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A Look at Saturday’s Arkansas Derby with Crystal Conning

Crystal Conning (L) hosts Oaklawn Today with Nancy Holthus.

With the Kentucky Derby just five weeks away, prep races take on a heightened significance as major 3-year-old contenders make their final start in an attempt to earn a stall in the gate on the first Saturday in May. This Saturday Oaklawn Park will run the $1.5m Grade 1 Arkansas Derby and Gulfstream Park the Florida Derby. Racing analyst Crystal Conning, who spent her first season at Oaklawn Park this winter, will co-host Oaklawn’s broadcast with Nancy Holthus and announcer Matt Dinnerman.

Conning looks forward to this 1 1/8 mile race which drew a field of 10 as it could produce one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby. She sees Timberlake as “the horse to beat”, but by no means a lock, based on a successful trip over the track in the Feb. 24 Rebel Stakes where he won by 2 lengths. Trained by Brad Cox, Timberlake was making his first start since last November’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile where he finished fourth, 1 3/4 lengths behind second-place finisher Muth. Timberlake will face Muth again on Saturday.

Muth is the 8/5 morning line favorite while Timberlake is 9/5. Muth has never raced outside of California, with four starts at Santa Anita and one at Del Mar. Conning sees potential vulnerability in his lack of experience over different surfaces.

Muth most recently won the Jan. 6 San Vicente at 7 furlongs. He is trained by Bob Baffert who is suspended from racing at Churchill Downs through 2024 thus he is ineligible for the Kentucky Derby.

Conning reporting on horseback.

While not yet ready to apply the term ‘former’, Conning began her career as a jockey in her native Australia. She rode in the U.S. for the first time in 2019 and raced at several tracks over the next four years including Canterbury Park. In the summer of 2022, Conning made a few cameo appearances as a guest handicapper during Canterbury broadcasts but working on the television-side of racing was not really on her radar. Months later she was encouraged by a friend to apply for an opening at Monmouth Park and joined their broadcast team last spring. That led to her current Oaklawn gig and a return to Monmouth this May. Once back east Conning intends to ride races on Monmouth’s dark days with Delaware, Parx and Finger Lakes all offering opportunities.

Working on the racetrack at Oaklawn has allowed her to see many horses during training hours, information she shares with the public.

“I really enjoy working in the paddock and talking about the horses before the race,” she said. “It’s more like what they do in Australia. I try to provide something unique.”

She currently gallops for Oaklawn mainstay Ron Moquett in the mornings. “I get on a lot of really nice ones,” she says. One of those nice ones is Time for Truth who will run in the Arkansas Derby. “I got on him a couple of times,” she said. “He does everything he is asked.” That professionalism could lead to quick improvement for a colt that has two wins from three career starts, all at Oaklawn.

Time for Truth has shown early speed and breaking from post four should be well placed but Conning notes that the 1 1/8 mile distance affords all horses to get position before the first turn.

Others in the Arkansas Derby:

Mystik Dan

“He’s an unassuming kind of horse,” Conning said. “He’s the only horse to run a 100 plus Beyer Speed Figure. He drew off to win by eight in the Southwest. He should relish the extra ground of the Arkansas Derby.”

Liberal Arts

15 to 1 on the morning line, Liberal Arts provided trainer Robert Medina with the first graded stakes win of his five-year career when he won the Street Sense at Churchill last October.

“[Medina] came up under Shug McGaughey,” Conning said. “All of his horses look fabulous. He is a true horseman.”

The 13-race Oaklawn program begins at 12:05 p.m. Saturday with the Arkansas Derby scheduled as race 12 at 6:47 p.m.