Best Horse Racing Picks This Weekend: Kentucky Derby Trail
The 2022 road to the Kentucky Derby wastes no time in getting going, as four stakes for 3-year-old males headline a big day of stakes racing around the country on Saturday, January 1. Topping the list of the New Year’s Day Kentucky Derby preps is the Sham Stakes from Santa Anita. Last year, the Grade 3 affair attracted Life Is Good and Medina Spirit from the barn of Bob Baffert. This year it is led by the Baffert-trained duo of Rockefeller and Newgrange.
The $250,000 Smarty Jones from Oaklawn Park and the historic Jerome Stakes from Aqueduct will also kick off the new year. Home Brew, a recent winner over the track looks to go favored in a full field of 14 at Oaklawn Park, while Cooke Creek, coming off a second-place finish in the Grade 3 Nashua, is the one to beat in New York. The Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park is the only one of the four which will not offer Kentucky Derby qualifying points and is topped by recent allowance winner, Strike Hard.
This week we will focus on all four stakes races on Saturday for 3-year-old males, as well as a pair of graded stakes for the older females at Santa Anita.
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Sham Stakes (G3), Santa Anita, 1 mile (dirt), 3-year-olds
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has a strong hand as he did last year, when he sends out the duo of Rockefeller and Newgrange to top a small field of five Kentucky Derby hopefuls set for Saturday’s Grade 3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. Rockefeller is the most likely favorite. In his most recent start, the son of Medaglia d’Oro shipped east and scored an easy victory in the Grade 3 Nashua Stakes at Belmont Park. The winner of 2-of-3 lifetime suffered his only career loss at the hands of the likely Eclipse Award winner, Corniche.
Newgrange, meanwhile, has only run once, but the son of Violence made a positive impression with a sharp score at Del Mar in a 6 furlong sprint. The $125,000 yearling purchase is out of the unraced Empire Maker mare Bella Chianti. If anyone can upset the Baffert pair, Mackinnon, a two-time stakes winner, is the most likely candidate. The Doug O’Neill-trained chestnut will need to show he can do it on dirt after running strongly on the grass in his last five starts, including a solid third last time in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.
Newgrange (2/1) – Speedy debut winner should be able to get the early lead in this small field and be very hard to catch from there.
Smarty Jones Stakes, Oaklawn Park, 1 mile (dirt), 3-year-olds
The Arkansas trail to the Kentucky Derby begins on New Year’s Day as a full field of 14 newly turned 3-year-olds will fill the starting gate for the $250,000 Smarty Jones Stakes on Saturday at Oaklawn Park. Offering qualifying points towards the Run for the Roses on a 10-4-2-1 scale, the race is named after the unheralded colt who swept the Southwest, Rebel and Arkansas Derby on his way to a near Triple Crown.
This year’s test is topped by the Brad Cox-trained Home Brew. A son of the champion Street Sense and full brother to the graded stakes winner, Air Strike, he has won two of his first three races, including an impressive allowance win over the track and distance last time out. Among his many challengers include the Dallas Stewart-trained Ben Diesel. A son of the champion Will Take Charge, he was a sharp debut winner at Churchill Downs and then ran a solid race in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club in his second start. He was right there in the early stretch, before tiring late to finish fourth behind the highly regarded Smile Happy.
Home Brew (3/1) – Sharp win over the track points him out as the one to beat in this large field.
Jerome Stakes, Aqueduct, 1 mile (dirt), 3-year-olds
Already a stakes winner at Delaware Park, Cooke Creek will be in search of his third win in four career starts when he tops the field of eight set for Saturday’s Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct. A winner of his first two career starts, including the Rocky Run Stakes, the son of Uncle Mo finished second to the highly regarded Rockefeller in the Grade 3 Nashua Stakes last time at Belmont Park. Trained by Jeremiah O’Dwyer, he is the only stakes winner in the field of 3-year-old males.
Chief among his competition in the one-mile affair is the Rudy Rodriguez-trained Hagler. Ike the favorite, this son of Tapiture comes into the Jerome with a record of two wins and one second in three career starts. After running second in his career debut at Belmont Park back in May, he returned from a brief layoff to easily account for a maiden race at Belmont and then an allowance race at Aqueduct just over two weeks ago. Others who should attract attention on Saturday include recent maiden winners Smarten Up, who romped at Parx, and Courvoisier, who earned a hard-fought victory over the track on December 2.
