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Creator pulls away to win $1 million Arkansas Derby

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Steve Asmussen wasn’t completely sure what to expect from Arkansas Derby entrant Creator after a solid but not spectacular start to the 3-year-old’s campaign.

The trainer couldn’t have been happier with how the colt closed out his second victory of the year Saturday, emerging from the field with a furious final kick on the home stretch to win the $1 million Kentucky Derby prep race.

The win seemingly gives Asmussen two of the top contenders for next month’s Kentucky Derby, with Gun Runner entering Saturday atop the race’s qualifying standings and Creator earning 100 points with his victory.

“With Gun Runner and with Creator, what a blessed position we’re in, to have the pedigrees and individuals like that and the opportunity with it,” Asmussen said. “We’re very fortunate and we take it very seriously and will do our best possible with it.”

It also gives the trainer his third Arkansas Derby victory, second only to Todd Pletcher’s four victories in Oaklawn Park’s signature race.

And while the win wasn’t completely unexpected, it was somewhat of a surprise after an overlooked Creator finished third in last month’s Rebel Stakes and went off at 11-1 on Saturday.

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Overlooked or not before the race, the colt — who has yet to finish lower than third in any of his three races this year — showed the strongest finishing kick after running in last for much of the 1 1/8-mile race.

“The horse is getting good at the right time,” Asmussen said. “It took a while for the light to turn on for him. His last two races have been very impressive. I love how he came home and went for the wire today.”

While Asmussen celebrated his stable of Kentucky Derby hopefuls, pre-race favorite Cupid disappointed with by finishing 10th.

The Bob Baffert-trained colt was fast out of the gate and settled into second for much of the race behind Gettsburg. However, the early pace took its toll on the Rebel Stakes winner — who entered Saturday as a virtual Kentucky Derby lock with 50 qualifying points.

“It wasn’t his day today,” Cupid jockey Martin Garcia said. “… When I asked him to go at the 3/8ths (pole), he wasn’t responding. I asked him, and he didn’t respond.”

Ridden by Ricardo Santana Jr., Creator paid $25.20, $8.60 and $5, while runner-up Suddenbreakingnews returned $6 and $4 — with Whitmore returning $3.80 to show.

Despite an overcast sky and light mist that fell at Oaklawn Park into the early afternoon, the track conditions held at fast throughout Saturday’s races.

A year after eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah solidified his status as the Kentucky Derby favorite with an eight-length victory in the Arkansas Derby, Creator shocked many in the crowd of 65,000 at Oaklawn Park by overtaking the 12-horse field down the stretch.

While Gettysburg and Cupid separated themselves from the trailing pack for much of the race, a large group began to track them down on the final turn.

That’s when Creator emerged from the outside with the strongest finishing kick, winning in a time of 1:50 and holding off Suddenbreakingnews — who won the Southwest Stakes and finished fifth in the Rebel Stakes.

Asmussen, winner of the Preakness Stakes in 2007 and 2009 with Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, also won the Arkansas Derby in 2002 and 2007. The Arkansas Derby victory was the first for Santana.

In addition to the qualifying points, Creator earned $600,000 for Saturday’s win.

Suddenbreakingnews, trained by Donnie Von Hemel, earned 40 points and $200,000 for finishing second while Whitmore earned 20 points and $100,000.

Wood Memorial boosts purse to attract top horses

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NEW YORK — The Wood Memorial purse could increase to $1 million as part of a bonus created to entice the top 3-year-olds to run in the Kentucky Derby prep on April 7.

New York Racing Association officials said Saturday that the presence of any horse in the field with a previous Grade 1 or Group 1 victory would increase the purse from $750,000 to $1 million if the qualifying horse starts. In that case, the winner would receive $590,000, the runner-up would earn $190,000 and third would be worth $90,000.

The Wood is run at 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct. The race is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep series that awards 100 points to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third and 10 to fourth. The top 20 horses on the leaderboard earn starting spots in the Derby on May 5.

Jack Van Berg dies at 81

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Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer who oversaw Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, died Wednesday. He was 81.

He died in a Little Rock, Arkansas, hospital, according to a spokeswoman for Oaklawn Park, where Van Berg had relocated his training base after leaving Southern California in 2013. No cause was given.

Van Berg ranks fourth all-time among trainers in North America, with 6,523 victories from 41,164 starts, according to Equibase. He had career purse earnings of $85,925,482.

In the Derby, Alysheba and jockey Chris McCarron were nearly knocked down at the top of the stretch by Bet Twice. Alysheba recovered and won despite having just one career victory before the Run for the Roses. Alysheba won the Preakness to set up a try for the Triple Crown but finished fourth in the Belmont.

As a 4-year-old, Alysheba won the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic and went on to earn the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

Van Berg saddled Gate Dancer to victory in the 1984 Preakness. That same year, he earned the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer.

Van Berg was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985. His father, trainer Marion Van Berg, already was there, having entered in 1970.

From 1959-77, Van Berg was the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1976, he won a record 496 races and was the nation’s leading trainer, with $2,976,196 in purse earnings.

In 1987, Van Berg became the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he saddle Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington Park outside Chicago.

He trained in Southern California for 41 years until moving to Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after Hollywood Park closed in December 2013. Van Berg blamed the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles and the state of California for the track’s closure.

“I just think it’s a pathetic thing,” he said at the time. “It’s ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing. I’ve had enough. I don’t like California racing anymore. I don’t like the way they run it and what they do.”

Van Berg mentored Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who began as an assistant to him.

Born June 7, 1936, in Columbus, Nebraska, John Charles Van Berg began training for his father in the 1960s. The elder Van Berg trained nearly 1,500 winners but was more successful as an owner, winning 4,691 races and $13,936,965. He was the first inductee of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame, and his son followed him.