Petrov Looks Strong in Smarty Jones Stakes

Petrov Looks Strong in Smarty Jones Stakes

Uncontested (far outside) sprints for the lead in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes – Coady Photography

Over the last ten years, horses from Oaklawn Park have dominated the Triple Crown, with American Pharoah, Creator, Oxbow, Super Saver, Rachel Alexandra, Summer Bird, Curlin, Afleet Alex, and Smarty Jones all using Oaklawn as a springboard to Triple Crown success.

Time will tell if that trend will continue in 2017, but we’ll get our first look at Oaklawn’s potential Triple Crown contenders when a field of eight horses line up in the starting gate for the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes on January 16th. The one-mile race is the first of Oaklawn’s four prep races for the Kentucky Derby, offering a total of 17 qualification points to the first four finishers.

The likely favorite is Uncontested, a lightly-raced son of Tiz Wonderful. Trained by Wayne Catalano, Uncontested won his debut at Keeneland in impressive fashion on October 19th, scoring a gate-to-wire win while clocking 6.5 furlongs in a sharp 1:15.81. His margin of victory (six lengths) was impressive, but even more noteworthy is that he defeated three next-out winners, including the promising colt Untrapped.

With that eye-catching victory under his belt, Uncontested stretched out in distance for the 8.5-furlong Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II), where he faced a deep field of eleven rivals. Once again, Uncontested set the pace, but despite carving our relatively modest fractions of :23.45, :47.38, and 1:12.01, Uncontested got a bit leg-weary in the homestretch and tired to finish fourth, even finishing behind a couple of horses that tracked his slow pace (such as Smarty Jones rival Warrior’s Club.)

Coming off of that slightly disappointing effort, I’m tempted to play against Uncontested in the Smarty Jones and take a shot with a couple of horses offering better odds. First and foremost is Petrov, who isn’t a huge price on the morning line (5-2 compared to 2-1 on Uncontested), but I suspect he’ll go off a little higher than expected. Trained by Ron Moquett, who has enjoyed recent success on Oaklawn’s Derby trail with Far Right and Whitmore, Petrov began his career in a six-furlong maiden special weight at Churchill Downs, where he reeled in runaway leader Lenstar to win by 3 1/4 lengths, with the rest of the field another six lengths back.

Following that sharp debut, Petrov shipped to Aqueduct three weeks later and contested the six-furlong King’s Swan Stakes. Facing four rivals, Petrov was reserved in last through a modest opening quarter-mile in :23.25, then got boxed in along the rail turning for home. Under the circumstances, Petrov’s race should have ended there–the leader, a stakes winner named Even Thunder, was sprinting clear through a quick final quarter-mile in :24.47, and Petrov was losing ground while stuck in traffic. Instead, Petrov worked his way to the outside and accelerated strongly late in the race, rallying to fall just a head short of catching Even Thunder.

Since that race, Petrov has posted four workouts at Oaklawn Park, including a half-mile in :47 3/5 on December 23rd that was the fastest of 200 morning works at that distance. There’s a chance of rain on Monday at Oaklawn Park, but that shouldn’t bother Petrov, whose sire–Flatter–has produced a few good off-track runners, including two-time Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) winner Flat Out. The top New York jockey Jose Ortiz has also flown in to ride at Oaklawn this weekend, perhaps in part to retain the mount on Petrov, and all signs indicate that Petrov is ready for a winning effort.

The other horse I like in this race is Rowdy the Warrior, who already has six starts under his belt. Trained by Donnie K. Von Hemel, Rowdy the Warrior progressed steadily last year, breaking his maiden third-time out before placing in the Don C. McNeill Stakes and running fourth in the Remington Springboard Mile. It was his performance in the latter race that caught my eye, as the Springboard Mile featured a very slow pace (:49.79, 1:14.54) and was dominated by the gate-to-wire winner Cool Arrow. Under the circumstances, Rowdy the Warrior ran a tremendous race from off-the-pace, rallying wide into the homestretch to finish just a half-length behind Totality and U S Officer, who saved much more ground than Rowdy the Warrior.

Thanks to Uncontested and longshot Love That Lute, there should be a bit more pace in the Smarty Jones Stakes, which could benefit Rowdy the Warrior and give him a better setup. I think he’s an excellent candidate to finish in the exotics at a bit of a price, and perhaps pull off the upset if things go his way.

Now it’s your turn! Who do you like in the Smarty Jones Stakes?

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Follow J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman"):

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, blogger, videographer, and all-around horse racing enthusiast who was drawn to the sport by Curlin's quest to become North America's richest racehorse. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He lives in Wisconsin and also writes for the blog Unlocking Winners.

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