One of the seven horses entered in Friday’s Smarty Jones Stakes will get his first stakes victory. It won’t be a graded stakes victory, but not one connection will throw this one back.

Caddo River-Smarty Jones
In three races, Caddo River hasn’t finished worse than second. He won his last race before Friday’s Smarty Jones Stakes by 9-1/2 lengths. (Image: Robert Yates)

Nor will they throw back the 17 Kentucky Derby qualifying points up for grabs to the top four finishers from Oaklawn Park’s first stakes race of its 2021 Winter/Spring meet.

The Smarty Jones, named after the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes champion, is the first of four Derby preps on Oaklawn’s schedule. Those take place over the next three months, with the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes next month. The Grade 2 Rebel Stakes (March) and the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby (April) complete Oaklawn’s Derby prep superfecta.

Oaklawn’s 57-day meet runs with spectators, approximately 6,500 to start. Friday’s pandemic-limited crowds will see the first of 33 stakes races over those 57 days.

Caddo River Makes Stakes Debut in His Home State

What they’ll see in the Smarty Jones is an intriguing, but largely untested, mix of maiden and allowance winners seeking that breakout victory. They’ll also see one of the most interesting colts on the Derby trail – Arkansas-bred Caddo River (5/2). The Brad Cox-trained, Hard Spun progeny already made an impact on Derby futures bettors. He’s 30/1 at Circa Sports and 25/1 at William Hill Nevada. He’s also 30/1 in Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool 2. That betting opens Friday and runs through Sunday.

Those lofty odds reflect Caddo River’s latest outing – a 9 ½-length boat-race over his outclassed rivals. That came in a November one-mile, maiden special weight race at Churchill Downs. It also gave Caddo River his first victory after two runner-up finishes opening his career.

Caddo River likes his home surroundings. He turned in a six-furlong bullet workout of 1:13.8 on Jan. 9. Six days earlier, he went a half-mile in 48 seconds, the third-fastest of the 88 horses running that distance that day. That speed is what parts Caddo River from his counterparts. The Smarty Jones is a pacesetter’s race, and Caddo River is a front-running, pacesetting horse.

Smarty Jones Favorite Cowan is an Enigma

And yet, he isn’t the favorite. That would be Cowan (9/5). This is largely a byproduct of Cowan’s stakes resume. Five of Cowan’s six career races were stakes events. It certainly can’t be a byproduct of his 1-for-6 record in those races. That record reflects a runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint, and a runner-up in the Springboard Mile at Remington Park last time out.

Look further into Cowan’s record and two things stand out. Cowan’s Breeders’ Cup runner-up is solid on any front. It came on turf. So did his second in the Indian Summer Stakes and his third at the Kentucky Downs Juvenile Turf Sprint Stakes. Lesson one: Cowan likes the grass.

But, his lone victory came on dirt, didn’t it? Yes, Cowan won his debut last May at Churchill Downs on dirt. He also ran only 4-½ furlongs to get it.

Is Cowan a Sprinter? Is He a Router?

Twice, Cowan was asked to stretch out beyond 6-½ furlongs. First, he finished a badly-beaten fifth – 13 lengths back — in the seven-furlong, Black-Type Runhappy Juvenile Stakes at Ellis Park last August.

The second time came in the Springboard, where he finished second with a 97 Equibase Speed Figure – yet 5-½ lengths behind Señor Buscadore. Cowan beat third-place Red N’ Wild by 3-¾ lengths – losing any bragging rights there when Red N’ Wild finished last in the Lecomte last week.

Putting all that together and it’s apparent Cowan is being asked to be something he’s not: a dirt route runner instead of a turf sprinter.

Listed Stakes Smarty Jones Stakes/Oaklawn Park

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Martini Blu, 6/1 (Francisco Arrieta/McLean Robertson)
  2. Lawlessness, 12/1 (David Cohen/Ingrid Mason)
  3. Cowan, 9/5 (Ricardo Santana Jr./Steve Asmussen)
  4. Big Thorn, 9/2 (David Cabrera/Steve Asmussen)
  5. Hardly Swayed, 12/1 (Martin Garcia/Rey Hernandez)
  6. Moonlite Strike, 4/1 (Joe Talamo/Saffie Joseph Jr.)
  7. Caddo River, 5/2 (Florent Geroux/Brad Cox)

So who else warrants attention? That list begins and ends with Moonlite Strike (4/1). The Liam’s Map offspring is 2-for-3 with modest Equibase Speed Figures. But, the Saffie Joseph Jr. product overcame green antics at the start and in the stretch last out to win an allowance optional claiming race at Gulfstream Park. His best Equibase (86) makes him a board-hitting threat here.

The pick: Caddo River. His speed figures – a career-best 104, 89, 88 — are so far superior to every horse but Cowan that you can almost stop handicapping right there. Cox won 20% (26-for-129) of his Oaklawn races in 2020. He opens his 2021 account with a good one here.