Racing Roundtable: Smarty Jones, Pegasus World Cup preview and more!

January 2nd, 2024

This week, the Racing Roundtable reviews the first Kentucky Derby qualifier of the New Year, Monday’s Smarty Jones at Oaklawn Park, Pegasus World Cup preview day at Gulfstream Park, and betting resolutions for 2024.

Thoughts on the Smarty Jones?

James Scully: Catching Freedom rallied to win the Smarty Jones convincingly, but his 89 Brisnet Speed rating came back a little light. It’s still early in the game and the newly turned sophomore is far from a finished product – the Brad Cox-trained colt raced greenly at times while making his stakes debut in the Kentucky Derby qualifier – and Catching Freedom remains eligible to move forward significantly. Kentucky Derby (G1) winners Orb (2013) and Always Dreaming (2017) registered Speed ratings in the 80s early in their three-year-old season before going on to receive triple-digit numbers in prep races.

I liked how Catching Freedom improved upon an extremely troubled allowance effort at Churchill Downs in mid-November, blocked in traffic until deep stretch, and the Constitution colt appears to have plenty of upside. We’ll see if he can improve from a Speed rating standpoint next time.

Vance Hanson: I found the performance by Catching Freedom a good one, not great. Although he showed a little greenness in the stretch and when pulling away from the field, he won with authority and made amends for a troublesome trip in an allowance at Churchill in his previous start, which undoubtedly cost him a higher placing. Catching Freedom has plenty of options going forward, in particular the wide number of races available at both Oaklawn and at his home base of Fair Grounds. 

My main knock against the Smarty Jones, as a race, is that it tends not to have a huge impact on either the Kentucky Derby or the three-year-old picture, at least not since Will Take Charge emerged from it to become champion 10 years ago after running unplaced in all three Triple Crown events. Catching Freedom will obviously be facing more difficult competition down the road.

What did we learn from Pegasus World Cup preview day at Gulfstream?

JS: O’Connor gamely got up along the inside to win the Harlan’s Holiday (G3), recording his second consecutive graded triumph. With triple-digit Brisnet Speed ratings in his last two starts, the seven-year-old gelding has never been better for Saffie Joseph, but the competition will get much stiffer for the Pegasus World Cup (G1) on Jan. 27.

White Abarrio is the elephant in the room when it comes to any Pegasus World Cup discussion; the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) winner is considered possible but may aim for the $20 million Saudi Cup (G1) in February for his season opener. National Treasure, Crupi, and Trademark are among the top contenders considered probable.

O’Connor deserves credit for game wins in his last two starts, and the top three from the Harlan’s Holiday will all be back for the Pegasus World Cup, but I’m not keen on their chances.

VH: I'm not sure he will prove talented enough to potentially defeat Integration in the Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) later in the month, but I thought former European mainstay Kingmax ran creditably to miss winning the Ft. Lauderdale (G2) in a head bob at an overpriced 17-1. 

Kingmax had tackled some tough competition in Europe early in his career, was 2-for-2 in grass allowances following his importation, and was entering the Ft. Lauderdale off a layoff dating back to late July, when he placed in the Seagram Cup (G3) at Woodbine over Tapeta. He might have uncorked his rally in the Ft. Lauderdale a tad late under David Egan, but it was an encouraging effort for his North American grass stakes debut and he might be worth using in the exotics in the Grade 1 coming up in a few weeks.

Do you have any betting resolutions for 2024?

JS: Besides cashing more tickets, a more disciplined approach to wagering is the goal. Big days are an issue; a lot of preparation goes into a program like Belmont Stakes Day, but I must be willing to pick my spots, especially when big favorites are sweeping five consecutive graded stakes. I need to be more disciplined with my betting on big days in 2024.

VH: Exploiting your betting niche(s) and limiting losses elsewhere is always the best policy, so my resolution for 2024 is to be more aggressive at what I seemingly do best. My personal records indicate I've shown a flat-bet profit on my win wagers during the course of the last two English flat racing seasons, so the goal is to allocate more betting capital toward that side of my wagering and hopefully earn an even greater numerical profit by the end of that season, which runs from mid-April through October. My success at that over the last couple of seasons warrants a stronger and more ambitious approach.