The route through Arkansas on the Kentucky Derby (GI) trail gets underway today with the 11th running of the Smarty Jones Stakes, named for the much beloved 2004 Derby and Preakness Stakes (GI) winner who swept the Southwest Stakes (GIII), Rebel Stakes (GII) and Arkansas Derby (GI) en route to dual classic winner status and the Eclipse Award as that year’s top sophomore. This year, the one-mile race carries a $125,000 purse and 10 points to the winner to make the starting gate in Louisville on the first Saturday in May.
The frigid temperatures that plagued the Hot Springs area over the past few days are expected to warm up a bit and the day’s highs are expected to reach the mid-50s under mostly sunny skies. The feature has been carded as the eighth race on the day with a post time of 4:38 p.m. CT.
The local favorite, who will lead the field to post, is the Steve Asmussen-trained Springboard Mile runner-up Combatant, while the West Coast is represented by Mourinho, trained by Bob Baffert, who sent Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to the spring preps in Arkansas in 2015. Also, defending Derby-winning trainer Todd Pletcher sends out Navistar in his first start against winners. Though only seven will run, a case can be made for just about all of them.
Mourinho, in addition to being Grade 3-placed, has the impressive status of being a regular workmate for recent Sham Stakes (GIII) hero McKinzie. With the latter likely staying California, Baffert has chosen his other favorite route to Louisville by shipping Mourinho to Arkansas to face a different crowd. This $625,000 2-year-old-in-training purchase hasn’t raced since his runner-up finish to Greyvitos in the Bob Hope Stakes (GIII) at Del Mar, but he’s been training steadily. He’s not the most eye-popping worker in the mornings as far as time goes, but his moves are deceptive and he does them with ease.
He’s never tried this distance, but he’s bred for the stretch-out and should actually improve. Plus, his stalking running style will be beneficial in here with what will likely be a fair amount of speed in front of him. He has some strong Brisnet speed and pace figures — among the best in his crop, let alone the best here — and he has the benefit of regular rider Drayden VanDyke shipping in for the mount. If he runs to the level he’s already shown, he’ll be tough to beat.
Combatant is another who was second to Greyvitos in his last start, this time in the Springboard Mile at Remington Park a month ago. Since this son of Scat Daddy showed he didn’t much care for the turf in his debut last September, he broke his maiden at this distance and then was second in a stakes, which kinda sets him up nicely for this race. Surface change aside, he has shown improvement with each start and, though his post position isn’t ideal, if he breaks well and gets to a ground-saving spot behind the speed (but maybe not as far back as last time), he has a good shot to claim the win under jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. Winchell Thoroughbreds owns this one in partnership with Willis Horton, of Take Charge Brandi fame.
Navistar broke his maiden at second asking at Gulfstream Park at this distance four weeks ago and the $900,000 son of Union Rags has been training lights-out at Palm Beach Downs since for Pletcher. The Robert LaPenta colorbearer is improving with each start and gets a confidence vote from the trainer’s go-to rider in Hall of Famer John Velazquez. Yes he has some question marks in his first stakes start, but he is in capable hands and likely running only because his connections believe him to have a legit shot. Expect him to break and head right to the lead.
Tap Daddy is Asmussen’s other Winchell Thoroughbreds-owned son of Scat Daddy here, but this one is coming off an 8 ½-furlong win over the Churchill Downs lawn six weeks ago.
Lone Rock, who broke his maiden last September at Indiana Downs by 10 widening lengths, made a logical step in stakes company in his next start but disappointed with a trouble-filled, nearly-last-place finish in the Breeders’ Futurity (GI) at Keeneland. Back with a second in an optional claiming event at Churchill two months ago, it’s encouraging that Hall of Famer Gary Stevens rides off a series of nice works over the oval over the past month.
Bode’s Maker is a nice son of Bodemeister who has some ability, but who may have his work cut out for him in this spot.