Betting a Front-Runner in Smarty Jones Stakes

Gambling
Action on Smarty Jones Stakes day in 2020 at Oaklawn Park. (Eclipse Sportswire)

It’s hard to believe 17 years have passed since an unheralded Pennsylvania-bred racehorse named Smarty Jones rose to prominence at Oaklawn Park, winning the Southwest Stakes, Rebel Stakes, and Arkansas Derby on his way to a popular victory in the 2004 Kentucky Derby.

It’s equally hard to believe that the race named in Smarty’s honor — the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park — will enjoy its 13th renewal on Friday. The one-mile race has become a prominent early stop on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, cranking out seven Derby starters since its inaugural running in 2009.

Seven horses have been entered in the 2021 Smarty Jones, and history suggests handicapping the race will be relatively straightforward. Did you know the last four winners of the Smarty Jones all prevailed in gate-to-wire fashion? This is part of a larger trend that has seen the leader after the opening quarter-mile go 6-for-12 (50%) in the Smarty Jones, indicating that early speed is an effective weapon in this particular race.

This isn’t surprising since one-mile races at Oaklawn end a sixteenth of a mile before the finish line, reducing the length of the homestretch to just 825 feet. When the field turns for home, there isn’t much time for late runners to get into gear and catch the leader.

So what does this mean for the 2021 Smarty Jones?

For starters, it suggests we should oppose possible favorite #3 Cowan, even though he’s the most accomplished runner in the field. Conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, Cowan has shown elite promise as a turf sprinter, most notably producing a big late rally to finish second in the Grade 2 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint. He’s also made noise on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, switching to dirt to record a runner-up effort in the Remington Springboard Mile Stakes.

But Cowan prefers to rally from off the pace, and he might be better racing over distances shorter than a mile. A son of early-maturing sprinter Kantharos, Cowan ran an interesting race in the Springboard Mile. After settling back in sixth place, Cowan rallied into contention around the far turn and was actually vying for the lead with an eighth of a mile remaining. But in deep stretch he was no match for runaway winner Senor Buscador, weakening to finish 5 3/4 lengths behind.

Cowan is certainly capable of recording a top-three finisher in the Smarty Jones, but I’m not convinced his class edge will be sufficient to win under challenging circumstances. Instead, I’ll aim to beat him with a speedy front-runner possibly better suited to handling the distance.

But which speed horse should we favor? There are three candidates to choose from: #5 Hardly Swayed, #6 Moonlite Strike, and #7 Caddo River. All three enter off of victories, but two may find the class and distance of the Smarty Jones to be a greater challenge than they’re capable of handling.

For example, Hardly Swayed enters off a gate-to-wire allowance victory sprinting three-quarters of a mile at Mahoning Valley. But he’ll be running a quarter-mile farther on Friday while simultaneously facing much tougher company. It’s also worth noting he set a slow pace in his allowance win, so there’s no guarantee he’s fast enough to make the lead in the Smarty Jones.

Moonlite Strike has shown a bit more speed than Hardly Swayed, and he’s also proven running a mile, having recently battled to victory in a Gulfstream Park allowance race at this trip. But the son of Liam’s Map was weakening at the finish, seeing his lead shrink from 2 1/2 lengths in midstretch to just a head at the finish line. Moonlite Strike may be hard-pressed to see out the Smarty Jones distance while switching from a one-turn mile at Gulfstream to the two-turn configuration at Oaklawn.

This leaves Caddo River as the most likely winner of the Smarty Jones. Conditioned by hot trainer Brad Cox — a finalist for the Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer — Caddo River is a son of 2007 Kentucky Derby runner-up Hard Spun out of the stakes-winning mare Pangburn, giving the dark bay colt a pedigree suited for success racing a mile or farther.

Certainly, Caddo River was impressive in a one-mile maiden race on Nov. 15 at Churchill Downs. Sent straight to the lead by jockey Florent Geroux, Caddo River blazed along through fast fractions of :22.38, :44.59, and 1:09.48, then pulled away under a hand ride to win by 9 1/2 lengths.

This runaway victory produced strong speed figures, indicating Caddo River is capable of vying for victory in the Smarty Jones Stakes. If he flashes the same degree of speed on Friday as he did in his maiden win, Caddo River should have little difficulty securing the early lead. From there, he’ll be tough to reel in.

Bettors playing the Smarty Jones on a small budget can feel confident betting Caddo River over Cowan in a straight exacta—they appear to rank a cut above their rivals and should run 1-2 in one order or the other. But bolder bettors with bigger budgets are advised to give the trifecta and superfecta a try, adding Moonlight Strike, #1 Martini Blu, and #4 Big Thorn to the mix for third and/or fourth place.

Wagering Strategy on a $10 Budget

$10 exacta: 7 with 3

What to say at the betting window: Oaklawn Park, 8th race, $10 exacta 7 with 3

Wagering Strategy on a $30 Budget

$10 exacta: 7 with 3

What to say at the betting window: Oaklawn Park, 8th race, $10 exacta 7 with 3

$10 trifecta: 7 with 3 with 4,6 ($20)

What to say at the betting window: Oaklawn Park, 8th race, $10 trifecta 7 with 3 with 4,6

Wagering Strategy on a $50 Budget

$14 exacta: 7 with 3

What to say at the betting window: Oaklawn Park, 8th race, $14 exacta 7 with 3

$10 trifecta: 7 with 3 with 4,6 ($20)

What to say at the betting window: Oaklawn Park, 8th race, $10 trifecta 7 with 3 with 4,6

$4 superfecta: 7 with 3 with 4,6 with 1,4,6 ($16)

What to say at the betting window: Oaklawn Park, 8th race, $4 superfecta 7 with 3 with 4,6 with 1,4,6

Good luck, and enjoy the race!

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