Three year olds kicked off the road to the Kentucky Derby at Oaklawn on New Year’s Day with the Smarty Jones Stakes. The heavy favorite was Victory Formation, coming from the Brad Cox barn, and the son of Tapwrit did not disappoint his backers. He is now undefeated in three career starts, coming into this race with a pair wins in sprint races in Kentucky against solid fields. On paper, it appeared that he was the lone speed threat in this race, and that scenario played out on the track. Flavien Prat came in from California to ride him for the first time. He hustled him away from the gate, and moved into the two path by the time they went into the first turn. On the turn, he gained the rail, passing Western Ghent, and running on an uncontested lead throughout the backstretch. The fractions of 23:20 and 47:75 were reasonable, and when they turned for home, it was clear that no one was going to be able to catch him. His final margin of victory was three lengths on the wire. The final time for the mile was 1:38:14 and he was assigned a career high 91 Beyer Speed Figure for his win.
Brad Cox also trained the runner-up, Angel of Empire, who ran a strong race at 18-1. Joe Talamo was able to save a lot of ground with him, and he was clearly second best. He now has three strong races on the dirt, with improving speed figures in each start. He looks like a horse that will be get better as the races get longer, so I see him as a horse to keep an eye on.
Ken McPeek, who won this race in 2022 with Dash Attack, sent out a pair of runners in hopes of defending his title. Denington, who was 5th in the Kentucky Jockey Club, was a non-threatening 3rd, six lengths behind the winner. His effort supports my theory that this year’s Kentucky Jockey Club was not a very strong race. Both Denington and Hayes Strike have now come back to run average races, and both were only beaten less than two lengths in that prior race. Ten Days Later, who was the second choice in the wagering, was very slow into stride, and spotted the field several lengths going into the first turn. He could do no better than 6th, beaten over 10 lengths.
Moving forward, Brad Cox continues to hold a strong hand in these preliminary races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. He’s earned points with Instant Coffee, Jace’s Road, Victory Formation, and Angel of Empire since Thanksgiving. He also trains Loggins and Verifying, who were second place finishers in the Breeders’ Futurity and the Champagne back in October. Giant Mischief ran a big race in the Remington Springboard Mile to get second last month, however, since that one ran with Lasix, he didn’t earn any points. It will be interesting to see how Cox keeps this group of seven separated.
Next week we’ll have two races with Derby Points, the Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct on Saturday January 7th, and the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on Sunday. Both races will offer up to 20 points toward entry into the 2023 Kentucky Derby.