Arkansas Derby Review 2024: Muth Triumphs for Baffert

MuthDoubts about Muth’s stamina were silenced as he easily outstayed his nine rivals to win the $1.5 million 2024 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on March 30. He did not have to be hard ridden by Juan Fernandez to resist the late challenge of the 33/1 shot Just Steel under a more animated Keith Asmussen. He won by two lengths in a time of 1 minute 49.54 seconds.

Muth is a son of Good Magic trained by Bob Baffert for Zedan Racing Stables Inc. He was sent off as the second choice of bettors at 23/10. The Brad Cox trainee Timberlake was the Arkansas Derby favorite at 11/10 following his victory at the track in the grade 2 Rebel Stakes on February 24. He was beaten almost seven lengths into fourth. Kenny McPeek’s Mystik Dan (4/1) finished third, half a length ahead of him.

Muth and Timberlake were both trying the Arkansas Derby distance of a mile and a furlong for the first time. Muth was last seen winning the San Vicente Stakes, a grade 2 run over seven furlongs at Santa Anita on January 6. He was sent off as the 2/5 favorite and had no trouble beating his barnmate, Pilot Commander the second favorite, by almost three lengths.

Muth had posted a victory over a mile and half a furlong as a juvenile in the grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita as a juvenile. He was a $2 million purchase at the 2023 March Ocala Sale of 2-Year-Olds, bought by a bloodstock agent Donato Lanni for Amr Zedan of Zedan Racing Stables.

What happened in the race?

It was an even break as Muth exited stall seven. Time For Truth (27/1) was pushed forward from stall four by Rafael Bejarano to grab the lead. He was closely pursued by Muth as the runners from the inside gates were content to follow them. Timberlake was keen in fourth under Flavien Prat, hugging the rail.

Timberlake squeezed between Time For Truth and Muth in the back stretch to take the lead after the quarter mile was run in 23.42 seconds. Wayne Lukas’ Just Steel tracked the leading trio ahead of Steve Asmussen’s Dimatic (66/1) and his barnmate Informed Patriot (69/1). Mystik Dan was close behind them under Brian Joseph Hernandez Jr. Robert Medina’s Liberal Arts (8/1) found himself short of room and had to be reined back by Tyler Gaffalione leaving him at the back of the pack with Imperial Gun (66/1) whom he pushed wide as he retreated and Eddie Milligan Jr’s Will Take It (71/1).

There were sensible subsequent fractions of 47.46 and 1 minute 12.26 seconds. Hernandez urged Muth to take the lead approaching the final turn, running wide of Timberlake with Just Steel tracking his move. A furlong from the wire Muth gained a length lead over Timberlake in the stretch with Just Steel staying on behind him. Muth had his rivals well-beaten approaching the wire and was pushed over it with hands and heels only. Just Steel and Mystik Dan stayed on well as Timberlake weakened.

What next?

It was a bitter sweet victory for Muth’s loyal owners, Zedan Racing, as he will not be eligible to compete in the Kentucky Derby. Baffert is banned from Churchill Downs. The colt that beat Muth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Todd Pletcher’s Fierceness, romped home to a 13 and a half-length victory in the Curlin Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on the same day.

His massive winning margin broke the Florida Derby record set in 2003 by Empire Maker of nine and three-quarter lengths. His winning time of 1 minute 48.22 seconds has only been bettered twice in the past 15 years, by Always Dreaming in 2017 who clocked 1 minute 47.47 and Quality Road in 2009 who finished in 1 minute 47.72. Both colts were trained by Pletcher, Always Dreaming went on to win the Kentucky Derby. Pletcher said the track was not as fast for Fierceness as it was for Always Dreaming.

Owned and bred by Repole Stable by City Of Light out of a Stay Thirsty dam, Fierceness started as the 11/10 favorite and easily made all under John Velazquez. He never looked threatened and beat Saffie Joseph’s Catalytic, a 29/1 shot ridden by Julien Leparoux. The victory was a relief for connections as he had disappointed in the Holy Bull Stakes, a grade 3 at Gulfstream Park run over a mile and half a furlong. He started as the 1/5 favorite but finished third, beaten three and a half lengths. He was squeezed at the start and raced wide to pursue the lead giving him excuses but his quality should have enabled him to overcome them.

Pletcher has reported that Fierceness has come out of the race well. He has taken the top spot in the Kentucky Derby betting on the back of his Florida Derby performance. He is the 4/1 favorite in the Run For The Roses ahead of Sierra Leone at 6/1. They are the only two colts offered at single figure odds. Joseph’s Florida Derby runner-up is also likely to be pointed at Churchill Downs. He came into the race after winning a maiden last year and finishing second in an optional claiming allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs in early March. That resume explains his generous odds. His 50 Kentucky Derby points earned should be sufficient to guarantee his starting gate.

Victor Barboza Jr’s Grand Mo The First was a 22/1 shot in the Florida Derby and finished third, beaten 16 lengths under Emisael Jaramillo. His 25 qualifying points added to his similar placing in the grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby in March give him a total of 40 points. Barboza is also hoping his star colt will be able to contest The Run For The Roses.

The Preakness Stakes is likely to be the next target for Muth. Baffert trainees are welcome at Pimlico where the race will be run on May 18. He will have to stretch his stamina further to the distance of a mile and a half. Fierceness looks a worthy Kentucky Derby favorite in his absence.