Arkansas’s path to the 2018 Kentucky Derby begins on Monday with the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes, going a mile at Oaklawn Park. This will serve as a proving ground for all seven entrants, since each of them is looking for his first stakes victory.
The Pace Projector is predicting that they will all have to catch the speed Mourinho (#4), who is likely to lead this field through fast early fractions. Any doubt about his intentions here was removed when Bob Baffert made the decision to add blinkers back to his equipment for this race after he rated without them last time. However, Mourinho is not the only runner with early speed, as Lone Rock, Tap Daddy, and Navistar have all done their best running when racing on or near the early pace thus far in their brief careers.
Let’s go through the entire field:
#1, COMBATANT (2-1): Steve Asmussen has entered two colts by Scat Daddy in the Smarty Jones, but this is the one that most will prefer. He kicked off his career in a turf race, but has run well in both starts since switching surfaces to the main track. He made his stakes debut last time in the Springboard Mile at Remington Park and was bet down to 2-1 favoritism off the strength of his maiden victory. He had to be used to secure early position from his inside post position heading into the clubhouse turn, but he worked out a very favorable trip thereafter. He was able to save ground until midway around the far turn, when he angled out to attack the leader. He had every chance in the stretch and was simply second-best to winner Greyvitos.
The best thing you can say about this horse is that he still has room for improvement as he makes just the fourth start of his career. And if he does improve again, he’s probably going to win this race. He earned a 112 TimeformUS Speed Figure for his Springboard Mile performance, which is nearly as fast as the best numbers Mourinho has ever run. He figures to once again sit a perfect stalking trip, and he is squarely the horse to beat.
#2, LONE ROCK (12-1): At first glance, it’s apparent that this horse just needs to get faster. His speed figures are a distinctly slower than those of the favorites. However, there are still some things to like. From a visual standpoint, he’s a robust and solidly-built son of Majestic Warrior, and gives every impression that he will continue to get better with added distance. He basically got eliminated in the early going of the Breeders’ Futurity, so that race is one you can disregard. I know he was facing a weaker group of allowance horses last time, but he nevertheless battled gamely all the way through the lane after appearing soundly beaten at the top of the stretch. He’s one to use underneath in trifectas.
#3, TAP DADDY (8-1): This race should provide some clear answers about which path this runner’s connections should take moving forward. I’m concerned that Tap Daddy is not really a dirt horse, and would suspect this future instead resides on turf. I know that he ran reasonably well in the Bourbon over Keeneland’s dirt surface, that was an off-the-turf race where the top three finishers basically ran around the track together in a merry-go-round race. I don’t think it’s a true representation of his dirt ability, and I’d be surprised if he’s able to step up against this group on a fast track.
#4, MOURINHO (8-1): This colt burst onto the scene with an impressive debut score over a couple of talented colts back in September. While he lost his next race, the Speakeasy, as the heavy 3-10 favorite, the performance is better than it seems. He got involved in a torrid early duel through very fast early fractions (color-coded red in TimeformUS PPs), and put away his pace foes before just getting run down by a closer in the late stages. He showed a new dimension last time in the Bob Hope, rating behind the early leader before chasing that runner home through the lane. The winner of that race, Greyvitos, returned to beat today’s rival Combatant in the Springboard Mile in his next start, so it seems that there was some quality to that event.
The major question for Mourinho is not one of ability – it’s the distance. He’s displayed blazing early speed in his races and does not exactly give the impression that he’s asking for added ground. His pedigree yields few clues, since his dam was primarily a turf horse that won going both short and long. It’s somewhat curious that Bob Baffert is adding blinkers for this race, a seemingly counterintuitive move for a horse that will need to relax early. Bob Baffert has been close to unbeatable at Oaklawn in the past, but over the past five years he is a merely decent 6 for 19 ($1.91 ROI). Mourinho may not be a legitimate Derby hopeful, but he nevertheless can win this race.
#5, ARCHED FEATHER (30-1): He upset a group of maidens at odds of 39-1 last November, and would need to improve significantly off that effort tot have a say in the outcome here.
#6, NAVISTAR (5-2): They paid a pretty penny for this son of Union Rags after he worked a furlong in an eye-catching 10 flat at the OBS Sale back in March of last year. It took him a while to make it to the races after that, but he’s done absolutely nothing wrong since beginning his career. He lost his debut as the favorite, the horse that beat him, Mask, has turned into one of the top contenders for the 2018 Kentucky Derby following his impressive score in the Mucho Macho Man at Gulfstream last weekend. Navistar was bet down to 2-5 for his second start, and he had to work a bit harder than his backers would have hoped while grinding out a 1 1/2 length victory.
If you like Navistar in this race, you’re expecting him to improve. He has not yet run fast enough to beat horses like Combatant and Mourinho, but he’s the most inexperienced member of this field, so one would imagine he has the most upside. Todd Pletcher is an expert at winning these Derby preps because he places his horses well, so it’s probably meaningful that he’s shipping this lightly-raced runner out to Oaklawn.
#7, BODE’S MAKER (30-1): He was trounced by Combatant when they met in the Springboard Mile, and is the outsider in this field.
The three main players are Combatant (#1), Mourinho (#4), and Navistar (#6). If I had to lean on one of those, it would be Combatant, who seems to be best prepared to handle this test. He would be worth a bet if he drifts above his morning line price of 2-1. I’ll also throw in longshot Lone Rock underneath these runners in the trifecta.
Trifecta: 1 with 2,4,6 with 2,4,6