Triple Crown: Arkansas Derby picks and analysis

The Grade 1 Arkansas Derby has been a top Kentucky Derby prep for some time now, starting in 1936 and acting as the stepping stone race for notable winners Smarty Jones and American Pharoah. While recent winners at Oaklawn haven’t been living up to quite that level going into Churchill as of late, a few, including last year’s winner Angel of Empire, have fared well in the Run for the Roses. 

Brad Cox-trained Angel of Empire, who then was third in the Kentucky Derby, as well as the previous Arkansas Derby winner Cyberknife, and has entered Grade 2 Rebel Stakes winner Timberlake into this year’s Arkansas Derby with his eyes set on a three-peat. Timberlake is the 9/5 morning line second choice and appears more accomplished than every runner in this group outside of Bob Baffert’s Muth, who starts at 8/5. 

Muth is not eligible to pick up any Derby points from this race, including the 100 that go to the winner, because of Churchill’s ban of him, but other strong contenders such as Grade 3 Southwest Stakes winner Mystik Dan have plenty to gain here with a good finish. As the likely last race before Kentucky, this nine-furlong dirt route should say plenty about the Derby chances of the 10 contenders here.

Visually, the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes appeared less than impressive for Timberlake, who was clearly the most likely winner as the odds-on favorite and classiest of the bunch. Even as he drifted out a bit in the stretch and was urged on strongly by Christian Torres, Timberlake still finished that race with one of the better speed figures of the Derby preps to this point. This time, he has a few more true contenders to oppose, with Muth and Mystik Dan comparing well with similar stakes performances and speed figures in their five starts. The pace scenario doesn’t appear to be highly contested in this field, with 20/1 morning line longshot Time for Truth as the likely leader along with Muth. 

Almost all other runners have won from off the pace, with Timberlake slotting in as a stalker that should be sitting in third to fourth at the start. Coming out of the two hole makes the break important for Timberlake here, and barring a poor start, Flavien Prat should have him in position with every chance to win entering the stretch.

Muth begins as the slight morning line favorite, and despite not factoring into the points aspect of this race, may have an edge on Timberlake due to running style. He has never finished worse than second and could have an easy trip if Time for Truth doesn’t leave too quickly. If this Baffert trainee by Good Magic-Hoppa, by Uncle Mo can settle down the pace, he is most likely to win as Timberlake has yet to win a race where he wasn’t leading at the top of the stretch. Too fast a pace, and Mystik Dan factors in with a ground-saving trip if he hits the stretch close to Timberlake. 

Muth’s most recent effort was a two and three-quarter length win in the Grade II San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita going seven furlongs. Stretching out in distance to nine furlongs could be around his limit, but a win at 1 1/16 miles this October at least shows he is capable. Even with the Derby off the table, Baffert was asked about Muth’s Preakness prospects by Oaklawn publicity. 

“I don’t want to jinx him. It’s one of these things where things change overnight. We’re all starting to huddle up there, getting the groups together,” Baffert said. “What I like to do is just let the horse tell me that he’s ready to step up and do something. There’s no rush. I just nominate everywhere. Whoever’s practicing really well that week goes to that particular race. Always done it that way. He’ll tell us, he’ll tell me what he’s ready for.”

Out of the nine post as a 5/2 morning line third choice is the hit-or-miss Mystik Dan. After breaking his maiden by almost eight lengths in November, this McPeek trainee ran back-to-back fifths including the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn on New Year’s Day. He then showed similar dominance to his maiden win in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes, pulling away to win by eight going 1 1/16 miles. That race netted him 20 Derby points, meaning a top three finish here should be good enough to put him in the top 20 points earners. While the variance in finishes may mean Mystik Dan is a bit inconsistent, his best races have come from mid pack to off the pace. Returning jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. will likely have Mystik Dan near the back of the field here, meaning he would be the primary beneficiary of a quicker first quarter and half-mile. 

Outside of the top three contenders, this Arkansas Derby field appears a bit overmatched, with Liberal Arts being the only other graded stakes winner of the bunch after picking up the 10-point Grade 3 Street Sense Stakes in October. He would need to take a step forward to compete with the top runners here, as would the less-experienced Time for Truth, who ran his best going six furlongs. 

Steve Asmussen’s Dimatic, one of his three runners, started a bit too far back in the Rebel and could factor in here with a more forward trip. These runners are on the outside looking in, however, and would need a few breaks to have legitimate winning chances. This final Oaklawn prep is most likely going to Timberlake, Muth, or Mystik Dan, but if these longshots want a chance at Churchill, they will need to topple the favorites and nab their first Grade 1 victory in the process.

The Arkansas Derby is the twelfth race on Oaklawn’s Saturday card with a post time of 7:47 EDT.


1. #7 Muth (8-5) 

2. #2 Timberlake (7-5) 

3. #9 Mystik Dan (5-2) 

4. #4 Time for Truth (20-1)