The Derby Journey, Part 2: The Smarty Jones Stakes

The Derby Journey, Part 2: The Smarty Jones Stakes

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Welcome to the second part in a series of articles chronicling the Kentucky Derby journey of Richard Keith, the owner of the promising three-year-olds American Dubai and Black Ops. This series will feature quotes and insights from Keith as American Dubai and Black Ops progress along the Derby trail and seek qualification points in the Derby prep races at Oaklawn Park. Part 1 may be viewed here. Enjoy!

It’s hard to believe that the first half of January has already passed, but then again, time flies on the road to the Kentucky Derby. On January 16th, Oaklawn Park in Arkansas will host the Smarty Jones Stakes—the first of Oaklawn’s official Kentucky Derby prep races—and for Richard Keith, who owns the promising Derby contenders Black Ops and American Dubai, the Smarty Jones will mark the next step on the way to Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby will be held on the first Saturday in May.

Keith arrived in Arkansas on January 8th with plans to watch Black Ops and American Dubai turn in workouts at Oaklawn the following morning, but wet weather led to a change in plans and the workouts were postponed. But Keith—who had already arrived at the track to watch the workouts—nevertheless experienced a moment to remember that day.

“We were standing in the tack room this morning when a man by the name of Calvin Borel walked in,” said Keith, referring to the three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey that is a legend in the sport. “Now I knew he was going to ride for us, and that he had sent his agent to find us and convince us to allow him to ride [our horses]. Which, when you think about it, is crazy—who would turn down Borel?”

“I knew he was going to be riding and working the horses, but I guess as prepared as I thought I was, that’s just about how unprepared I was to meet Mr. Calvin Borel. When he walked through the door it might as well have been Elvis himself. And that is exactly what I thought—‘Elvis.’ He was just a normal horse guy, introduced himself, shook our hands, and said how excited he was to be given the opportunity to ride the horses. Now for me, I was mostly in shock for about an hour…”

Three days later, over a dry track, Black Ops and American Dubai were able to post workouts at Oaklawn, with American Dubai blazing five furlongs in :59 flat—the fastest time of the morning by a full second—while Black Ops went the same distance in 1:01 flat, still a very strong time given that the track wasn’t yielding fast times that morning. “Calvin breezed them both today, they did great and he was happy,” Keith said later that evening.

But while Black Ops and American Dubai were both training well, the competition in the Smarty Jones Stakes had gotten a bit tougher following the news that trainer Bob Baffert—who has dominated Oaklawn’s Kentucky Derby prep races in recent years—would be sending his talented colt Toews On Ice to run in the Smarty Jones. This development had the Oaklawn backstretch abuzz.

“We are getting a lot of comments on the fact that Baffert is bringing Toews On Ice,” Keith said. “I fully expected [Baffert] to bring him after his close loss in the Los Alamitos Futurity. I watched that horse run and I figured we would see either him or Mor Spirit [winner of the Los Alamitos Futurity]… But for us, (me), the pressure to stand up and stay in at this level is enormous. I believe we have the horses to do it, but if you have never been here, you don’t know how to even begin to measure it.”

On Friday morning, post positions were drawn for the Smarty Jones Stakes. After considering their options, Keith and his team eventually decided to enter only Black Ops, who drew post seven in a full field of fourteen horses. Starting in the middle of the field will give Black Ops plenty of options for securing a good position early in the race, but his good post draw almost didn’t come about—according to Keith, Black Ops drew post seven “after a second draw. We were there for the draw, and I am not sure what happened, but they had to draw a second time. The first draw he drew the two hole, [and] after all the draws were over, Larry Melancon [the retired jockey] came over… we were talking about the second draw, and the fact that we liked the seven hole better than the two hole, and he just laughed and shrugged his shoulders and said ‘Calvin does not care, he can win from anywhere.’ I think that confidence is something you just don’t see very often.”

Keith acknowledges that the competition in the Smarty Jones will be tough, but he’s looking forward to seeing how Black Ops stacks up against the other horses in the race. “I have and will always believe that we have at least 13 bona fide contenders in this race. I am happy to see Synchrony and Toews On Ice, as I have been watching them myself. But you have great horses all over—Discreetness, Shogood, and a lot of these horses are getting better, [and] some have already run in stakes races, like Force It, who ran in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.”

“I just want [Black Ops] to get a good clean trip. I could say I hope he lays off the pace just a few [lengths] and closes, or that I hope he goes wire-to-wire, but in the end, it will be up to Calvin. He knows what he has, and we are not going to try and school someone with that kind of talent,” said Keith.

For many, the Smarty Jones Stakes will be the highlight of the weekend at Oaklawn, but Keith is also looking forward to the return of American Dubai. “We are just as excited to see him go again… He will go out two turns [in an allowance race on Thursday at Oaklawn]. I will say that I have seen both of them every day this week, and they are both nice horses just in very different ways.”

No matter what happens, The Turf Board wishes Richard Keith and his team the best of luck with Black Ops and American Dubai!

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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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