Things in Hot Springs have been, well, pretty hot this Spring. That’s partially due to the increased competition at historic Oaklawn Park. With a lot of the Thoroughbred talent funneled to this Arkansas oval, one of the more successful visitors is continuing to call on his recipe for success.

Bob Baffert is the most recognizable trainer in the Thoroughbred game today. That is primarily because of a knack for winning on the biggest of stages. “Big Race Bob” has been able to ship his horses all over the country and world with great success. One of the popular destinations for the five-time Kentucky Derby winner has been Oaklawn Park. Since 2010, the Southern California based conditioner has won the Rebel Stakes seven times (2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2020) and captured the Arkansas Derby twice (2012, 2015) just to name some of his success in Hot Springs.

So here we are looking at the 85th running of the Arkansas Derby and guess who figures to be a prominent figure? Blessed with a barn full of talented three-year olds, Baffert is game planning for another run at one of Oaklawn’s biggest prizes. As a stepping stone to what could be a record-tying sixth win in the Kentucky Derby, the Arkansas Derby is an important piece to the puzzle. But don’t look for the play call to be some kind of flea-flicking double reverse or anything. For the Arizona-born trainer his Oaklawn strategy is very simple.

“To win at Oaklawn I have to bring my best horses, plain and simple,” says Baffert. “You can’t come here with second and third stringers and expect to win races. The competition is always tough and they have to be ready.”

Given the current conditions of our country, Oaklawn has been even more competitive. Trainers from across the country are shipping to Hot Springs making fields in every race tough and deep. Having been a shipper from way back, others are finding out what this hall of fame conditioner already knew.

“They do a great job at Oaklawn Park with the track and managing the operation,” says Baffert. “It’s a short trip, the track is safe, and it’s conducive to speed, which I really like.”

Speed merchants have long been a strong suit in the massive success of the former quarter horse trainer. The Arkansas Derby win in 2012 by Bodemeister was a classic example of Baffert’s fast-footed arsenal. In a jaw-dropping display, this son of Empire Maker completely destroyed the field in gate to wire fashion.

Looking back, the 9 ½ length win may have not been exactly the way Baffert wanted things to play out. Obviously the goal was to win the Arkansas Derby with eyes on Churchill Downs. Bodemeister came up short three weeks later when he was run down in the stretch of the Kentucky Derby by I’ll Have Another.

“I think (jockey) Mike Smith emptied the tank in the Arkansas Derby”, says Baffert. “It was a big performance, maybe just a little too big.”

With this year’s Kentucky Derby slated for September 5 (wow, did we just say September and Kentucky Derby in the same sentence???), the spacing between the races is much different than usual. The May 2 Arkansas Derby is still one of the big qualifying races in the race for the Roses, just now it is four months out instead of the usual three weeks.

“The spacing will not affect how we prepare for the Arkansas Derby”, says Baffert. “We have a lot of good horses with Nadal as a definite starter. We have been pointing him towards this race since February.”

The unbeaten Nadal is the morning line favorite for one of the divisions of the Arkansas Derby. Surviving some swift opening fractions as the frontrunner (22.89 opening quarter 46.00 half mile), this son of Blame gave Baffert his seventh Rebel Stakes win at Oaklawn back on March 14. With the race now split into two divisions, he will also send unbeaten Charlatan into Stakes company for the first time. Lightly raced but super impressive, this son of Speightstown has won his two races by a combined 16 lengths. Charlatan is the even money morning line favorite in his division.

Entering the final week of the meet, Baffert has won 6 races from 11 starters. He will look to continue his Oaklawn success on May 2 with that same strategy…Bring your best and run fast.