01/19/2013 3:18PM

Oaklawn: Smarty Jones Stakes chance for Avare to emerge as Kentucky Derby contender

Benoit & Associates
Trainer Doug O'Neill will find out how Avare reacts to a long trip when he comes in from California for Monday's Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – A year ago, Oaklawn Park’s series for 3-year-olds was dominated by Southern California-based horses Bodemeister, Secret Circle, and Castaway. Among them, they split up both divisions of the Southwest and also won the Rebel and Arkansas Derby.

This year, the Southern California train has arrived even earlier in the meet, with Avare shipping to town for the season’s first route stakes for 3-year-olds, the $150,000 Smarty Jones. He goes Monday for trainer Doug O’Neill, who last spring won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with I’ll Have Another.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

“We wanted to give Avare the opportunity to travel to see how he does,” O’Neill said. “He’s kind of our dark horse. I don’t think he’s been talked about. Hopefully after Monday, there will be a few little blips.”

Avare is one of nine in the Smarty Jones, which offers its first four finishers respective points of 10-4-2-1 on the new Kentucky Derby qualifying system. The one-mile race, which will end at the sixteenth pole, also drew Brown Almighty, in his fist start since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf; Always in a Tiz, in from Gulfstream for trainer Dominick Schettino; and Texas Bling, the 128-1 winner of the $300,000 Springboard Mile.

Avare last raced at Santa Anita and was a 4 1/4-length winner in the $77,000 Eddie Logan on Dec. 29. He set the pace and moved clear and for the effort earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 87, the best career number in the Smarty Jones.

“The Eddie Logan was originally for turf, but because of the weather it came off,” O’Neill said. “He had broken his maiden nicely on the turf, then ran so well on the sloppy track [last time]. To me, he’s just a very sure-footed colt. He’s very athletic, limber, and his stride is phenomenal.”

Kevin Krigger has the mount from post 3.

Brown Almighty also last raced at Santa Anita and was ninth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf on Nov. 3. The stakes winner, who has raced exclusively around two turns and on turf, shipped to Oaklawn on Nov. 28 to prepare for his main-track debut in the Smarty Jones.

“I don’t have any reservations running him over the dirt, just by watching him train,” trainer Tim Ice said. “He’s handled it extremely well. I’m looking forward to the race. I think this colt can do some special things on the dirt.”

Corey Nakatani will ride from post 8.

Officer Alex will have two Kentucky Derby winners on his team in trainer Lynn Whiting and jockey Stewart Elliott, the regular rider of Smarty Jones. The horse has won 2 of 3 starts, including the $76,000 Pennsylvania Nursery at seven furlongs at Parx Racing on Dec. 8. In his lone loss, Officer Alex was eighth in a first-level allowance at Churchill Downs on Oct. 28, a race in which he contested the early pace and then was eased. Whiting said after the race jockey Joe Rocco Jr. told him he believed one of the horse’s stifle joints locked up on the turn. Officer Alex will break from post 6 on Monday.

Texas Bling was a clear winner of the Springboard Mile at Remington Park on Dec. 9. He was moving back to dirt for the race after finishing a close sixth in the $75,000 El Joven at Retama Park and his long price on the Remington tote board came as a surprise to trainer Danele Durham in the minutes leading up to the Springboard.

“I thought it was an error,” she said. “When you see 99-1, you think maybe the lightbulbs aren’t working.”

Texas Bling had been a regular on turf up to the Springboard, when he rallied from eighth for a 1 3/4-length win.

“One thing that we were really happy with was the way he accelerated on the dirt,” Durham said.

Will Take Charge set the Springboard pace and held second in a strong effort by the son of the multiple Grade 1-winning racemare Take Charge Lady.

“We’re changing his style a little bit,” trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. “He’s a good horse and he’s getting better.”

Jon Court has the mount from post 9.