Smile Happy rolls home a winner off the layoff March 16 at Oaklawn Park (Coady Photography)
Oaklawn Park Press Release
HOT SPRINGS, Ark.— After winning his March 16 comeback at Oaklawn, trainer Kenny McPeek said Smile Happy would likely make his next start in the $1 million Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for older horses at 1 1/8 miles April 22.
Instead, Smile Happy is among seven older horses entered in Saturday’s $400,000 Oaklawn Mile (G3). Probable post time for the Oaklawn Mile, which goes as the fifth of 13 races, is 2:32 p.m. (Central). Racing begins at 12:30 p.m.
Smile Happy will be cutting back to a mile after capturing an allowance race last month at 1 1/8 miles, which marked his first start since finishing eighth in the 2022 Kentucky Derby.
“I can’t tell you I’m absolutely thrilled with the switch in the distance, but the horse is tricky to train,” McPeek said. “I would almost rather run him than trying to figure out how to get him to work out. We’re still looking at the Oaklawn Handicap. He’s a really nice horse to be around, but he’s tricky to train. He’ll gallop the wrong way real well and some days he gallops perfectly and some days he says, ‘Not today.’ A bit of a challenge, but high level talent. He’s not the first horse that was ever like this. He won’t be the last.”
The projected Oaklawn Mile field from the rail out: Smile Happy, Francisco Arrieta to ride, 121 pounds, 9-5 on the morning line; Necker Island, Mitchell Murrill, 117, 15-1; Hero Status, Cristian Torres, 117, 12-1; Silver Prospector, Tyler Gaffalione, 121, 8-1; Caddo River, Ricardo Santana Jr., 121, 4-1; Atoka, Mickaelle Michel, 117, 20-1; and Hopper, John Velazquez, 117, 7-5.
Smile Happy was among the country’s leading Kentucky Derby prospects last year after winning both starts 2, including the $400,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) at 1 1/16 miles, by a combined 8 ¾ lengths.
After finishing second in two major Kentucky Derby preps to open his 3-year-old campaign, Smile Happy didn’t run again in 2022 after being beaten 10 lengths by Rich Strike in the Kentucky Derby. McPeek said he decided to stop on Smile Happy because of bone bruising and point the son of champion Runhappy to a 4-year-old campaign.
Smile Happy recorded a 1 ¼-length victory in his comeback, covering 1 1/8 miles over a sloppy track in a meet-best 1:48.95.
“Looks like he’s well drawn in there,” McPeek said. “Looks like he’ll be tough in there, but I do think I would rather have the extra eighth of a mile. But he’s the kind of horse that could win anyway.”
After finishing second in 2020 (Improbable) and 2022 (Cezanne), Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert bids for his first Oaklawn Mile victory with Hopper, the Southern California-based program favorite.
Hopper, who removes blinkers, will be cutting back to a mile after finishing fourth in the $500,000 Santa Anita Handicap (G1) for older horses at 1 ¼ miles March 4 at Santa Anita. The Oaklawn Mile will be Hopper’s first start outside California.
“Hopper, he’s a big, strong horse,” Baffert said. “There’s nothing here for a little bit in California. I want to see how he ships. It’s a good purse and he’s a two-turn kind of horse. I would have liked to have drawn on the inside there, but he’s got a lot of speed for a big, powerful horse.”
Hopper recorded his biggest career victory to date in the $100,000 Affirmed Stakes (G3) for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles last June at Santa Anita. He also finished second, beaten a length by Newgrange, in the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes (G2) for older horses at 1 1/8 miles Jan. 28 at Santa Anita. The San Pasqual marked Hopper’s first start since the Affirmed.
“The break is so important, being on the outside there,” Baffert said, referring to the Oaklawn Mile. “He needs to break well. Like I said, he has speed. He’s quick. He’s a super thick, massive horse, but he’s light on his feet.”
Caddo River returns to stakes company after winning a 1 1/16-mile allowance race Feb. 25 at Oaklawn in his first start for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Caddo River, a homebred for Arkansas lumberman John Ed Anthony, won the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes at 1 mile in 2021 at Oaklawn for trainer Brad Cox.
“Caddo, that’s his thing,” Lukas said. “Let’s put it this way: A mile is very much in his wheelhouse. I mean it really is probably, the little I’ve been able to evaluate him and everything, I think that’s his best distance.”
Necker Island (trainer Chris Hartman) and Silver Prospector (Steve Asmussen) finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in last year’s Oaklawn Mile.