By Richard Rosenblatt
The road to the Kentucky Derby makes stops at three tracks on the first day of 2022, with a total of 27 newly-turned 3-year-olds entered in point-qualifiers at Aqueduct, Oaklawn Park, and Santa Anita.
At this point, with just over five months to go before the 148th Derby, there’s no telling which horses will show up on the first Saturday in May, but this Saturday (Jan. 1) offers a look at potential contenders across the country.
Before we begin, though, there remains one caveat: Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is currently suspended from entering horses at Churchill Downs, and no horse conditioned by him, or any others employed by him, are eligible to earn Derby qualifying points. (Baffert’s Medina Spirit won the 2021 Derby but had a post-race positive for a banned race-day medication and could be disqualified; his suspension came a week later).
Also, any horse on race-day Lasix is prohibited from earning Derby-qualifying points.
Each of the races, the Sham Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita, the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn, and the Jerome Stakes at the Big A offer Derby qualifying points of 10-4-2-1 to the first four finishers.
Let’s begin with the Sham. Baffert has the two favorites in a five-horse field, 8-5 Rockefeller and 2-1 Newgrange. The other three, Mackinnon, Oviatt Class, and Degree of Risk, can earn Derby points.
Then there’s the 14-horse field for the Smarty Jones, a likely free-for-all with Home Brew the 3-1 favorite for trainer Brad Cox.
In the 152nd running of the Jerome – the second oldest stakes race in the U.S. – Cooke Creek is the 5-2 favorite in a field of eight.
The Smarty Jones has yet to produce a Derby winner in its first 13 editions; the Sham, in its first 21 runnings, produced one Derby winner (Authentic in 2020), and the most recent Jerome winner to take the Derby was Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000.
Heading into the weekend, the Derby points leaderboard has Pappacap at No. 1 with 12 points, followed by Rattle N Roll, Jack Christopher, Smile Happy, and Slow Down Andy each with 10 points.
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner Corniche, trained by Baffert, did not earn Derby points (it would have been 20). Runner-up Pappacap picked up eight points.
NYRA-produced “America’s Day at the Races” on Fox Sports’ FS1 will have live coverage from Aqueduct from 2:30-6 p.m. ET. TVG has racing coverage from tracks around North America, including Oaklawn Park and Santa Anita.
Here’s a look at the three Derby preps (all times are ET)
$250,000 Smarty Jones Stakes, 1 mile, 3-year-olds
Post time: 5:13 p.m. (race 9)
Clever planning by Oaklawn and a pumped up purse is why a record field of 14 entered this Derby qualifier.
It’s the first of four Derby preps at the track, and will be followed by the Southwest, the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby.
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen nominated 21 horses to the race and entered three — All in Sync (8-1), Cairama (8-1), and Cool Papa G (6-1). Brad Cox has two in the field, 3-1 favorite Home Brew and Vivar (8-1).
Home Brew, a son of 2007 Derby winner Street Sense, has won two of threes, most recently a 1-mile optional allowance claimer by 3 ¾ lengths at Oaklawn on Dec. 4.
Ben Diesel, trained by Dallas Stewart, is 5-1 coming off a fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs on Nov. 27. He is a son of 2013 Smarty Jones winner Will Take Charge.
None of the 14 entrants will be racing on Lasix on Saturday.
$100,000 Sham Stakes, 1 mile, 3-year-olds
Post time: 6:05 p.m. (race 7)
Mackinnon, a turf stakes winner, tries dirt for the first time for trainer Doug O’Neill, and is listed as the 3-1 third choice in a five=horse field.
Trainer Bob Baffert has the two favorites in Rockefeller and Newgrange, but neither would earn Derby qualifying points due to Baffert’s suspension by Churchill Downs.
That said, it will be tough to beat this Baffert duo, plus the fact the trainer has won this race seven times, including the past two years with Life Is Good and Authentic.
Already well-season, Rockefeller comes into the race off a victory in the Nashua Stakes (G3) at Belmont on Nov. 7, preceded by a fourth in the American Pharoah Stales (G1) at Santa Anita on Oct. 1.
Mackinnon, meanwhile, won two stakes on turf and then ran third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) on Nov. 5. A son of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, the colt has won three of six starts.
$150,000 Jerome Stakes, 1 mile, 3-year-olds
Post time: 3:50 p.m. (race 8)
Cooke Creek takes on seven rivals on New Year’s Day to kick off New York’s road to the Derby.
Listed as the 5-2 favorite, Jeremiah O’Dwyer-trained Cooke Creek leaves from the rail under Manny Franco. A son of Uncle Mo, this colt won his first two starts at Delaware Park and ran second to Rockefeller on the Nashua last time out.
“He’s a very game horse and very honest. He loves to train and a very forward going horse,” O’Dwyer said. “The type of horse he is, I think he’ll be a better 3-year-old – and he’ll have to be to stay going along the road we hope he can stay on, chasing those nice stakes races and maybe get a few Kentucky Derby points along the way.”
Hagler, trained by Rudy Rodriguez, comes into the race with a two-race winning streak, a 6 ½-furlong maiden special weight in his second career start and then taking a 7-furlong optional claimer at the Big A on Dec. 16. He listed at 4-1.
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.