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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Monday, January 20, 2014 at 12:00 AM

Volume V…Number 2


10 Line Up In $150K Smarty Jones Stakes

On Saturday at Fair Grounds the 2014 Derby Prep Season got underway in dominant form as trainer Mike Maker had Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s Vicar’s In Trouble broke from the gate alertly, stacked three wide just off the pace until the far turn while under restraint and kicked clear when urged at the top of the stretch in the Grade III Lecomte Stakes while 8 rivals genuflected meekly behind him.

Neither this analyst nor the public was fooled by the misplaced 9-2 ML as the son of terrific young sire Into Mischief was bet down to 8-5 second favoritism behind 6-5 public choice Gold Hawk who could not catch the place finisher Albano, who was clearly best of those behind the winner.

The key to the outcome…as regards moving forward…wasn’t as much the margin of victory but how he handled the status and conditions of the race. First off, it was only the third career start for the colt. After an even third in a 6 furlong MSW sprint at Keeneland last October Maker gave the youngster a break until his return here for a La. Bred MSW try in which he drew off by 13 lengths. That was a most impressive effort but he still had to prove he could beat open company winners and more importantly, handle two turns. He did both easily.

Vicar’s In Trouble’s sire Into Mischief gave many indications early in his racing career that he was going to be a good one but that career was interrupted by an injury that sent him to the breeding shed before his 3-year old season got seriously underway. His second crop, in 2103 included 27 winners from 48 starters and 7 stakes winners so his progeny seem to have inherited his briefly shown brilliance. But what might prove even more important as the Road To The Derby gets steeper and deeper is the fact that his female line that goes through multiple Grade I winner Big Spruce is loaded with the kind of stamina that has been prevalent in determining legitimate Derby and Triple Crown performers in recent years. The male speed and female distance breeding is just what the Ramsey’s and Maker could have wished for.

Surprisingly, as spot on as the public was regarding Vicar’s In Trouble they were also off the mark when it came to runner up Albano. With all due modesty, this handicapper can say that he did not disregard the 11-1 post-time-off-odds son of Istan, who was two-for-two over the surface after winning the Sugar Bowl Stakes (a sprint prep for this race) in commanding fashion in his prior. Like the winner, there might have been questions regarding his ability to get two turns but given that trainer Larry Jones seemed to be making many right decisions at the meet (10 wins…6 seconds…4 thirds form 34 starters heading into Friday racing) plus a second best of thirty four 5 furlong works breezing in 1:00 flat 5 days before the race made him a very live longshot. Conditioner Jones is no stranger to the Derby trail or Derby (he trained Smarty Jones, the namesake of Monday’s Oaklawn Stakes that I’ll preview below) and this colt might have every reason to be regarded as he moves forward.

Impeccably bred (a son of Empire Maker) and already a dominant winner at two turns over the track when he won an entry level allowance race in his prior, Gold Hawk was a legitimate, although much too short priced favorite. Nonetheless he raced greenly throughout as he was troublesome at the gate, raced wide n a few occasions and ran decently but underwhelming through the lane to get the show.

That effort completed my…WIN – EXACTA – TRIFECTA SELECTIONS
Vicar’s In Trouble - $5.40 (On Top)…Albano – 2nd EX. $39.40…Gold Hawk – 3rd TRI $91.80

Roman Unbridled attempted to make all the pace from the rail and wilted to fourth while Got Shades, who raced 5 times as a juvenile and was making his first 3-year old start after finishing fifth in last year’s BC Juvenile Turf, looked uncomfortable on dirt and might be better suited to the weeds. None of the others were heard form and none had excuses so might actually be ill-considered moving forward. The Lecomte is the first of three Fair Grounds preps that continues with the Risen Star on February 22, the next likely start for Vicar’s In Trouble and the Louisiana Derby on March 29.

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10 SET TO GO IN SMARTY JONES STAKES MONDAY - Click here to get this prep race and the day’s other top races

On Martin Luther King Day Monday, Oaklawn Park will host the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes, the first of four races for 3-year old Kentucky derby hopefuls that will continue with the Southwest Stakes on February 17, the Rebel Stakes on March 15 and the Arkansas Derby on April 12.

Interestingly, last year’s Smarty Jones winner was Will Take Charge ($26.20), who later photoed at Oaklawn in the Rebel Stakes. Of course Will Take Charge then went on to disastrous performances in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes before regrouping later in the year to win the Grade I Travers, Grade II Pennsylvania Derby, Grade I Clark Handicap as well as finish second in the Grade II Jim Dandy and Grade I BC Classic, all after early June’s Belmont failure and all distinguished enough performances to earn him the Eclipse Award as the 3-Year Old of the Year.

Whether any of the 10 3-year olds entered in Monday’s 2014 edition of the Smarty Jones Stakes goes on to 3-year old greatness has many chapters to unfold before such a story can be told but the Oaklawn circuit has produced some serious contenders for the Triple Crown, not the least of which was the race this race’s namesake, Smarty Jones who went on to win the Arkansas Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness before finishing second in the Belmont Stakes in 2004.

It is too early of course to know what to expect in May and June but right now the connections of 9 colts and one gelding have entered with high hopes.
Let’s take a look at the field from the rail out.

D’cajun Cat (6-1) – The Steve Asmussen trained D’wildcat colt ships here from Fair Grounds where he was last seen flashing speed before finishing third in the Sugar Bowl Stakes behind Albano, who made a good showing when he finished second in Saturday’s Lecomte Stakes. Asmussen will be hoping for a better performance here with D’cajun Cat then he got from Gold Hawk, who finished a non-threatening third in the Lecomte as the 6-5 choice as his colt will attempt to carry his speed further as he is stretched out beyond 6 furlongs for the first time in his fourth career race. Whether he is able to get the mile distance remains to be seen but he will contribute to the pace.

