HOT SPRINGS — The first of Oaklawn Park’s four major races for 3-year-olds is in the books and now comes the fun part, interpreting the results with an eye on the future.
Despite a $90,000 check for first and 10 points in the Kentucky Derby standings, the Smarty Jones on Monday was not the ultimate goal of any of the nine horses in the race. For some, it was simply a starting point for their 3-year-old year. Besides, with the bigger prep races in March and April, no trainer is going to have his horse cranked to the max in January.
In that vein, think Usain Bolt in Jamaica’s Olympic Trials. The winner of the 100 and the 200 in the 2008 Olympics, Bolt lost the 100- and the 200-meter trial to training partner Yohan Blake. Weeks later in London, when it mattered most, Bolt won double gold.
At Oaklawn, the Smarty Jones, the Southwest on Feb. 18, and the Rebel on March 16 are a series of trials. Locally, the ultimate is the Arkansas Derby with an eye on the Kentucky Derby.
The purse in the Southwest is twice that of the Smarty Jones and the Rebel winner gets four times the money that Smarty winner Will Take Charge banked on Monday. Points for the winner jump to 50 in the Rebel and 100 in the Derby.
In addition to trying to guess the fitness of the competitors, the quirky one-mile distance of the Smarty Jones is also in play in an analysis. Often, the short stretch works against horses that come from far off the pace, although the winner was as far back as seventh in the early going.
Separated by about two lengths, the one-two-three finishers all competed on Dec. 9 — Will Take Charge and Texas Bling in Oklahoma and Always in a Tiz in a small stakes race in New York. The fact that Always in a Tiz won the first race of his career at prestigious Saratoga and recorded good workouts in Florida earned him the favorite’s role on Monday. Bearing down on Will Take Charge and Texas Bling, Always in a Tiz was the most visually impressive in the stretch, something that will get the attention of many bettors if he pursues the Oaklawn path to the Derby.
Apparently upset about the ride by Paco Lopez, trainer Dominic Schettino refused to talk with the media. You don’t have to read between the lines to know that Schettino thought he had the best horse and the fact that the Smarty Jones was only the third start of his career says there is plenty of upside to Always in a Tiz.
Purchased for $425,000 as a yearling, Will Take Charge’s only previous victory was on the artificial surface at Keeneland, a result that prompted D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of four Kentucky Derby winners, to run the son of Unbridled’s Song in a Grade II race at Churchill Downs. He finished last in a field of 13, a result explained away by jockey Jon Cour,t who said Will Take Charge was nervous that day. Court described Will Take Charge as "calm, cool, and collected" on Monday.
Personally, Brown Almighty and Avare were the biggest disappointments in the Smarty Jones.
Brown Almighty, first or second in four races on the grass last year and supposedly even better on the dirt, was a non-competitive fifth. Jockey Corey Nakatani invoked a favorite excuse: "He never took to the track."
Doug O’Neill, who won the 2012 Kentucky Derby with I’ll Have Another, shipped Avare from California to beat two horses. Texas Bling ran him into the ground early.
"It’s not the end of the world," O’Neill said. One race in January does not make or break a 3-year-old, but some trainers will have to dig deep to find a reason to come back in the Southwest.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.