By Joe Quillen
Monday 1/1/24 – Oaklawn Park – Smarty Jones Stakes
Happy New Year from all of us here at Bleacher Brothers and hopefully you have the best year yet! Also, happy birthday to all thoroughbred and harness horses in the Northern Hemisphere! Did you know that January 1 is the unofficial day of all horses’ birthday for age classification? So those horses that ran up to yesterday as two-year-olds are now three-year-olds, three-year-olds are now four-year-olds, and so on.
Let’s begin the 2024 edition of Quills Picks winners down to Oaklawn Park in Arkansas for the Smarty Jones Stakes. This race is part of Arkansas’ road to the Kentucky Derby, as there will be points given to the top five finishers in this race.
Smarty Jones has a deep impact in Pennsylvania horse racing. He almost did not make it to the races after getting injured while training leading up to his first race. He ended up winning his first two races at Philadelphia Park, then a race at Aqueduct before sweeping the then three-race series in Arkansas to get into the Kentucky Derby.
Smarty was in line for a $5 million bonus for winning those three Oaklawn races on its 100th anniversary. Then on Kentucky Derby Day, the underdog horse who almost didn’t get to the races won America’s most famous race! He won the Preakness before a heartbreaking defeat in the Belmont in his final race of his career.
That performance alone saved horse racing in Pennsylvania as casino gaming was allowed in the state, and the bill became law in the Philadelphia Park winner’s circle, where Smarty visited twice on his road to stardom.
Today, horses that want to go through the path that Smarty Jones took starts today in Hot Springs with nine horses entered. This year, the race was lengthened to a mile and a sixteenth from the original one mile distance that this race ran in previous years.
Favored on the morning line is the 7 Just Steel (9/5 morning line) who has already run seven times in his career. Though this horse is sired by Triple Crown winner Justify, I question if this horse can go two turns. It appears right now that Justify’s offspring win at a higher clip at sprint distances, but we are only talking about two crops of offspring so far for Justify. This is a good race to see if the previous races so far are just a figment of our imaginations, but this is the time of the year when you start to figure if your horses are sprinters instead of routers who could get the Kentucky Derby distance, horses that are better suited for turf vs. the dirt, and other scenarios.
There’s time for a legend like D. Wayne Lukas to do with this horse between now and the first Saturday in May, but I will let this horse beat me today if he is good enough.
It will be interesting to see if Just Steel goes for the lead here like he did at the Breeders’ Futurity in October at Keeneland. The 6 Gettysburg Address (7/2 ML) went for the lead in a sloppy Grade 3 Street Sense at the end of October at Churchill. He weakened in the stretch of that race. Trainer Brad Cox takes the blinkers off here, so if this is your betting angle, this maybe it for you since Cox horses win 32% of the time after this equipment change.
I think Fidget (15/1 ML) could go for the lead as well with Gettysburg Address and potentially Just Steel. This is going to set up nicely for the inside runners the 1 Informed Patriot (8/1 ML), the 2 Catching Freedom (9/2) and the 3 Lagynos (6/1 ML). I’ll go with Lagynos having the experience of going this distance twice already and a being ready to pounce as the speed starts to wear down. Catching Freedom will be right there too with Informed Patriot.