Oaklawn Park in Arkansas has been an increasingly productive winter proving ground for top Kentucky Derby contenders, thanks primarily to a rich series of prep races that kicks off each January with the Smarty Jones S. Inaugurated in 2009, the 1-mile Smarty Jones has quickly secured a prominent place on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, offering qualification points on a 10-4-3-2-1 basis to the top five finishers.
During the 2010s, the Smarty Jones produced seven Kentucky Derby starters, impressive considering the race did not officially rank as a Derby qualifier until 2013. While none of the Smarty Jones alumni reached the Churchill Downs winner’s circle, a few of them turned out to be capable stakes performers. Most notably, 2013 Smarty Jones winner Will Take Charge competed in all three legs of the Triple Crown and was eventually voted champion 3-year-old male at the Eclipse Awards.
Going back further, 2009 Smarty Jones winner Flat Out missed the Triple Crown but developed into a classy six-time graded stakes winner, counting two victories in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) among his notable triumphs. Caleb’s Posse, who prevailed in the 2011 Smarty Jones, likewise skipped the spring classics but achieved national acclaim with his triumph in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1).
Since 1-mile races at Oaklawn end at the sixteenth pole, the Smarty Jones features an abbreviated homestretch that often plays kindly toward front-running speedsters. Between 2017 and 2020, four straight editions of the Smarty Jones were won in gate-to-wire fashion. Most notable among these winners was Uncontested, whose 1:36.32 final time and 5 1⁄4-length margin of victory established records for the Smarty Jones.
By J. Keeler Johnson