Oaklawn Park’s road to the Kentucky Derby kicks off Monday with the 10th running of the $150,000 Smarty Jones. Like all one-mile events at Oaklawn Park, this race features a very short stretch run and ends at the first finish line.
While the Smarty Jones is generally not considered a crucial stepping stone on the path to the first Saturday in May, a number of the past winners have registered some remarkable accomplishments later in their careers. In fact, three of the first 10 winners of this race became multiple Grade 1 winners. These include two-time Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Flat Out, Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Caleb’s Posse, and 2013 Champion 3-Year-Old Colt Will Take Charge. Whether or not a future star is in this eight-runner cast remains to be seen.
The morning-line favorite is Uncontested (#6), who is one of three runners exiting the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs. This precocious son of Tiz Wonderful possesses a great deal of natural speed, and the TimeformUS Pace Projector is predicting he will be racing on a clear early lead through the opening furlongs. The Pace Projector characterizes this as a fast pace, but it also indicates that none of Uncontested’s rivals is quick enough to stay with him early. This favorite figures to be loose on the lead, so it’s up to Channing Hill to ration out his speed and save enough for the short stretch run.
Let’s go through the entire field:
#1, PETROV (5-2): Ron Moquett knows how to get a horse to Kentucky via the Oaklawn route, having sent out Whitmore to place in the Southwest, Rebel, and Arkansas Derby just last season; that runner was not much more accomplished than his 2017 Smarty Jones starter at this time last year. Petrov has done little wrong in two career starts. He reeled in the notorious run-off Lenstar in his debut, and was stepped right up into stakes company next time out at Aqueduct. It should be noted that the 3-year-old sprint division in New York is woefully lacking in quality this year, so – on the surface – it’s somewhat disappointing that he lost the King’s Swan. On the other hand, he probably could have won that race had his connections been more intent on using his early speed from the rail post position. Instead, he got some experience taking dirt in his face while racing in tight quarters on the far turn. All things considered, he did fairly well to get beaten only a head.
Now, whether Petrov can handle the stretch-out to a mile is a completely separate matter. His pedigree gives mixed signals. Progeny of Flatter can certainly go two turns and his dam did win a route race on a synthetic surface. However, all three of his half-siblings were sprinters. He surely has some talent, but I feel more comfortable backing others in the top slot.
#2, WARRIOR’S CLUB (7-2): As is so often the case with D. Wayne Lukas trainees, Warrior’s Club just seems to keep improving with each trip to the starting gate. It took him six tries to break his maiden, but he finally did so against restricted stakes company, beating a good horse in Cool Arrow in the process. That foe would return to beat a couple of Warrior’s Club’s Smarty Jones rivals when winning Remington Park’s Springboard Mile next time out.
Warrior’s Club’s stiffest test to date came last time out in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club as he attempted to handle two turns for the first time. The distance proved to be no issue, as he stayed on well in the stretch after racing prominently throughout, just nipping pace-setting Uncontested at the wire. The blinkers, which he’s been equipped with for his last two starts, seem to have really given this runner some much-needed focus late in his races. Lukas wastes no time getting him started up again as a 3-year-old, and he is a logical contender for top honors.
#3, CU RAHY (15-1): After making mild late rallies in a few minor sprint stakes at Remington Park, his connections took a shot in the Springboard Mile, a race that typically draws a large field including a few well-meant shippers. This runner just didn’t appear ready to wade into those deeper waters as he never was able to get involved that day. He appears to be overmatched.
#4, ROWDY THE WARRIOR (6-1): However, the other runner exiting the Springboard Mile is a bit more interesting. That race featured an extremely slow pace for the distance (indicated by the blue color-coded fractions in TimeformUS PPs), which made the tasks of horses attempting to rally from the back of the pack more difficult. Rowdy the Warrior does not possess much early speed, but his rider did a decent job of getting him into the race earlier, and he finished evenly to be fourth. Donnie von Hemel made a big splash in these Oaklawn preps last year with Southwest winner and eventual Kentucky Derby fourth-place finisher Suddenbreakingnews. This horse has not yet shown himself to be of that quality, but he does appear to be improving. I’m not sure that today is the day to make a win bet on him, but I’m interested to see how he performs, and wouldn’t be shocked to see him pick up a minor award.
#5, UNBRIDLED EAGLE (8-1): What happened to this guy after Saratoga? He made three starts at that elite meet, and two of them were quite good – especially his maiden win, in which he gamely fended off multiple challenges in the stretch. That may not have been the strongest maiden special weight field run at the meet, but it still earned a respectable 95 TimeformUS Speed Figure. It’s not as if the main contenders in this race are running that much faster now. The problem is that his three starts last fall were alarmingly dull. He had wide trips on a few occasions, but it just appeared that this son of Mineshaft lost interest in competing. He’s since been moved to Steve Asmussen’s barn, and he certainly knows how to win off a trainer change (85 TimeformUS Trainer Rating). I don’t know how you can trust this horse, but he did show enough promise last summer for me to throw him in underneath and hopefully spice up the trifecta.
#6, UNCONTESTED (2-1): While he was run down late by Warrior’s Club in the Kentucky Jockey Club last time, I believe that this is the horse that you really want out of that race. Unlike that more experienced runner, this lightly raced son of Tiz Wonderful had to overcome a ton of adversity. Not only was he giving up experience to the entire field, but he had to break from the far outside post position in a 12-horse field. Channing Hill had to use him to cross over in front of 11 rivals, and it’s not as if he got to walk on the lead once he secured his position at the head of affairs. The pace of that race is color-coded red in TimeformUS PPs, indicating a fast pace. I realize that the race held together on the front end, with the exception of late-running winner McCrake, but I’d contend that the top four finishers were simply the best horses in the race and all four ran quite well.
Uncontested showed brilliance in his debut, earning a field-best 107 TimeformUS Speed Figure while bottoming out a decent group of maidens at Keeneland. It remains to be seen whether he truly wants to go a route of ground, but I think he finds himself in a perfect spot to find that out. The short stretch of this one-mile race should benefit a fast horse like him, and he may never give the others an opportunity to catch him. I know the Pace Projector predicts a fast pace, but I believe Channing Hill can ration out his speed in a race lacking other confirmed frontrunners.
#7, ROMEO O ROMEO (12-1): This horse gave no indication that he can handle dirt in his Kentucky Jockey Club debacle. The stark contrast with his prior efforts suggests that he’s probably better suited to turf and synthetic surfaces. I can’t blame the connections for taking a shot in a Derby prep, but he appears to be up against it.
#8, LOVE THAT LUTE (20-1): He beat a weak field of maiden claimers last time, and the speed figures did not come back particularly strong. He should be a pace presence early, but I’ll be surprised if he’s still in the hunt at the quarter-pole.
Uncontested (#6) is probably not a great win bet at anything less than his 2-1 morning-line odds, but I do believe he’s the most talented horse in the race, so I have to key on him in exotic wagers. I’ll primarily use him with the logical Warrior’s Club (#2), as well as Rowdy the Warrior (#4), who may offer the best value underneath.
Exacta: 6 with 2,4
Trifecta: 2,6 with 2,6 with 1,4,5
Trifecta: 6 with 1,4,5 with 1,2,4,5