The Smarty Jones

I’ll take any chance that I can to rave about one of my all-time favorite horses, Smarty Jones, who Monday’s stakes race for 3YO from Oaklawn is named. He raced at Oaklawn through his 3YO winter in 2004, winning all 3 stakes he entered.

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Monday’s race is 8f for 3YO. Still a bit on the shorter side distance-wise, but this race may mark some decent contenders moving into the season at Oaklawn. Mr. Z has been in some tight photos as of late, but has been competitive against the top of the division. He has 10 points already and a win here would get him pretty close to the magic number for qualifying for the Derby. Lucky Player also with 10 points, returns after failing to back up his G3 win in the Iroquois. He’ll have to move forward — not impossible, but not something that seems very likely.

Hebbronville is interesting on his first stretchout on a (likely) fast track. Weather looks nice this weekend in Hot Springs, so no concern of another wet track for this one.

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He could be something — which he showed by running well against Blofeld in the Futurity last October. Far Right is interesting, but another that would need to move forward significantly to win. I’d rather wait a race on horses like that. I don’t like Bayerd past this distance — he could get the mile here, though. He’s intriguing — more of a sprinter against many of these prepping for longer and bigger things. He’s worth a look, but today only.

For those playing, I’d move away from those with points — Mr. Z and Lucky Player — and towards some possible prices. Consider instead Bayerd to steal it with the short stretch or for Hebbronville to enjoy the added distance and dry track.

Good luck on Monday at Oaklawn.

Image: Jean, Copyright 2009.

The Jerome (Grade III)

Attention turns back to the Kentucky Derby trail this weekend, with the GIII Jerome from Aqueduct. 9 3YO’s are entered and will contest a distance of about 8.3f on the inner dirt track. 10 Derby qualifying points will be awarded to the winner — the same as every other 2/3YO prep race until the Risen Star and Fountain of Youth in late February, when the points rise to 50 for the winner (50/2010/5 — 1st through 4th place finishes). The points will rise again to 100 with the final major preps of the spring (100/40/20/10). Note that the 4th place finisher in these races will earn as many points as the winner here.

This shouldn’t suggest however that the points earned in these early races aren’t important. 20 horses will qualify for the Derby — and those who run well in the later preps will be among the top qualifiers. However, at the bottom end of the qualifying range, a few cobbled together points in the fall and winter could be the difference between qualifying and not qualifying, especially if that horse runs up the track in the later preps.

Here a list of the horses that have already earned Kentucky Derby points who are running in the Jerome:

  • El Kabeir: 11

That’s it. With a win here, El Kabeir would now amass 21 points, which is more than the minimum amount needed to qualify for the Derby the past two years. So, with a win, he would pretty much come close to guaranteeing his spot in the Derby field — a fairly nice position to be in at this point in the season. As for anyone else in the race, they’d likely need to couple a good performance here with a stronger performance down the road to make it to the gate in Louisville.

On paper, El Kabeir, who I liked at 7-1 in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, seems a clear standout. He moved forward back on a dry track and around two turns, but likely won’t get those conditions tomorrow:

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This lowers his projected speed figure, and unless El Kabeir rates a bit, the outside post might prove a bit tricky. Calvin Borel was set to ride, but won’t due to the passing of his sister-in-law. Hopefully, a skilled local jock will pick up the ride, one who understands the nuances of navigating a sloppy inner track.

The weather-risk is enough to make me look elsewhere, although the remainder of the field is fairly unaccomplished. Ostrolenka, who ran well in NY-bred stakes, didn’t far too well last out in his open-company debut in the Remsen. He could turn it around today, especially against this mostly unproven field, but he’ll have to prove it to me a bit more before getting any action at this level. He also struggled in his lone start over a wet track (although it was his debut.) I like Nasa a bit, and not only because these connections are the same as Smarty Jones, one of my favorite horses of all-time, who also happens to be the sire.

Back in 2003, Smarty Jones won the PA Nursery Stakes as well, although it was a bit more authoritatively than Nasa, who earned an 86 Beyer in winning by 2 1/4 lengths:

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Smarty, of course, would go on to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown and lose to Birdstone in the final furlong of the Belmont. Like Nasa, he made his open stakes debut at Aqueduct in the first week of January (schedule changes have replaced the ungraded Count Fleet with the G3 Jerome):

Nasa will be stretching out for the first time, which offers some potential for improvement with Smarty Jones as his sire and Seattle Slew as his damsire. He’s a tough read, but should be helped by the wet track surface, always a plus. Given the likely wet track and the fact he should enjoy the extra ground and very well could be good value at a price, and certainly it is more than reasonable to use him in exactas with El Kabeir.

Ackeret is the final contender worth mentioning. An impressive allowance winner last out over a wet, fast track at Parx, he’s another that will be stretching out for the first time. He’s by freshman sire Mach Ride, himself a graded stakes winner sprinter, but it’s far to early to responsibly make predictions on his sire’s stamina. I typically like to wait a race with his trainer on the stretchout, especially moving from 6f.

Ultimately, it will be interesting to see how the public bets the Jerome given the rain. If concerns about the rain raise El Kabeir’s price to 5/2, he’s a solid play, but I’d be surprised to see him priced that high at post time. Nasa certainly seems a reasonable play at 5-1 or better. I’ll use these two in multi-race wagers (P3, P4), and I’ll leave anyone else off the tickets. Good luck at the races this weekend!

Image: Naoki Nakashimi, Copyright 2010.

Belmont Diary — 8:34 A.M. Wednesday

Relatively quiet here at Belmont Park in the AM. California Chrome made an appearance — to the delight of about a hundred spectators lining the rail.  He’s visually impressive — has a strong head about him. Critics abound, however. The most critical gave much credit to what could be called “crazy racing luck” at worst, or “good positioning” at best. Some buzz about Commanding Curve, the second place Derby finisher.  He’s in good form and quite possibly improved off the Derby.  He’ll need to be if Chrome runs his race.

Interest throughout the town — certainly to increase as we get closer. Even non-racing fans are excited for California Chrome — don’t think I’ve seen this level of popular interest since Smarty Jones.  Fairly long segment yesterday during drive-time on THE FAN – always a good barometer of interest.  NYC is always a great sports town, but with a Triple Crown on the line and the Rangers in the Stanley Cup, the vibe is excellent.

The draw is in a few hours.  With such a long race, post position is less important. The most winners have come from the 1st post, but the last to do so was Empire Maker in 2003.

Remember, it’s not just the Belmont Stakes over the next few days. Belmont has the usual top-quality racing for the next three days — along with the inaugural Belmont Gold Cup contested over 2 miles on the turf on Friday. In addition to the usual coverage of the race of the day, I’ll have extensive coverage of one of the best races of the year, the Met Mile.