Road to the 2023 Kentucky Derby – The Smarty Jones Stakes – By Eric Solomon

The first of four Derby Points races at Oaklawn and the first Derby Points Race for three year olds is the Smarty Jones Stakes. This race is named for the 2004 Kentucky Derby winner who blazed through prep races in Arkansas en route to his Triple Crown bid that came up just short. This year’s running features a field of eight, headed by Brad Cox’s Victory Formation (#8). Ken McPeek, who won this race last year with Dash Attack, sends out the second and third choices, Ten Days Later (#5) and Denington (#6)

Oaklawn Park, Sunday 1/1/22, Race 8: The $250K Smarty Jones Stakes

20 Total Derby points (10/4/3/2/1)

1 – C.J.’s Storm (30-1 ML): He’s a three year old Indiana bred making his 6th career start today. He made his stakes debut in the Advent Stakes on opening day, where he finished 8th. He looks seriously overmatched in this spot today.

2 – How Did He Do That (12-1 ML): He’s another one that is coming out of the Advent Stakes three weeks ago. The 4th place finisher, Frosted Departure, was an upset winner of the Renaissance Stakes yesterday, beating Count de Monet, who was victorious in the Advent. He’s shown improvement in his last two races, and despite making all six career starts in sprint races, he has the pedigree to handle the mile distance that he’ll be tasked with getting today. 

3 – Communication Memo (5-1 ML, 175-1 Circa): He finished in the money in his first three starts, losing to nice horses such as Loggins, Corona Bolt, and Victory Formation (who is entered back today). He shipped here and broke his maiden handily when going this one mile distance for the first time. His trainer, Steve Asmussen, has been off to a slow start at this meet, winning only one other race. He’s the second horse to make it to the track from the Empire Maker dam, Take a Memo. He’s sired by the freshman sire, Bolt d’Oro, so there’s reason to believe that he can compete at this distance. The question will be if he’s good enough now to make up the 7 and ½ lengths that Victory Formation beat him by in October. 

4 – Western Ghent (30-1 ML): For a horse that had raced seven times prior to his effort in the Kentucky Jockey Club, I thought he was still very green. He’s been beaten by over 25 lengths in five of his eight career starts, so he’d be a very tough sell for me today.

5 – Ten Days Later (7-2 ML, 125-1 Circa): Ken McPeek won both stakes races for two year olds yesterday along with two other races on yesterday’s card at Oaklawn. He’s looking to continue his roll with the duo that he has brought to town. This son of Collected overcame breaking from the twelve hole to break his maiden at Keeneland. He was a respectable third in his first try against winners at Churchill in his most recent effort, closing well late to get within a length of the winner. I like his recent form and I think he’s a logical alternative to the favorite for a barn that caught fire with their babies yesterday. 

6 –Denington (4-1 ML, 100-1 Circa): He was a close up 5th in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in his last start. Hayes Strike was third in that race and he came back to run 4th in the Gun Runner Stakes on Monday at the Fair Grounds. Like his stablemate, he earned a career top Beyer Speed Figure in his last start. However, I didn’t love that race in general, and I’m not very high on the horses coming out of that race at the moment. There’s also not much early speed for him to chase, which may make his task a bit more difficult. I prefer others in this race at better odds. 

7 – Angel of Empire (15-1 ML): The first of two runners sent out by Brad Cox is this son of Classic Empire who is undefeated in two starts on the dirt. He does have a poor effort on the turf at Kentucky Downs sandwiched in between his two career wins at Horseshoe Indiana. He was a winner at first asking when catching a sloppy course in a one mile test in August. After the poor effort at Kentucky Downs, he was given a little time off and he returned two months later to clear the N2L allowance condition in easy fashion. He’ll need to take another step forward today, but there is definitely more in the tank for him. With Cox sending out the favorite, he may go off at odds close to his 15-1 morning line figure, which would represent decent value in my eyes. 

8 – Victory Formation (6-5 ML, 150-1 Circa): The heavy favorite on the morning line has two strong efforts on his resume. He was an easy winner in his debut at Keeneland, handily beating next out winner Release McCracken and Communication Memo. He came back to clear the N1X allowance condition by edging out Two Eagles River, who was the second place finisher in the Renaissance Stakes yesterday. His dam has produced two other winners, including Bellamore who is graded stakes placed in route races on dirt and turf. He’s sired by Belmont winner Tapwrit, so the added distance doesn’t feel like it should be an issue. He should have things his own way on the front end as there isn’t a ton of early speed to contend with. Flavien Prat is coming to town to ride, suggesting that there are some high hopes for him. 



The Verdict: 8-7-5

While I acknowledge I’ll be taking a short price on a horse doing something new for the first time, I think Victory Formation is too good for this field. He’s been very impressive in his first two starts, and now he appears primed to get a very friendly front end trip in his stakes debut. He’s bred to be a talented runner and his barn is loaded with talented three year olds that have their eyes on Louisville in the spring. 

Cox’s other runner, Angel of Empire is an interesting runner and may offer the best value in the field. Joe Talamo has been riding most of Cox’s horses at this meet and he’l be named on this longshot who has done everything right on the dirt so far. Ken McPeek is red hot, winning four races yesterday, including both stakes races. He’s looking to sweep the weekend stakes slate in Hot Springs, and I feel Ten Days Later is more likely than his stablemate, Denington, to do so. His last two races have shown improvement, and he should be able to sit a decent, midpack trip. 

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