After weeks of speculation, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas confirmed Sunday morning that his star 3-year-old filly, Secret Oath, would challenge males for the first time in the $1.25 million Arkansas Derby (G1) at 1 1/8 miles April 2 at Oaklawn Park.
Gary Stevens, the retired Hall of Fame rider turned jockey agent at Oaklawn, broke the news Saturday afternoon in his on-site role as an analyst for Fox Sports’ “America’s Day at the Races.”
The move to run Secret Oath in the Arkansas Derby, widely expected, means Lukas’ top 3-year-old male, Ethereal Road, will be re-routed from the Arkansas Derby to the $1 million Blue Grass Stakes (G1) at 1 1 /8 miles April 9 at Keeneland. Ethereal Road finished second, beaten a half-length, in the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) Feb. 26, which is the final major local prep for the Arkansas Derby.
Secret Oath, who is from the first crop of deceased champion Arrogate, has been among the most dominant horses at the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting after winning a Dec. 31 allowance race by 8 ¼ lengths, $200,000 Martha Washington Stakes Jan. 29 by 7 ¼ lengths and the $300,000 Honeybee Stakes (G3) Feb. 26 by 7 lengths. Secret Oath already has secured a spot in the Kentucky Oaks – the nation’s biggest race for 3-year-old fillies – after collecting 60 points for victories in the Martha Washington and Honeybee. Both races were 1 1/16 miles.
Secret Oath had been a candidate for Oaklawn’s final Kentucky Oaks prep, the $600,000 Fantasy Stakes (G3) at 1 1/16 miles April 2, before Lukas opted for the Arkansas Derby, with the blessing of Robert and Stacy Mitchell, who bred and own the filly.
“Wayne and I talked about it before the Honeybee,” Robert Mitchell said Saturday afternoon. “We wanted to see what her performance looked like in the Honeybee and we wanted to see what the Rebel looked like and then we wanted to see kind of how she did in her first workout after the Honeybee. We feel like we ought to give her a chance to run against the boys and see how that goes. That’s kind of how we thought about it.”
Lukas won the 1984 Arkansas Derby with Althea, a week after she finished second in the Fantasy. Lukas and Stevens teamed to win the 1985 Arkansas Derby with Tank’s Prospect and the 1988 Kentucky Derby with another filly, Winning Colors. Lukas now bids for his third Arkansas Derby victory with yet another filly, Secret Oath.
“We don’t make these decisions, meaning the owners and myself, we don’t make these decisions easily,” Lukas said. “We consider all the things.
“First of all, you want to absolutely think that you are as good as any of the other 3-year-olds that might show up and you don’t really know who is going to show up. And then second, you consider that she’s here at home. If you’re going to step out of the box, that’s probably a good spot to do it. She’s been successful on this racetrack. The third thing is a million, two-hundred fifty thousand is probably the most attractive purse she’ll ever run for. I was thinking the other day that it will be hard to imagine she’s going to run for a bigger one, expect in the Breeders’ Cup. So, we factored that in.”
Another hook, Lukas said, was timing. The Arkansas Derby had been three weeks before the Kentucky Derby in 1996-2021. It’s five weeks this year, a change coinciding with Oaklawn’s expanded 66-day racing calendar (Dec. 3-May 8) in 2021-2022. The Kentucky Oaks, which is run May 6, the day before the Kentucky Derby, remains Secret Oath’s major spring target, Lukas said.
The Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass will offer 170 points (100-40-20-10) to their top four finishers toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby. A top-two finish in the Arkansas Derby likely would secure Secret Oath a spot in the Kentucky Derby, which is limited to 20 starters.
“I’ve got the Oaks, anyhow,” Lukas said. “That’s where I’m going. We have no plan to run in the Derby now. That’s not chiseled in stone, either, but that’s the way the Mitchells feel. They don’t want to run in a 20-horse field. They feel like the Oaks is every bit as prestigious.”
Secret Oath, in her first work since the Honeybee, breezed a half-mile in :48.40 Tuesday morning. Lukas said she’ll likely work at least twice more in advance of the Arkansas Derby. Ethereal Road will continue to train at Oaklawn before shipping to Keeneland April 5, Lukas said. Luis Contreras will retain the mount on both horses, Lukas said.
Ethereal Road ranks ninth on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 20 points after his runner-up finish in the Rebel, according to the official list released Saturday by Churchill Downs.
With Secret Oath headed to the Arkansas Derby, trainer Mike Puhich said Sunday morning that Call Me Jamal “probably” will make his next start in the Blue Grass. Call Me Jamal has two 1 1/16-mile victories at the meeting, including a sharp entry-level allowance score Feb. 26. Puhich said the following morning that Call Me Jamal’s next start – Arkansas Derby or Blue Grass – would be dictated by Secret Oath’s path. Puhich had a pretty good idea then which path Secret Oath would take.
“It’s either going to be the Arkansas Derby or the Blue Grass,” Puhich said, referring to Call Me Jamal. “I don’t know if I’m interested chasing Wayne’s filly around there or not. I guarantee you’ll be in there. He got his Oaks points yesterday. Now, he’s got to get his Derby points.”