Oaklawn Park’s series of Kentucky Derby (G1) preps commences with Monday’s $150,000 Smarty Jones, and the shippers are invading Hot Springs for Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, and Steve Asmussen.
Baffert has historically had success taking the Oaklawn route, most notably with American Pharoah, who romped in the 2015 Rebel (G2) and Arkansas Derby (G1) en route to Triple Crown glory. Four days after the American Pharoah statue is unveiled at Oaklawn, Baffert’s current hopeful Mourinho will seek his first stakes victory in the Smarty Jones.
A commanding winner of his Santa Anita debut, Mourinho beat the promising Peace and Instilled Regard, the eventual runner-up (elevated via disqualification) in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1). But he’s since been overturned as the favorite in his two stakes appearances, getting nailed late after a wicked pace in the Speakeasy S. and settling for second to Greyvitos in the November 11 Bob Hope (G3) at Del Mar. That result was boosted when Greyvitos went on to capture Remington’s Springboard Mile.
Mourinho took the blinkers off for the Bob Hope, but dons them once again as he stretches out to two turns for the first time here. He was originally entered for last Saturday’s Sham (G3) at his Santa Anita base, also at a mile, but scratched in favor of Oaklawn. Baffert already had his better-fancied stablemate McKinzie, the Los Al Futurity winner, in the Sham, and he duly cruised home. If Mourinho breaks through in the Smarty Jones, it could be read as an indirect flattery of McKinzie. Drayden Van Dyke will be back aboard Phoenix Thoroughbred’s $625,000 son of 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver.
The Pletcher-trained Navistar is likely to attract support, having finished second to highly regarded Mask in their mutual debut at Belmont Park October 20. Both have won in the interim at Gulfstream Park, with Navistar graduating around a one-turn mile December 16 and Mask earning rave reviews for his performance in last Saturday’s Mucho Macho Man. Purchased for $900,000 as an OBS March two-year-old, the Robert LaPenta colorbearer by Union Rags brings John Velazquez along for his stakes and two-turn debut.
Asmussen is double-handed with Tap Daddy and Combatant, both Scat Daddy colts proven over a route of ground. Tap Daddy, who just missed to future Kitten’s Joy winner Flameaway in the off-the-turf Bourbon (G3) at Keeneland last October, scored in a Churchill Downs turf allowance in his juvenile finale. Luis Contreras picks up the mount on the Winchell Thoroughbreds’ homebred, the only two-time winner in the field (albeit on turf) and 117-pound highweight. Combatant, co-owned by Winchell and Willis Horton, rolled in his Churchill maiden win and exits a closing second to Greyvitos, as the favorite, in the Springboard Mile. Ricardo Santana Jr. maintains their partnership.
Bode’s Maker was also last seen in the Springboard Mile, where he never got involved from off the pace in seventh. The Allen Milligan pupil had previously broken his maiden over the same track and trip, and two starts back, finished a late-running second in the Clever Trevor. As his name implies, Bode’s Maker is by 2012 Arkansas Derby hero and Kentucky Derby/Preakness (G1) runner-up Bodemeister.
Hall of Famer Gary Stevens picks up the mount aboard Shortleaf Stable’s Lone Rock. Trained by William Van Meter, the Majestic Warrior colt aired over a mile at Indiana Grand before trudging home 10th in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1). Lone Rock bounced back with a half-length second in a Churchill allowance in his latest.
Arched Feather scored a 39-1 upset in a 1 1/16-mile maiden at Churchill in his third attempt, beating next-out winner He’s Bankable. The Arch half-brother to 2014 Illinois Derby (G3) victor Dynamic Impact now takes the class hike versus stakes rivals.
The Smarty Jones offers points toward the Kentucky Derby, on the familiar 10-4-2-1 scale to the top four finishers.