The Listed Jerome Stakes, one of four New Year’s Day Kentucky Derby preps, generally doesn’t prove anything come Derby time. But the Aqueduct one-turn mile race for 3-year-olds that dates to 1866 does serve as a proving ground of sorts.

Cooke Creek-Jerome
Cooke Creek, seen here winning the Rocky Run Stakes at Delaware Park, is the 5/2 favorite in Saturday’s Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct. (Image: Photo)

The eight newly minted 3-year-olds competing for the 10-4-2-1 Derby qualifying points don’t have many equine role models to look up to. The last three winners of this race, Capo Kane (2021), Independence Hall (2020), and Mind Control (2019) were all absent from the Churchill Downs starting gate on the first Saturday in May. Only two horses in the past decade, Vyjack (2013) and Firenze Fire (2018), ran the Derby later that year.

That said, the Jerome serves as a pivotal race for would-be Derby contenders. It’s the second of five Derby preps on Aqueduct’s schedule and often provides a guide on whether a horse has the chops to proceed on the trail. The Jerome follows the Grade 2 Remsen earlier this month.

Coming Derby attractions at Aqueduct include the Grade 3 Withers (Feb. 5), the Grade 3 Gotham (March 5), and the Grade 2 Wood Memorial (April 9).

Cooke Creek owns the one stakes score in this field

One trainer well aware of the Jerome’s pivotal role as a New York Derby fork in the road is Jeremiah O’Dwyer, who trains Cooke Creek. The lone stakes winner in the Jerome field, Cooke Creek comes in off a second in the Grade 3 Nashua earlier this fall.

“He’s a very game horse and very honest. He loves to train and (is) a very forward-going horse,” O’Dwyer told the New York Racing Association. “The type of horse he is, I think he’ll be a better 3-year-old — and he’ll have to be to stay going along the road we hope he can stay on, chasing those nice stakes races and maybe get a few Kentucky Derby points along the way.”

O’Dwyer’s optimism springs from that game runner-up Nashua run to Bob Baffert’s California invader Rockefeller. It also springs from the Uncle Mo colt’s score in the ungraded Rocky Run at Delaware Park in October. That victory, Cooke Creek’s second in three races, came by a half-length at 13.80/1.

His 89 Equibase Speed Figure from that race is among the top Equibases in the Jerome field.

Jerome brings Ohtwoohthreefive from turf to dirt

“The more distance he gets, the better he’s going to be,” O’Dwyer said. “I know we’re going a one-turn mile here again, but I’m looking forward to getting him going two turns again after this next race.”

Also arriving out of stakes company is Ohtwoohthreefive, who comes in off a nose loss in the ungraded Central Park Stakes. His 1-2-2 career record in six races comes exclusively on turf; this is his first dirt outing. But his 93 Equibase in the Central Park leads this field. Ohtwoohthreefive’s sire is 2012 Belmont Stakes champion Union Rags, so dirt shouldn’t be an issue.

Speaking of the Remsen, Mr. Jefferson comes out of a fourth in that race. That aptly named son of Constitution, Mr. Jefferson finished 10 lengths behind Mo Donegal in the Remsen. His career-best Equibase came in that race: an 82. His two victories in his five starts came in maiden and allowance company, so this is his proving ground.

Four arrive with recent success

The pivotal nature of this race is further borne out by four horses coming in off maiden wins: Hagler, Courvoisier, Smarten Up, and Unbridled Bomber. Of the four, Hagler seems to have the biggest punch. He rides in off a Dec. 16 gate-to-wire score in an Aqueduct allowance, his second consecutive victory.

Listed Jerome Stakes/Aqueduct

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Cooke Creek, 5/2 (Manny Franco/Jeremiah O’Dwyer)
  2. Unbridled Bomber, 8/1 (Dylan Davis/Jim Ryerson)
  3. Ohtwoohthreefive, 7/2 (Kendrick Carmouche/George Weaver)
  4. Rumble Strip Ron, 30/1 (Eric Cancel/Anthony Quartarolo)
  5. Smarten Up, 12/1 (Anthony Salgado/Alfredo Velazquez)
  6. Courvoisier, 5/1 (Jose Ortiz/Kelly Breen)
  7. Jefferson, 9/2 (Mychael Sanchez/Michael Trombetta)
  8. Hagler, 4/1 (Jorge Vargas Jr./Rudy Rodriguez)

Hagler won that race at 3/10 odds by 1 1/4 lengths. His stalking/pressing style fits this field well. His 84 Equibase in his Oct. 29, maiden-breaking win at Belmont Park shows room for improvement as it puts him in the competitive mix here.

Courvoisier comes in off a maiden win at 14/1, complete with blinkers that trainer Kelly Breen added. Those came after a pair of runner-up efforts. Given his blue-blood pedigree — a Tapit product by 2013 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Filly winner Take Charge Brandi — Courvoisier’s connections expect plenty.

“He’s a well-bred horse,” said John Sikura of Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms, which co-owns the horse with James Spry. “He’ll have to improve to be competitive with the group. His maiden win was tenacious and his 3-year-old season is now upon us. This is where they separate themselves.”

Make no mistake, winning the Jerome doesn’t guarantee you a spot in the Derby field, but failing to run competitively here practically guarantees you won’t have one.