HOT SPRINGS -- The result of the $250,000 1-mile Smarty Jones Stakes for 3-year-old horses at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort on Saturday let the man who trains the winner know he has at least two potential Kentucky Derby contenders.
Catalyst Stable's and Magdalena Racing's Dash Attack, ridden by David Cohen and trained by Kenny McPeek, dug in late at 7-1 to win the 15th running of the Smarty Jones Stakes in 1:39.44 on a sloppy track before an estimated crowd of 8,000.
WSS Racing's Barber Road, ridden at 8-1 by Reylu Gutierrez and trained by John Ortiz, finished second, 2 lengths behind the winner and a length ahead of third-place Ignitus, off at 31-1. Kavod, ridden at 8-1 by Francisco Arrieta and trained by Chris Hartman finished a nose behind Ignitus in fourth, 3 lengths behind Dash Attack.
"It's a blessing," David Cohen said. "Kenny and I, we have linked up in the past for some big wins."
McPeek said before the Smarty Jones that he and his family attended the University of Kentucky's 20-17 victory over Iowa at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
"We watched [the Kentucky] game, which was a great game, and then we watched the race on the side of the road," McPeek said.
The 5-2 favorite Home Brew, a son of Street Sense ridden by Florent Geroux and trained by Brad Cox, was in sixth, 2 lengths off the lead with a quarter-mile left, but faded to 10th in the field of 13, 8 lengths behind the winner.
"We were saving ground but just had no kick," Geroux said.
"He just didn't run good," Cox said. "Nothing really went wrong, we just had no horse when it was time to go."
The Smarty Jones had a record 14 entrants, but LNJ Foxwoods' Immoral scratched. Still, the field was the largest since the race was begun in 2008 when 12 horses started. The Smarty Jones also had fields of 12 in 2010 and 2012, the year before a points system was put in place for Kentucky Derby qualification.
The Smarty Jones is Oaklawn's first of four Kentucky Derby qualifiers. It rewarded top finishers with a total of 17 points -- 10, 4, 2, and 1 to first through fourth, respectively.
The fewest cumulative points earned by a Derby qualifier are 10, but over the last five years, qualification has required an average of at least 30.
McPeek also trains Lucky Seven Stable's Smile Happy, who earned 10 qualifying points with his win in the Grade II 1 1/16th-mile Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs. Five weeks ago, McPeek said Smile Happy would enter his three-year-old season among the most likely Derby contenders he has trained.
Apparently, Dash Attack has joined Smile Happy's company.
"He definitely jumped into the conversation," McPeek said. "Smile Happy is a very good horse. Most years, you'd like to have these kinds of horses separated into different years. I've always watched guys like Wayne Lukas, years back, and obviously Bob Baffert and others. You look up, and all the sudden you have a big group of horses and they're all coming together. A lot can happen, and we're just going to try to keep it steady and not overthink it and just let the horses take us where they're going to take us."
Gus King's Ruggs, a son of Gun Runner ridden by Julien Leparoux and trained by Ron Moquett, led through the opening quarter-mile in 23.03, with Ben Diesel a half-length back in second. Kavod was in third, a length off the lead. Dash attack was in seventh, 6 3/4 lengths back.
"[Dash Attack] broke a little a little flat-footed," Cohen said.
McPeek noticed as he watched on his phone.
"I thought he got off a little bit awkward," he said. "I just didn't want David to rush things. As the race unfolded, he kind of ended up in a pocket for a while, but good horses overcome things, and he's done that, for sure."
Marshall resident Willis Horton's Ben Diesel led through the half in 46.38, a head in front of second-place Ruggs. Kavod was a neck back in second. Barber Road was in sixth, 6 1/4 lengths behind Ben Diesel and just ahead of Dash Attack and Ignitis.
Ben Diesel, ridden by Jon Court and trained by Dallas Stewart, led through three-quarters in 1:12.34 but he was out of contention by the head of the stretch. Kavod led, a head in front of Dash Attack and a neck ahead of third-place Barber Road.
Dash Attack moved four-wide into the 1/8th-mile home stretch. He finished full of run to pass and pull away from Kavod and hold off Barber Road.
"[Barber Road] had a perfect race," Ortiz said. "The horse showed something that we were hoping to see and that was the ability to come in and be a racehorse. When it was time to run, [Gutierrez] put him in gear, and he showed his guts."
"I just think we lost to a very good horse and a horse I think we will see the first Saturday in May," Gutierrez said.
Cohen said Dash Attack's future looks bright.
"I think he still has a lot of improving to do," he said. "With what he did today, I think he definitely shows he belongs."
Other Derby qualifiers at Oaklawn are the Grade III Southwest Stakes scheduled for Jan. 29, the Grade II Rebel Stakes scheduled for Feb. 26, and the Grade I Arkansas Derby scheduled for April 2.
The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs is set for May 7.
"[Dash Attack] is still just figuring it out," McPeek said. "I am in a pretty enviable position right now."