Words for the first time. Thousand Words drew post 4 and is to carry equal top weight of 124 pounds. Thousand Words, a son of Pioneerof the Nile, had been 3 for 3 before the San Felipe.
“I think he’s a really good horse,” said Baffert, who trains Thousand Words for Albaugh Family Stables LLC and Spendthrift Farm LLC. “We’ll find out more about him here.”
The Baffert colt will have a chance to redeem himself in the $200,000 Oaklawn Stakes for 3-year-olds Saturday at Oaklawn, a 1 1/8-mile event that headlines a 12-race program. Action begins at 12:35 p.m. (Central), with probable post time for the Oaklawn Stakes, race 11, 5:48 p.m.
Basin is the early 7-2 second choice for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. Basin won the $350,000 Hopeful Stakes (G1) Sept. 2 at Saratoga and was beaten 7 ¾ lengths by Nadal in his 2020 debut, the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) March 14. Baffert has won the Rebel, traditionally the final major local prep for the Arkansas Derby, a record seven times, all since 2010.
Farmington Road (6-1) will be racing blinkers for the first time for trainer Todd Pletcher, who has a record five Arkansas Derby victories. Farmington Road exits a closing fourth in a division of the split $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (G2) at 1 1/8 miles Feb. 15 at Fair Grounds. Farmington Road was entered in the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) March 21 at Fair Grounds, but didn’t draw in from the also-eligible list.
“He definitely seems like a horse that’s looking for distance,” Pletcher said. “Would love to have an honest pace to run at. He doesn’t have a lot of early speed. Putting blinkers on him too, hopefully, get him a little more focused, a little more involved early. They kind of crawled in front of him in the Risen Star, but he still closed well and we’re hoping that we get an honest pace to run at. That will help.”
Trainer Bret Calhoun has two entrants, Digital and Mr. Big News, who are also both unraced since the split Risen Star. Digital (8-1) finished fifth, just behind Farmington Road, in one division. Mr. Big News was fifth in the other division.
“I think Digital’s doing much better now than he was then,” Calhoun said. “I originally had a different plan for Digital. We just felt like he’s a really good horse and would excel at a mile, or maybe a little shorter, seven-eighths, mile, mile and a sixteenth. I had him slotted for an allowance race at Keeneland and then going to the Pat Day Mile. I just think everybody’s had their plans changed significantly, so here we are. If I had a spot going shorter, I would probably try it. Fact of the matter is the horse is doing very, very well and is probably better than he’s ever been. I just preferred shorter distances, but this is where we are and I expect him to run well.”
Like Farmington Road, Mr. Big News was on the also-eligible list for the Louisiana Derby and failed to draw into the 1 3/16-mile race.
“He was so ready and I thought the track would suit his style,” Calhoun said. “I thought the (1 3/16 miles) would help him a lot and the long stretch would help him, so obviously we were disappointed he didn’t get to run. Moving forward, this was the next spot at a mile and an eighth, so here we are. We wanted to give this horse an opportunity and see where we are.”
Robertino Diodoro, Oaklawn’s leading trainer this year, will send out Sir Rick for his local debut. Sir Rick (2 for 2 this year) was entered in the $700,000 Sunland Derby (G3) March 22 at Sunland Park before racing there was suspended in mid-March. Sir Rick hasn’t started since winning the $100,000 Mind That Bird Stakes, a major Sunland Derby prep, Feb. 23 at Sunland Park.
“I think the horse has stepped it up a few notches since his race,” Diodoro said. “Has he stepped it up enough to win on Saturday? That’s to be determined. But I know he’s had a couple of really good works over the track. Training awesome.”
Gold Street, also trained by Asmussen, won the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 24, Oaklawn’s first of four Kentucky Derby points races. Sir Rick began his racing career with Asmussen before owner Richard L. Davis moved the son of Paynter to Diodoro earlier this year.
The Oaklawn Stakes Field
[PP] Horse, Jockey, Weight, MLO
 Basin, Florent Geroux, 124, 7-2
 Coach Bahe, Santo Sanjur, Phil Bauer, 118, 20-1
 Mr. Big News, Gabriel Saez, 118, 30-1
 Thousand Words, Joe Talamo, 124, 5-2
 Sir Rick, David Cohen, 124, 15-1
 Shoplifted, Ricardo Santana Jr., 124, 10-1
 Flap Jack, Adam Beschizza, 124, 20-1
 Taishan, Joel Rosario, 121, 8-1
 Digital, Brian Hernandez Jr., 118, 8-1
 Something Natural, Fernando De La Cruz, 121, 20-1
 Background, Joe Rocco Jr., 118, 12-1
 Farmington Road, Martin Garcia, 118, 6-1
 Gold Street, Tyler Baze, 124, 20-1
Edited Press Release
Photo: Thousand Words and jockey Flavien Prat prevail in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita, giving trainer Bob Baffert his 3,000th career win.Credit: Benoit Photo via Associated Press