Whyruawesome ( 12-1) – Trainer Anne Smith sends out the son of Whywhywhy for his 2014 debut following a 9 week break after a no threat fifth in the Grade III Delta Jackpot last November. The gelding was a winner on the Arlington synthetic in his career debut and followed that with a promising second in the Grade III Arlington-Washington Futurity over the same surface. In his final 3 starts as a juvenile, however, he more or less plodded through his efforts and gave indications that he had regressed rather than progressed. He has turned in 5 solid breezes over the Fair Grounds main track since returning to training, but it remains to be seen if he is capable of moving in these circles.

Fire Starter (5-1) –At first glance the son of Tapit might appear to be an afterthought. Although he won his most recent race by 10 lengths that was his fourth career try in the MSW ranks so this is a considerable step forward. But the well-bred colt is a 300K yearling purchase and in his first two career starts (at Churchill Downs) he closed with interest late and gave every indication that he preferred a distance of ground. In start number three he was sent off as the favorite in an 8 ½ furlong MSW test and bore out badly and was pulled up. Following a short break he returned to break his maiden vs special weights in a mile test at Laurel on 12/31. Based on his breeding he could be any kind but given his slightly troubled past and the fact that he has had just one published half mile breeze (here at Oaklawn) since his maiden breaker he remains an unknown that is tough to get a handle on heading into the race.

Son Of A Preacher (5-2) – Established as the co-ML favorite along with Coastline, the Bret Calhoun trained son of Pulpit is another who should have little difficulty handling a distance of ground. He easily handled his rivals in his career debut when he won off by 2 lengths in a 6 furlong MSW dash at Churchill Downs in late October. As his breeding suggested the connections tried him on the turf in a one mile allowance in his next and he was a disinterested fifth before bouncing back with a good pressing effort at a mile and seventy yards over the Fair Grounds main track in another allowance on December 27. He was bumped at the start of that race, travelled 4 wide early on and checked in second behind the aforementioned Gold Hawk, who finished third as the choice in Saturday’s Lecomte. In his brief career he has shown capable cruising speed so probably should be given a good look in here.

A Step Ahead (12-1) – Trainer Brian Williamson just took over the training duties from Chris Block and the Giant’s Causeway colt will be making his first start for the conditioner following a series of 4 solid drills after finishing a good second in the restricted $125,000 Futurity for Illinois breds at Hawthorne in mid-December. The colt made his career debut on the turf to no avail and then broke his maiden going two turns over a sloppy oval at Hawthorne prior to the Futurity. In that race he tracked 3 wide, rolled out 5 wide for his stretch run and looked very comfortable as he jogged out past the wire. His breeding is top notch and if he improves another step or two off that last race he could be a very rewarding longshot.

Wait (6-1) – Heading into Sunday trainer Chris Hartman had won with 3 of his first 6 starters since bringing a string here from Remington Park. This Kentucky bred son of Run Away And Hide may be as good as any of them. The colt has run all three of his career races at Remington and after breaking his maiden in his debut he made it two for two with a daylight allowance win at 6 ½ furlongs and in his last was caught 5 wide in the $250,000 Springboard Mile Stakes and was into full stride as he came late for fourth. He has shown interest and based on his two sprints would probably like to be much closer early than he was in the Springboard. His BRIS speed figures have been solid and consistent so he may be this good.

Denali Rahy Ruler (30-1) – These are rather long odds for a colt that has won twice from four career starts, but they are also an indication that despite those two wins he has among the slowest speed ratings of any of the entrants. Another Remington shipper, whose entire career has so far been spent at the Oklahoma track need only be compared to the colt to his inside, whose three career speed figures are each anywhere from 8-20 points higher than this guys. Young horses do improve dramatically at this point in their careers but it appears that this guy would have to step up big time to even get a minor award.

Tanzanite Cat (6-1) – Trainer Cody Autry has been lighting it up since the start of this still young meet with close to 40% winners from a sizable sample. If he can get this two time starter who just broke his maiden vs special weights in his last start and has never raced longer than 5 ½ furlongs he’ll build his props even more. The son of Graeme Hall did win easily in his last and has had a trio of useful drills over the Oaklawn surface since the early December win at Fair Grounds. Like any of the others in here he is entering uncharted territory but wouldn’t be a complete surprise. 

Unstoppable Colby (20-1) – Here we go again? This longshot son of Pulpit will go forward as a maiden for none other than D Wayne Lukas, who had quite a year with a horse by the name of Will Take Charge, who began 2013 by winning this race and ended 2013 with wins in the Travers, Pennsylvania Derby and Clark Handicap and a runner up finish in the BC Classic that got him Three-Year Old of the year honors. Whether this colt, which is still winless and will be making his first start since finishing second in a MSW sprint at CD on November 30, is another Will Take Charge is a fanciful question. Hunch players will back him. If you are one, good luck.

Coastline (5-2) – The only stakes winner in the race, the Mark Casse trained son of Speightstown is the logical ML favorite and will likely go off as the post time favorite despite his 8th place finish in the Grade III Delta Jackpot in his last. In that race he stumbled badly at the start and never recovered. He could be seen visibly struggling with the Delta Downs surface, as many horses do over the oddly configured track, and is more likely to be judged by the versatility shown in breaking his maiden at 7 furlongs over the Keeneland synthetic in career start number two and following that with a win in the Street Sense Stakes at CD going today’s mile distance. He did get a 5 furlong breeze over the surface a few days ago after shipping here from Gulfstream Park and a series of works at Palm Meadows so should be ready. If he runs back to his first three career races he will be a major player. But it is worth noting that jockey Shaun Bridgmohan will have to overcome a difficult post.

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