Oaklawn offers one last chance to secure Derby spot

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Ken McPeek pulled into the back gate at Keeneland Race Course off Rice Road in Lexington, Kentucky, halfway through the afternoon Friday, past the rows of cars and packs of fans coming to see Wise Dan. 

The conversation wasn’t about Keeneland though, but rather Oaklawn Park, where McPeek sends out Frac Daddy in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby.

The $1-million Arkansas Derby is the last chance for Frac Daddy-and for most of the field’s other nine entrants sans maybe morning-line choice Oxbow-to secure a starting spot in the Kentucky Derby in three weeks time.

The Arkansas Derby, like the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes Saturday at Keeneland, offers up 100 points to the winner, with good awards for second through fourth. Frac Daddy didn’t earn any in his first two starts this season and McPeek hopes he returns to the form he showed when the Scat Daddy colt was a close second to Uncaptured in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last November at Churchill Downs.

“I was going to lean toward running in the Illinois Derby, to try to get one of the easier spots if you can call it that,” McPeek said, about an hour before saddling Beverage Queen to a 53-to-1 upset in a maiden race at Keeneland. “Then I was talking to Carter Stewart [co-owner of Frac Daddy with Ken Schlenker] and he said ‘we’re not going to get any points in Illinois. I said I still wasn’t convinced he was a Derby horse. He said ‘do you mind giving him one more shot?’

“I worked him in company with Java’s War [morning-line second choice in the Blue Grass] and this is a good horse in his own right. Nothing has gone in his way in the last couple starts so we’ll give him one more pull. Honestly I think the racetrack played against him in his last race [the March 30 Florida Derby]. The pace kept going, the speed kept going. It was one of those things were tactically he needed to be a little closer.”

McPeek said Victor LeBron will keep Frac Daddy closer this time around, hoping for some similar magic that worked wonders for the colt’s dam’s sire back in 1996 at Keeneland.

“Physically he looks like Skip Away and I hope he’s half as good one day,” McPeek said of the 1998 Horse of the Year and 1996 Blue Grass winner. “It took him a while to get going, too, and he really turned in a great race in the Blue Grass. We’ll probably lay this colt a little closer to the pace than he’s ever been. I hope he can handle running free.”‘

There should be plenty of company up front with the likes of War Academy, Divine Ambition, Falling Sky, and Oxbow in the field.

“His race in the Kentucky Jockey Club proves he’s legitimate but he’s off form,” McPeek said. “He’s got to find another gear, but he could surprise. He’s got a lot of talent. A massive amount of talent.”

McPeek will run two other talented colts on closing day of both the Oaklawn meeting and the Racing Festival of the South when Unstoppable U and Atigun go in the Oaklawn Handicap on the undercard.

The Oaklawn Handicap, led by Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned, is one of three undercard stakes along with the Northern Spur Stakes and the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap.

McPeek will put blinkers on Atigun, hoping to get the Istan colt who tends to hang late in the proceedings. Atigun was third in both starts this season, including the Razorback Handicap, and showed that tendency as a 3-year-old last year in the Belmont, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes.

“He is a horse that won’t put them away,” McPeek said. “It looks like he’ll range up and go on by and then he’ll hang. That’s a bit frustrating. He did it in the Belmont and again in the Travers. It looked like, oh wow, if he has another gear he’ll go on. Then he didn’t. So we’ll add a set of blinkers and hope he moves to another level.”