Hagler (4/1) – The Tapiture colt has a win over the track and controlling speed. The one mile distance should suit him well.
Mucho Macho Man Stakes, Gulfstream Park, 1 mile (dirt), 3-year-olds
On the strength of a strong win at the one-mile distance at Gulfstream Park, Strike Hard looks like the one to beat in a contentious field of six entered in Saturday’s $150,000 Mucho Macho Man Stakes. A son of Flashback, the gray colt has won 2-of-5 overall, with both wins coming locally and at the same trip he will see in the holiday stakes race. Unsuccessful in his trip north when well beaten in the Grade 3 Iroquois at Churchill Downs, he returned to South Florida to run second to the highly regarded White Abarrio, before romping home a four-length winner in the December 5 allowance race.
Several others should get some wagering support in the Mucho Macho Man. Topping the group is the Bill Mott-trained Graphic Detail. A son of the Grade 1 winner Practical Joke, he made his career debut and only start eight weeks ago at Belmont Park, and finished with a flourish to get up in a 6 furlong maiden event. Others to consider include Simplification and Skippylongstocking. Neither has won more than a maiden, but both got their lone career wins over the track and by big margins.
Strike Hard (2/1) – With White Abarrio away, this son of Flashback looks good to make it two in a row on Saturday.
La Canada (G3), Santa Anita, 1 1/16 miles (dirt), 3-year-olds and up fillies and mares
Having returned to her winning ways last time with a determined victory in the Grade 3 Bayakoa Stakes at Los Alamitos, As Time Goes By is the headliner in a field of six older females set to line up in Saturday’s $200,000 La Canada Stakes at Santa Anita. A winner of two straight graded stakes races in the spring, the 4-year-old daughter of American Pharoah went on a bit of a losing streak for trainer Bob Baffert, while keeping top company. Her win last month in the Bayakoa snapped a four-race winless streak and followed an eighth-place finish in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
Her main rival in the 8 ½ furlong La Canada is likely to be Park Avenue. Trained by John Sadler, the 4-year-old daughter of Quality Road has improved leaps and bounds in closing out her sophomore season in style. After four defeats to begin her career, two as a juvenile, and two to begin her 3-year-old season, the bay filly put it all together two starts back, running off with a Santa Anita maiden race by five lengths. Armed with newfound confidence, she came back next out to win again by five lengths in a Los Alamitos allowance race three weeks ago.
Park Avenue (3/1) – Judging by her last two, this young filly looks primed for a strong 2022.
Robert J. Frankel Stakes (G3), Santa Anita, 1 1/8 miles (turf), 3-year-olds and up fillies and mares
The classy California-bred Mucho Unusual is the one they will have to beat as she looks to successfully defend her title in Saturday’s Grade 3 Robert J. Frankel Stakes on the turf at Santa Anita. The 6-year-old daughter of Mucho Macho Man is a Grade 1 winner and has four graded stakes tallies to her credit. A winner of an allowance most recently over course and distance, she has been a picture of consistency, with a sparkling 12-6-3-3 over the Santa Anita turf course.
Chief among her competition in the 9 furlong turf feature will be the French import Luck. A 4-year-old filly by Kitten’s Joy, she has finished first or second in 6-of-7 career starts, with the first four coming in France. She won her first start in America impressively for trainer Richard Baltas in a mile and one sixteenth allowance race, before just missing in two straight stakes races. First, she was beaten just a head in the Grade 1 Rodeo Drive at Santa Anita and then came back to lose by that same small margin in the Grade 3 Red Carpet at Del Mar last time.
Luck (2-1) – The late runner looks ready to bust through with a graded stakes victory sooner rather than later.
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Taken to the races at a very young age, Brian has been a passionate fan of horse racing his entire life. Professionally, his work has been published on several leading industry sites. Brian served as the Editor of Horse Racing Nation from 2010-2017, where he still writes a regular column and hosts the popular weekly webcast HorseCenter.
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