The Smarty Jones is a one-mile dirt race, the first in a series of Kentucky Derby preps over the Hot Springs oval. The series continues with the Southwest Stakes (G3) on February 19, the Rebel Stakes (G2) on March 17, and the Arkansas Derby (G1) on the final day of the meet, April 14. The Smarty Jones is the newest addition to Oaklawn's series of Kentucky Derby preps. The race has always been at a flat mile, but has only been run since 2008. This year's edition offers a $150,000 purse, as well as Road to the Kentucky Derby points (10-4-2-1) to the top four finishers.
The race's namesake swept the Southwest Stakes, the Rebel Stakes, and the Arkansas Derby in 2004. He continued undefeated through the Kentucky Derby (G1) and the Preakness Stakes (G1) -- winning both by open lengths.
Though the race has not yet produced any Classic winners, several of its winners have gone on to distinguished careers after the Triple Crown series. Flat Out (2009), who won the second running of the Smarty Jones, blossomed as an older horse. He won the Jockey Club Gold Cup (GI) in both 2011 and 2012, and concluded his career with a win in the Cigar Mile (GI) in 2013. Caleb's Posse (2011) found his best form going extended one-turn distances, and concluded his sophomore season with a win in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1) at Churchill Downs. Will Take Charge (2013) won both the Travers (G1) and the Clark (G1) en route to being named Champion three-year-old male, and came back to Oaklawn the following year to win the Oaklawn Handicap (G2).
In the 2013 Smarty Jones Stakes, Will Take Charge turns the tables on Texas Bling, who had beaten him in the Remington Springboard Mile the month before.
In addition to our preview of the Smarty Jones, we also preview Saturday's three-year-old points races: the Lecomte Stakes (G3) and the Silverbulletday Stakes at Fair Grounds, and the Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct.
Morning lines were not available at original publish time. Updated January 14 to add morning lines.
Monday, January 15 - Oaklawn Park
Race 8: Smarty Jones Stakes, three-year-olds, one mile on the dirt, post time 4:42pm CST
This year's Smarty Jones drew a field of seven, including one California shipper: Sham Stakes (G3) defector MOURINHO. It would be no surprise to see him win; the fact that trainer Bob Baffert puts him on the plane, and has been announcing since the Sham scratch that he was Oaklawn-bound, is enough to make sure he is covered defensively on multi-race wagers. He marked himseof a promising prospect on debut, beating promising maiden winner Peace and the now Grade 1-placed Instilled Regard on debut. His defeat next out in the Speakeasy Stakes was a disappointment, but the return to Drayden Van Dyke in the irons and a shift to a just-off-the-pace style in the Bob Hope (G3) brought a better effort. Though he was defeated that day, Greyvitos franked that form on a trip to Remington. This will be MOURINHO's first try at two turns, but the pedigree suggests he can handle it.
The biggest worry is the blinkers -- he's probably best from a little off the pace, so one wonders whether the blinkers will make MOURINHO a little too aggressive up front. With that the case, it makes sense to look at other credible contenders. Fortunately, there are two: rail-drawn COMBATANT, and NAVISTAR in the six-gate.
This space likes NAVISTAR narrowly best. NAVISTAR makes his third career start here, and comes in off a comfortable maiden victory at Gulfstream Park. His debut at Belmont last fall, in which he finished second to the promising Mask, was good enough to suggest that NAVISTAR is not just a Gulfstream Park Horse. His victory came at a mile, and though he switches from a one-turn configuration to two, he should have the stamina to handle the new configuration. A repeat of his last out makes him at least competitive; any progression second off the lay makes NAVISTAR a solid win chance at what will certainly be a better price than MOURINHO.
That said, COMBATANT could take a step forward. He didn't run a bad second as the favourite in the Remington Springboard Mile -- he just got beaten by a better horse that day, GREYVITOS. He came home well clear of everyone else. that was his first start since October, his first start against winners, and the extra experience and fitness could equal an improve outing from COMBATANT here. He has a tactical, tracking running style that should do well against this field, and his last out was good enough to suggest that the rail draw is not a major detriment for the Steve Asmussen trainee.
#6 NAVISTAR (5/2)
#1 COMBATANT (2/1)
#4 MOURINHO (3/2)
Longshot: Among the darker horses here, #2 LONE ROCK (12/1) intrigues. There are a few questions here: LONE ROCK hasn't raced since November, and his one foray into stakes company did not go well. But, this is not quite the class test that the Breeders' Futurity (G1) was, and his other two starts going two turns on the dirt have been good. LONE ROCK's maiden win was a frontrunning score at Indiana Grand that showed some ability to fight early; his N1X second had him stalking offthe pace, and though he was just outdone late, he showed the ability to rate a bit, rally, and stay interested to the wire. He does not need a huge step forward from that effort to be competitive here, and under experienced pilot Gary Stevens, he has a right to bring his best.
You can take "Picks & Ponderings" with you anytime, anywhere. You can get Twitter updates @picksponderings for on-scene reports from Hawthorne Racecourse. And you can get "Picks and Ponderings" in your e-mail by typing your email address in the box and clicking "Create Subscription." It's a FREE service, and you'll never get any unwanted spam.