By Richard Rosenblatt
Nearly a year ago, I was ready for a Steve Asmussen breakthrough in the Kentucky Derby. The Hall of Fame trainer was 0-for-20 in the Run for the Roses, and had a bunch of really nice prospects.
To kick off the road to the 2020 Derby (which, of course, was rescheduled from May 2 to Sept. 5 due to the COVID-19 pandemic), Asmussen ran 1-3-4 in the Smarty Jones Stakes with Gold Street, Shoplifted and Silver Prospector. Twenty-four days later, Silver Prospector won the Southwest Stakes (G3), with Shoplifted fourth.
The Oaklawn Park route to the Derby continued in the Rebel (G2), where his 3-year-olds ran 2-3-6 – Excession, Basin, Silver Prospector – behind Nadal.
But by the time the Derby rolled around, Asmussen’s lone Derby runner was Max Player, previously trained by Linda Rice, who ran fifth in the Derby behind Authentic. The others? They didn’t make the race.
It all starts again with Friday’s 1-mile, $150,000 Smarty Jones, the first of four Derby points preps at Oaklawn. And Asmussen has two of the seven entries – 9-5 favorite Cowan and 9-2 Big Thorn.
Cowan, who has run on both turf and dirt, was a runner-up in each of his past three races, the Springboard Mile (dirt), the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint (G2), and the Indian Summer (turf) at Keeneland. His most recent workout was an eye-opener – 5 furlongs in 59 2/5 seconds on Jan. 12 at Oaklawn – the fastest of 63 at the distance.
Ricardo Santana, Jr., has the call and will leave from post 3.
“He’s a nice, talented, versatile horse,’’ Asmussen told drf.com. “The Smarty Jones is a good spot for him, but it’s an extremely competitive race.”
Big Thorn, winner of the off-the-turf Juvenile Turf Stakes at GP West, comes into the Smarty Jones off a sixth-place finish in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream. David Cabrera rides, leaving from post 4.
The Smarty Jones is worth 10 Derby qualifying points to the winner, with four for second, two for third and one for fourth.
The Derby is still a long way off, but it doesn’t hurt to gather points while they’re available.
Asmussen, who also trains Lecomte (G3) winner Midnight Bourbon and Hopeful (G1) and Champagne (G1) winner Jackie’s Warrior (fourth in the BC Juvenile), isn’t the only one with a strong hand for the Smarty Jones, or for the Derby, for that matter.
Brad Cox, now based at Oaklawn for the meet, sends out 5-2 second choice Caddo River, who powered his way to a powerful front-running, 9 ½-length maiden victory on Nov. 15 at Churchill Downs. Cox’s other Derby prospects for now include BC Juvenile (G1) winner Essential Quality, Mandaloun, and Prate.
“We’re hopeful this could be a building block for bigger things,’’ Cox, speaking of Caddo River, told drf.com.
Also entered are Martini Blu (6-1), Lawlessness (12-1), Hardly Swayed (12-1), and Moonlite Strike (4-1).
Life is Good, unbeaten and recent winner of the Sham Stakes (G3) was made the 6-1 individual morning line favorite in Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. The pari-mutuel field of “all other 3-year-olds” is expected to be the overall choice in the three-day wager that begins Friday. Entering the weekend, “all others’’ has been tabbed the 9-5 favorite by oddsmaker Mike Battaglia … Life is Good is trained by six-time Derby winner Bob Baffert … Essential Quality, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) for trainer Brad Cox, is listed at 8-1.
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.