Record purse, record number of nominees and possibly a record crowd in the starting gate.
Oaklawn’s Road to the Kentucky Derby begins Saturday with the $250,000 Smarty Jones Stakes, a 1-mile race that has drawn a full field of 14. Probable post time for the Smarty Jones, which goes as the ninth of 10 races, is 4:13 p.m. (Central). First post is 12:30 p.m.
The Smarty Jones is Oaklawn’s first of four Kentucky Derby points races, with 17 up for grabs to the top four finishers (10-4-2-1, respectively). What’s different in 2022 is the timing of those races. Coinciding with an expanded 2021-2022 schedule – the Dec. 3 opening was the earliest in Oaklawn history and more than a month before traditional dates – the Smarty Jones, Southwest Stakes (G3) at 1 1/16 miles Jan. 29, Rebel (G2) at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 26 and Arkansas Derby (G1) at 1 1/8 miles April 2 were all moved up on the calendar.
The Smarty Jones previously had been run in mid to late January, Southwest in mid to late February and the Rebel in mid to late March. The Arkansas Derby is still in April, but it now falls five weeks before the Kentucky Derby after being three weeks since 1996.
In addition to the revamped schedule, Oaklawn President Louis Cella boosted the purse of the Smarty Jones from $150,000 to $250,000 and the Arkansas Derby from $1 million to a record $1.25 million, keeping it the country’s richest Kentucky Derby prep race.
The moves are already paying dividends.
The Smarty Jones, inaugurated in 2008, drew a record 98 nominees. If the field remains intact, it will be the largest in race history, eclipsing 12 starters in 2008, 2010 and 2012.
“Not that the Smarty Jones is new, the placement of the Smarty Jones is new,” Oaklawn racing secretary Pat Pope said moments after Tuesday’s post position draw for the race. “The fact that Louis wanted to put more money in, all those things tremendously helped the race.”
The projected 14-horse Smarty Jones field from the rail out: Dash Attack, David Cohen to ride, 117 pounds, 12-1 on the morning line; All in Sync, Ricardo Santana Jr., 117, 8-1; Home Brew, Florent Geroux, 119, 3-1; Kavod, Francisco Arrieta, 119, 5-1; Ignitis, Luis Contreras, 117, 15-1; Bureau, David Cabrera, 117, 12-1; Ruggs, Julien Leparoux, 117, 10-1; Vivar, Martin Garcia, 119, 8-1; Don’tcrossthedevil, Lane Luzzi, 117, 10-1; Barber Road, Reylu Gutierrez, 117, 4-1; Cairama, Geovanni Franco, 117, 8-1; Cool Papa G, Ramon Vazquez, 117, 6-1; Immoral, Tiago Pereira, 117, 20-1; and Ben Diesel, Jon Court, 117, 5-1.
Oaklawn’s totalisator system can accommodate 14 wagering interests after an upgrade for the 2017 meeting.
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen nominated 21 horses to the Smarty Jones and entered three – All in Sync, Cairama and Cool Papa G. Trainer Brad Cox nominated 14 and entered program favorite Home Brew and Vivar. Trainer Kenny McPeek nominated five and entered Dash Attack. Fair Grounds-based trainer Dallas Stewart, who has a small string at Oaklawn, is scheduled to be represented by Ben Diesel.
Strong interest in the Smarty Jones comes on the heels of two other recent 17-point Kentucky Derby preps – $400,000 Springboard Mile Stakes Dec. 17 at Remington Park and the inaugural $100,000 Gun Runner Stakes last Sunday at Fair Grounds.
“I think now, it’s boom, boom, boom,” Pope said. “What I’m seeing, trainers do this even for Breeders’ Cup, they work backwards. The don’t work forwards. So, they sit there and work backwards. How many races do I need to get to the Kentucky Derby? How many races do I need to get to the Arkansas Derby? And what’s the best scenario to do it?”
Ben Diesel exits a fourth-place finish in the $400,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) Nov. 27 at Churchill Downs. The son of champion and 2013 Smarty Jones winner Will Take Charge is a homebred for Willis Horton of Marshall, Ark. Ben Diesel is full brother to Will’s Secret, who won Oaklawn’s $200,000 Martha Washington Stakes and $300,000 Honeybee Stakes (G3) for 3-year-old fillies at the 2021 Oaklawn meeting for Stewart and Horton.
Barber Road, Cool Papa G and Ignitis finished 2-3-6, respectively, in the $200,000 Lively Shively Stakes at 6 ½ furlongs Nov. 27 at Churchill Downs. Lively Shively winner Tejano Twist returned to run second in the Gun Runner at 1 1/16 miles.
Vivar finished sixth in the Kentucky Jockey Club for Cox and breeder/owner John Ed Anthony of Hot Springs, who teamed to win the 2021 Smarty Jones with Caddo River. Home Brew, in his two-turn debut, was a Dec. 4 entry-level allowance winner at Oaklawn. Dash Attack was a career debut winner at 1 mile Dec. 5 at Oaklawn.
Kavod, Cairama and Ruggs were 1-3-4, respectively, in the $150,000 Advent Stakes Dec. 3.
Kavod won the 6-furlong Advent – Oaklawn’s first stakes race for 2-year-olds since 1973 – in his first start after being claimed out of a Nov. 20 sprint victory at Churchill Downs for $50,000 by trainer Chris Hartman. The Smarty Jones would mark Kavod’s two-turn debut on the main track.
“We’re just looking at it,” Hartman, Oaklawn’s 2015 training champion, said Tuesday afternoon. “We’ll see how he looks in the race.”
Like the Smarty Jones, the Southwest is a 17-point race. The stakes become bigger in the Rebel (85 points to the top four finishers, including 50 to the winner) and Arkansas Derby (170, including 100 to the winner).
Starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby, which is limited to 20 horses, is determined by points earned in designated races like the Smarty Jones, Southwest, Rebel and Arkansas Derby.
The date of the Arkansas Derby is now more in line with other final major Kentucky Derby preps across the country. The 170-point Louisiana Derby, for example, is only a week before the Arkansas Derby in 2022.
“It’s the trend,” Asmussen said. “You know, more time between races for big horses.”
Qualifying points are only awarded to horses who don’t use race-day Lasix in Road to the Kentucky Derby races. None of the 14 Smarty Jones entrants will be racing on the anti-bleeder medication Saturday.
Oaklawn’s scheduled 66-day meeting ends May 8, the day after the Kentucky Derby.
Oaklawn Barn Notes by Robert Yates
Photo: Coady Photography