HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- This must be what Christmas morning looked like for the old woman who lived in a shoe. In the mad scramble for Kentucky Derby points, War Academy has traveled halfway across the country, Overanalyze has returned from the land of the forgotten, and Divine Ambition has overflowed into the Arkansas Derby from Keeneland. But there are no brightly wrapped gifts here, waiting and beckoning beneath any of the trees at Oaklawn Park, during the famed Racing Festival of the South. And anybody trying to grab the winner's share of the million-dollar jackpot or scoop up 100 Kentucky Derby points is going to have to outrun Oxbow on Saturday.
At the penultimate minute Wednesday morning, as Oaklawn racing officials gathered in the grandstand before an anxious crowd for the drawing of post positions, Pat Pope, the track's racing secretary, received a telephone call. He already had spoken to the connections of Divine Ambition, and they had indicated that, no, they weren't going to enter their horse in the Arkansas Derby but would instead remain in Kentucky for Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. But now they changed their minds, or perhaps they only turned back their clocks to the central time zone.
The 2-1 favorite, War Academy arrived Wednesday from Santa Anita, where last month he won an allowance race. And if that doesn't exactly seem the sort of credential requisite for the favorite's role in a million-dollar race, then, well, you might want to go look at that allowance race, which was his first effort around two turns. A lightly raced but highly regarded colt from the stable of trainer Bob Baffert, War Academy rallied from more than five lengths back, running down a loose-on-the-lead stablemate with a fourth quarter-mile in 23.90 seconds. In the final sixteenth of a mile, their victory secure, jockey Mike Smith took the heavy-headed colt in hand, and they won by more than three lengths.
Overanalyze also has traveled far in pursuit of points. A multiple stakes winner as a juvenile, he began the year as one of the more prominent horses on the road to Kentucky. But his talent, a concoction of speed and stamina, bubbles to the surface intermittently. In November at Aqueduct, in his Remsen victory, he defeated Normandy Invasion in a photo, demonstrating both ability and determination. But then, in March, in his seasonal debut, Overanalyze quickly confuted the photographic evidence of the fall with a lackadaisical fifth in the Gotham.
Since arriving here Monday, however, he has made a very positive impression, suggesting he's either ready to return to the form that once argued for his prominence or else he's in disguise and searching for the mask that goes with his harlequin costume. But the worst that can be said of him is that he's an inconsistent colt, having won every other one of his starts since a victorious debut and having disappointed as the favorite twice since winning the Futurity at Belmont. The best that can be said is that he not only has the talent to get the job done but that he also could be ready to win here Saturday.
"Overanalyze seems to have moved forward in his training since the Gotham," said his trainer, Todd Pletcher. "We expect improvement in his second start after the layoff."
ARKANSAS DERBY MORNING LINE ODDS
With only four races remaining that offer qualifying Kentucky Derby points, it's starting to look as if 30 will suffice to get into the field, which will be limited to 20 starters. But so few as 22 points could suffice to qualify, depending on defections and attrition. Divine Ambition and War Academy, of course, have no Kentucky Derby points. And so they'll probably have to finish in the top pair Saturday if they're going to put themselves in the roseate field at Churchill Downs. With 10, Overanalyze might qualify by finishing third in the Arkansas Derby, where first is good for 100 points, second for 40, third for 20 and fourth for 10.
But to earn the big points and the big money, they'll have to beat Oxbow, according to the horse's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas. A diminutive colt who loves a scrap, Oxbow could be sitting on a big effort.
"He's probably the toughest little horse I've seen since Thunder Gulch," Lukas said, comparing Oxbow to the horse that gave the trainer his second of four Kentucky Derby victories. "And he's getting better."
After winning the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds by 11 lengths in his seasonal debut, Oxbow finished fourth in the Risen Star with a wide and troubled trip. Then he ran second here in the Rebel Stakes, losing by a head to Will Take Charge, a stablemate who'll train up to the Kentucky Derby.
"They can't run a poor race and beat him," Lukas continued, about Oxbow, "because he always gives his best; he always shows up. He can overcome adversity; nothing bothers him. He could go out there tomorrow and run on a sloppy track and come right back on Friday and race down Central Avenue, and it wouldn't make any difference to him. He just loves to run and train. He's a gym-rat kind of horse."
With his 36 points, Oxbow probably has assured himself a stall in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby. But Lukas never has been content with a spot in the starting gate, not when there's a place to be had in the winner's circle.