The $150,000 Smarty Jones will take on added significance when the one-mile race for three-year-olds is renewed Monday at Oaklawn Park.
Despite yielding standouts Flat Out and Caleb's Posse since its 2008 inaugural, earnings accumulated in the ungraded stakes did not previously go toward eligibility for the Kentucky Derby, which was solely based on graded earnings. Under the new "Road to the Kentucky" points system instituted this year, the top four finishers in the Smarty Jones will earn points toward eligibility in the year's first classic, with the winner receiving 10.
The evenly-matched field of nine might have as its favorite Always in a Tiz, a Saratoga debut winner in September who returned to action December 9 in the Traskwood overnight stakes at Aqueduct. In that seven-furlong test, contested in the slop, Always in a Tiz finished a distant, clear second to Vyjack, who went on to capture the Grade 2 Jerome earlier this month. Dominick Schettino trains the Gulfstream shipper, who will be ridden by Paco Lopez.
Last year's Derby-winning trainer, Doug O'Neill, sends Avare in from Southern California. The Johannesburg ridgling was the wire-to-wire winner of the December 29 Eddie Logan, a race transferred from the turf to a wet-fast main track. Avare is owned in a partnership that includes University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino.
Like the race's namesake, Officer Alex enters the Oaklawn classic prep season off a prior win in the Pennsylvania Nursery at Parx Racing. The Lynn Whiting trainee has twice won against Pennsylvania-breds, but turned in a sub-par effort in his lone previous outing against open company in a Churchill Downs allowance on October 28.
Brown Almighty, who captured the Sunny's Halo at Louisiana Downs before finishing second in the Sunday Silence and Grade 3 Bourbon last fall, will try dirt for the first time in the Smarty Jones. The Time Ice pupil made his juvenile finale in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, retreating to ninth after making the lead halfway through the one-mile grass feature at Santa Anita.
Four entrants from the December 9 Springboard Mile at Remington Park, including 128-1 winner Texas Bling, will renew acquaintance in the Smarty Jones. Joining Texas Bling are Springboard runner-up, Will Take Charge, a regally-bred son of Unbridled's Song and Take Charge Indy; fourth-place finisher Best of Birdstone; and fifth-placer King Henny, who was subsequently elevated to first in the January 5 Big Drama at Delta Downs.
Completing the lineup is Canterbury graduate Stormy Holiday, who followed a win in a Delaware Park allowance with a fourth in the November 1 Bellamy Road over the same track.