Victory Formation at the Start of the Smarty Jones (Coady Photography)
Oaklawn Barn Notes by Robert Yates
HOT SPRINGS, Ark.—The most lucrative race Saturday at Oaklawn is the $150,000 Fifth Season for older horses at 1 mile. The most intriguing is the fourth, a $104,000 entry-level allowance for 3-year-olds at 1 mile that has lured a field of eight, including 6-5 program favorite Verifying for his 2023 debut and the Smarty Jones winner Victory Formation.
From the first crop of 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify, Verifying races for two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox and a high-profile ownership group that includes Michael Tabor. Verifying, who was purchased for $775,000 at the 2021 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, is a half-brother to champion and multiple Oaklawn stakes winner Midnight Bisou.
Verifying is among maybe a dozen Kentucky Derby prospects for Cox and already has four qualifying points after finishing second in the $500,000 Champagne Stakes (G1) at 1 mile Oct. 1 at Aqueduct (Belmont At The Big A meeting). He exits a troubled sixth-place finish in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at 1 1/16 miles Nov. 4 at Keeneland. In addition to Verifying, Cox is also scheduled to start lightly raced Judo in Saturday’s fourth race (1:57 p.m. CST, probable post). Both horses have been based this winter at Fair Grounds.
“I’ve been pointing for allowance races with both horses,” Cox said Wednesday afternoon. “Verifying after the Breeders’ Cup, I just backed off of him a little bit and got him back up and going. He’s doing great. Judo, I just kind of struggled with getting a race to go for him and this is where we found ourselves. Hopefully, they both take that next step to give us the confidence to try stakes in the near future.”
Verifying made three starts last year, winning his career debut sprinting Aug. 27 at Saratoga. After stretching out to finish second in the Champagne, Verifying was “bumped and bothered at the start” of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, according to footnotes from the official race chart, and beaten 12 lengths by Forte, the probable champion 2-year-old male.
“He won on debut at Saratoga impressively,” Cox said. “I thought he ran really well in the Champagne to give us enough confidence out of the Champagne, training at Churchill, to try the Breeders’ Cup. He didn’t run a bad race, just probably wasn’t quite up to par at that time. I’m hoping that now since he got a little time, we backed off him, he’s back training, steady work pattern leading into this and hopeful he takes that step forward from 2 to 3.”
Verifying is scheduled to break from post 5 under Martin Garcia. Judo, who will be making his two-turn debut, is scheduled to break from post 7 under Joe Talamo. Both horses will be racing on the anti-bleeder medication Lasix for the first time Saturday. Judo is 8-1 on the morning line.
Unbeaten Victory Formation (3 for 3) returned to win the $250,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 1 in his two-turn debut for Cox. The 1-mile Smarty Jones was Oaklawn’s first of four Kentucky Derby points races.
Based on official rankings compiled by Churchill Downs, Cox has six of the top 16 horses on the latest Kentucky Derby leaderboard – No. 4 Jace’s Road (13 points), No. 5 Instant Coffee (12), No. 6 Victory Formation (10), No. 13 Loggins (four), No. 14 Verifying (four) and No. 16 Angel of Empire (four).
Oaklawn’s Kentucky Derby points series continues with the $750,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) at 1 1/16 miles Jan. 28, $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 25 and the $1.25 million Arkansas Derby (G1) at 1 1/8 miles April 1.
Cox reiterated Wednesday that he plans to start unbeaten Corona Bolt (2 for 2) and Hit Show in the Southwest, adding Jace’s Road is also targeting the race, “but he’s got to hit all his marks on his breezes over the next few weeks.”
Jace’s Road (by Quality Road) was a 5 ½-length winner of the $100,000 Gun Runner Stakes at 1 1/16 miles Dec. 26 at Fair Grounds in his last start. Corona Bolt (Bolt d’Oro) was blowout winner of the $100,000 Sugar Bowl Stakes at 6 furlongs Dec. 26 at Fair Grounds. Hit Show (Candy Ride) was a sharp entry-level allowance winner at 1 mile Dec. 17 at Oaklawn.
Cox said Fair Grounds-based Giant Mischief (Into Mischief) is still scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut in the Rebel. Giant Mischief closed his 2022 campaign with a runner-up in the $400,000 Remington Park Springboard Mile Stakes Dec. 17 at Remington Park.
Victory Formation returned last weekend to Fair Grounds to continue preparations for his next start, which is yet to be determined. Cox said the Tapwrit colt will be pointed for the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (G2) at 1 1/8 miles Feb. 18 at Fair Grounds or the Rebel.
“Looks good,” Cox said.
Oaklawn-based Angel of Empire is also a candidate for the Risen Star and Rebel, Cox said. Angel of Empire finished second in the Smarty Jones.
A Street Sense homebred for nationally prominent owners Gary and Mary West, Judo was a front-running winner of his 1-mile career debut Aug. 5 at Ellis Park. In his only other start, Judo finished second, beaten 9 ¼ lengths by Frosted Departure, in an entry-level allowance sprint Sept. 16 at Churchill Downs. Frosted Departure returned to win the inaugural $150,000 Renaissance Stakes at 6 furlongs Dec. 31 at Oaklawn for trainer Kenny McPeek.
Two Eagles River, who was beaten a head in the Renaissance after a disastrous start, will be making his two-turn debut in Saturday’s fourth race for 2015 Oaklawn training champion Chris Hartman. Two Eagles River is the 8-5 second choice in the program.
The Renaissance marked the third career start for Two Eagles River, who won his 5-furlong career debut Oct. 30 at Churchill Downs before finishing second, beaten a neck by the highly regarded Victory Formation, in an entry-level allowance sprint Nov. 26 at Churchill Downs.
Edge to Edge ($8.80) ran the fastest 6 furlongs of the meeting (1:09.30) in last Sunday’s eighth race, a $106,000 allowance for older horses. Francisco Arrieta rode Edge to Edge for 2015 Oaklawn training champion Chris Hartman. …
Take Charge Briana will make her next start in the $200,000 Martha Washington Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles Jan. 28, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. The Martha Washington is Oaklawn’s first of three Kentucky Oaks races. Lukas won the 2022 Martha Washington and Kentucky Oaks with Secret Oath. Take Charge Briana finished third in the $150,000 Year’s End Stakes for 2-year-old fillies at 1 mile Dec. 31 at Oaklawn. …
Trainer Rodolphe Brisset said he may be getting Yuugiri’s 2-year-old half-brother by champion and 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist. “He’s absolutely gorgeous,” Brisset said. Yuugiri won the $600,000 Fantasy Stakes (G3) for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles last April at Oaklawn and her comeback race at Oaklawn, a Dec. 30 allowance sprint. Yuugiri is the only horse Brisset said he trains for her Japanese breeders/owners, Tsunebumi and Sekie Yoshihara. Yuugiri and the Nyquist colt are out of the now-deceased mare Yuzuru.