The Kentucky Derby prep season at Oaklawn gets underway on Monday with the Smarty Jones Stakes, going a mile over the dirt. The race itself is listed, but it serves as the local prep race for the series that includes the Southwest (GIII), Rebel (GII), and Arkansas Derby (GI). The race drew a field of nine: mostly familiar faces from the two-year-old stakes season, but also a small handful of newer runners trying to take that first ambitious step on the Derby trail.
Selections: Lucky Player (6), Hebbronville (5), American Sailor (4)
Longshot: Paid Admission (2)
The 800 pound gorilla here is Mr. Z, the class of the field. The D. Wayne Lukas trainee has danced every dance, and is closing in on half a million dollars in racetrack earnings. Still, he has just one win to his name: his debut, a maiden special going six panels at Churchill. It has been straight on since then, and this marks Mr. Z’s ninth lifetime start. His last two outings have been particularly game, but he has ended up just on the wrong side of them: beaten a nose by Ocho Ocho Ocho in the Delta Jackpot (GIII), and then third by a neck behind Dortmund in the Los Alamitos Futurity (GI) last out. This is a class drop for him…but so was the Jackpot. He stands an excellent chance of hitting the board in the Smarty Jones, but his ability to find ways to come in second and third combined with the short price make him unattractive on top.
American Sailor will clearly be sailing on the front end, with Hebbronville and likely Mr. Z and Bayerd right on him. The pace could end up honest…with emphasis on could, with both Hebbronville and Mr. Z having shown some ability to rate, and Bayerd typically rating though fairly close up. Mr. Z has a case of the second-itis, and despite his Springboard Mile win, a mile seems the very fringe of Bayerd’s distance abilities. Most attractive here is a pace-versatile horse proven at two turns: enter Lucky Player. He was forwardly placed in both his Iroquois (GIII) win as well as the Prairie Juvenile Mile, in which he finished a neck behind Private Prospect. In his maiden win he took a different tactic, however, racing from a few lengths back early before taking charge down the stretch. He will need to take a step forward here, but what says he can’t? He has been on the shelf since the Kentucky Jockey Club (GII) on November 29. But, he has been working steadily, and trainer Steve Asmussen wins at 21% off of similar-length lays. He also wins 21% of the time with shippers — he would not send Lucky Player down here from the Fair Grounds if he did not think Lucky Player had a serious shot. Along those same lines of smart trainer placement, he also takes a little cutback in distance here, perfect for a first race off a lay.
Both of the likely front-end horses, Hebbronville and American Sailor, also deserve a long look.
Hebbronville has been away since he was eased in the Nashua on November 2. That was his first attempt at a route, but it was also in the mud after a poor start. His speeds at two are excellent for this field, and as long as he does not blow the break, he is well set either right on the front or rating just a bit off. His works have been regular leading up to this race, suggesting he will be in condition, and his trainer Lynn Whiting is 29% (with a +$1.30 ROI) in non-graded stakes races. Hebbronville’s breeding does not suggest he will get the Classic distance further down the trail — but a mile should be within his reach.
American Sailor, who stretches out to a route for the first time, should also be forwardly placed. He also seems the most likely to set the early fractions, given his sharp pace numbers and his propensity to get right on the front. He has been on the shelf since a five-furlong allowance win at Delta on October 18, but trainer Cody Autrey is a sharp 21% off similarly long lays. He has been working regularly since that last race, and should be fit. This will be his first stretch to a route distance, but Autrey’s strike rate with first-time routers is not bad (19%, in 16 starts). He is a City Zip baby; City Zip has sired winners at a versatile range of distances. Though he his out of a Yes It’s True mare who herself only won sprints, Yesshesarocket has produced a two-turn winner already, making the stretch-out a worthy experiment. If Hebbronville rates or blows the start again, American Sailor could clear, and score at a price.
Along the line of prices, if the pace gets too hot up front, Paid Admission could be rolling late. His late pace in his maiden win ranks with any of the more seasoned runners here. He runs for the barn of Chris Richard: a trainer hard to count out in general, and who wins with a sparkling 23% of his last-out maiden winners. He has been working at Oaklawn since before his maiden win at Delta, suggesting he is getting used to the track, and will not have an extra ship to handle here. Rider David Mello returns to the irons; he wins at a respectable 18% rate in route races. Paid Admission will have to take another step ahead to score in the Smarty Jones, but at a 20/1 morning line, he is worth considering in case the front end collapses.
Far Right, Private Prospect, and Runaway Bling make up the rest of this field. Rail-drawn Far Right is the best of this trio, but will likely be overbet off his third-place finish in the Delta Jackpot combined with the fact that Mike Smith gets the leg up. He is not without a chance, but better prices intrigue. The class drop and return to rider Alex Birzer on Private Prospect bode well, but his trainer’s weak track record with runners off a mid-length lay suggests he will need this, and come back better next out. Runaway Bling has shown very little on fast dirt to date — he would possibly be worth a flyer if there were rain in the forecast, but without it, he looks outclassed.