Bob’s house: Muth delivers record 5th Arkansas Derby win for Baffert

Muth (right), ridden by jockey Juan Hernandez, finishes ahead of rival Just Steel to win the $1.5 million Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs on Saturday, March 30, 2024 in this screenshot taken from video. (Courtesy Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort)
Muth (right), ridden by jockey Juan Hernandez, finishes ahead of rival Just Steel to win the $1.5 million Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs on Saturday, March 30, 2024 in this screenshot taken from video. (Courtesy Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort)


HOT SPRINGS — Whatever his relations with Churchill Downs, Bob Baffert treats Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort as a home away from his native California.

The trainer with six Kentucky Derby winners — it was seven until now-deceased Medina Spirit flunked a drug test in 2021 — added one for the thumb, as pro athletes might say of championship rings, regarding the Arkansas Derby on Saturday.

Even if Muth turned it into a possible Preakness prep as Baffert remains suspended at Churchill Downs, site of the Kentucky Derby.

Favored Muth won the 88th running of the Grade I $1.5 million Arkansas Derby on Saturday by two lengths over Just Steel, giving Baffert five wins in Oaklawn’s premier race before an estimated crowd of 60,000.

The Good Magic colt, his champion sire turning out 2023 Kentucky Derby winner Mage, checked every box available to him: First start outside California, second Grade I victory (by two lengths over Just Steel) and fifth by a Baffert winner in a Derby prep since last fall. Muth, the Grade I American Pharoah winner in October, won for the fourth time in six starts. He finished a distant second to future champion Fierceness in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November, then wired the field in the Grade II San Vicente on Jan. 6 over seven furlongs at Santa Anita.

“Down the backside, when I saw Timberlake sneak up in there, I thought maybe he was going to control the race from there because I figured he was the horse to beat,” Baffert said. “But Muth, he’s just … the only that beat him was Fierceness and we saw what he did today [winning the Florida Derby].”

Juan Hernandez, a 26%-winning rider last year, scored his first Oaklawn stakes victory aboard the $2 million Ocala Breeders’ Sales purchase in March 2023. Zedan Racing Stables’ bay colt thus becomes a major player in the Preakness May 20, Baffert winning the middle jewel of the Triple Crown last year with National Treasure.

“My plan was to keep him a little wide, keep him by himself, because sometimes when he gets close to other horses, he gets really aggressive,” Hernandez said. “Sometimes, he wants to run too early. I broke good and then I stayed outside. He relaxed really good. I saw a couple of horses inside trying to get the lead. I said: ‘OK, go ahead.’

“Around the three-eighths [pole], I asked him to pick it up and he responded. And then around the quarter pole, I asked him for everything that he had and he showed that he has a lot of talent. He just took off again.”

Fierceness, with 100 points for winning Saturday’s Grade I Florida Derby, retakes the Kentucky Derby points lead with 166. Also bettering their Kentucky Derby hopes were the next three Arkansas Derby finishers: runner-up Just Steel (eighth with 65), show horse Mystik Dan (15th with 46) and fourth-place horse Timberlake (fifth with 81).

Muth went nine furlongs, a sixteenth-mile shorter than the Preakness, in 1:49.54 and paid $6.60, $5 and $3.80. Just Steel, with Keith Asmussen riding, completed the exacta in a third Oaklawn Derby qualifying race for trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

“We’re excited but it’s disappointing there won’t be [a Baffert horse at Kentucky],” Lukas said in reference to Baffert’s Churchill suspension. “He’s got great horses. He’s got Derby horses, but he’s going through a lot of things right now that shouldn’t be happening. But we can’t change that.”

Mystik Dan, off since winning the Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn by eight lengths in the slop Feb. 3, could not pick up the fifth Oaklawn win of the day trainer Ken McPeek.

“He got beat up a little bit in the first turn by the 5 horse [Liberal Arts],” McPeek said. “But look, third is a respectable run. I really expected him to win, but these things aren’t easy.”

Timberline, the Grade II Rebel Stakes winner on Oaklawn on Feb. 24, tried vainly to become a record third straight Arkansas Derby winner for trainer Brad Cox.

Just Steel paid $16.20 and $6.80 to place, and Mystik Dan returned $3.60 to show.

Muth joins Bodemeister (2012), American Pharoah (2015), Charlatan and Nadal (the latter two in 2020 with split divisions) as Baffert-trained Arkansas Derby winners.

“I’m just happy for everybody,” Baffert said. “It [the Arkansas Derby] is very important. It’s a very prestigious race, winning that. You know how we feel about Oaklawn.”


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