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Column: Arkansans immune to Derby fever

Arkansans immune to Derby fever

LITTLE ROCK — Inoculated with common sense, the Westrock Stable folks were immune to Derby fever.

Good for Joe Ford and son Scott. Some thoroughbred owners get so wrapped up in having a horse in the Kentucky Derby that they run the animal knowing he has no chance.

When Westrock’s Den’s Legacy finished off the board in the Arkansas Derby, it was touch and go whether the colt’s 20 points would be enough to secure a spot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs. But, attrition kicked in and Giant Finish qualified with a meager 10 points.

Along the way, the Fords and the people who own Southwest Stakes winner Super Ninety Nine had to make a decision. Both horses are trained by Bob Baffert who announced the no-go after consulting with the owners. Early this week, Baffert also removed Govenor Charlie and Code West from consideration, leaving the three-time winner of the Derby without a horse in the race.

Scott Ford was honest in his assessment of Den’s Legacy, who finished second twice and third once in stakes races in California and was third in the Rebel at Oaklawn. “If we thought he could hit the board (in the Derby), we would have given him a shot,” he said this week. “We figured middle of the pack at that distance on dirt.”

In the 1 1-8-mile Arkansas Derby, Den’s Legacy was in the hunt in the stretch, but faltered. Today’s race is an additional 220 yards.

Ford believes Den’s Legacy “should be a great middle-distance turf horse,” which makes his performances on dirt even more surprising. The road to the Triple Crown races is a meat grinder, he said, and “We bought him for the longer term.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the owners of Giant Finish and Titletown Five. Giant Finish was absent from Derby speculation to the point that Churchill Downs announced Fear The Kitten, with six points, would be in the race. After being contacted by owners of Giant Finish, Churchill dumped Fear The Kitten and inserted Giant Finish.

Trainer Tony Dutrow did not make the decision, going out of his way to say he had been preparing Giant Finish for an allowance race in New York and underlined his role as employee when he said, he “has agreed to support my owners’ decision to run in the Kentucky Derby.”

Owned by Paul Hornung and others connected with the Green Bay Packers, Titletown Five ran Saturday night in the Derby Trial at Churchill. Prior to the race, trainer D. Wayne Lukas indicated that the owners had already decided that if Titletown Five won the Trial, worth 20 points, he would run in the Derby. The colt finished fourth.

Asked his opinion of the Derby, Ford called it wide open and said that if Westrock had a runner in the race, he would fear Florida Derby winner Orb.

Agreed on both counts.

Solid arguments can be made for at least a half-dozen runners who won major prep races in their last start, but that’s too easy and a $2 player is always looking for a longshot to include in an exacta. In this case, endorsement of Itsmyluckyday is a vote for experience and his Arkansas connections.

The son of 2006 Arkansas Derby winner Lawyer Ron has run 10 races — the combined total of Verrazano and Goldencents, the second and third choices on the morning line. He ran seven times at 2, an old-fashioned approach to the Derby. More than a half-dozen of the Derby runners competed three times or less at 2 and unbeaten Verrazano did not race in 2012.

Favored in the Florida Derby, Itsmyluckyday finished second to Orb — a result excused because of a two-month layoff — so he will be included in a $1 exacta box with Orb and Revolutionary.

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Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.

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