3 Derby Prep Plays to Kick Off 2022

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Happy New Year, everyone!

I can't think of a better way to kick off the 2022 racing year than by handicapping a trio of Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races on New Year's Day.

The $150,000 Jerome S. at Aqueduct, the $100,000 Sham S. (G3) at Santa Anita, and the $250,000 Smarty Jones S. at Oaklawn Park are the highlights of the afternoon. All three events award Kentucky Derby qualification points on a 10-4-2-1 basis to their top four finishers.

Let's dig in and come up with our selections:

Jerome S. at Aqueduct

I feel like there are a lot of ways to go in this one-turn dirt mile, which drew eight starters. The speedy #8 Hagler (4-1) is a logical choice after wiring a seven-furlong allowance optional claimer at Aqueduct, while the stretch-running #1 Cooke Creek (5-2) must be respected off a runner-up effort in Belmont Park's Nashua S. (G3).

But I'm going to try and beat them both with #3 Ohtwoohthreefive (7-2), a turf horse trying dirt for the first time. With six starts under his belt, including five running one mile or farther, Ohtwoohthreefive brings plenty of experience into the Jerome field.

A four-length maiden winner racing one mile at Belmont, Ohtwoohthreefive has spent his last two starts competing against stakes company. He practically ran a winning race in the 1 1/16-mile Central Park S. at Aqueduct on Nov. 27, tracking a slow pace and taking command in midstretch before settling for second place by a nose.

Ohtwoohthreefive brings competitive Beyer and Brisnet speed figures to the mix, and trainer George Weaver wins at a lofty 26% rate with horses transitioning from turf to dirt. Throw in the fact Ohtwoohthreefive is a son of Belmont S. (G1) winner Union Rags (whose best runners typically shine on dirt) and Ohtwoohthreefive looms as a logical choice to win the Jerome.

Sham S. (G3) at Santa Anita

Trainer Bob Baffert has won the Sham a record seven times since its inaugural edition in 2001, so many bettors will be drawn to the Baffert trainees #3 Newgrange and #4 Rockefeller. Both bring solid credentials to the table: Newgrange was a sharp debut winner sprinting six furlongs at Del Mar, while Rockefeller beat Cooke Class by 2 3/4 lengths in Belmont's Nashua S. (G3) two months ago.

But I'm going to think outside the box a bit with #2 Oviatt Class. Granted, this stretch-running colt isn't guaranteed to receive an ideal setup, since Newgrange and Rockefeller loom as the only definite pace players on paper. But in terms of proven ability, Oviatt Class has a lot to offer.

Indeed, Oviatt Class has shown promise since stretching out around two turns on dirt. A rallying 4 1/4-length maiden winner racing one mile at Del Mar, Oviatt Class exits a pair of Grade 1 tests on Santa Anita's Road to the Kentucky Derby. First, he finished third in the American Pharoah S. (G1), gaining 3 1/4 lengths through the final furlong to finish less than four lengths behind probable champion two-year-old male Corniche. Then Oviatt Class finished fifth behind Corniche in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), a race in which Oviatt Class ran into trouble before gaining meaningful ground down the homestretch.

As a son of Preakness S. (G1) winner Bernardini out of a mare by two-time Horse of the Year Tiznow, Oviatt Class is bred to improve with maturity. I'm optimistic the Keith Desormeaux trainee can deliver a winning effort while dropping in class for the Sham.

Smarty Jones S. at Oaklawn Park

The one-mile Smarty Jones is one of those races where you could randomly select any horse and feel good about your chances. That's how competitive the 14-horse field appears to be on paper.

There are lots of directions to go, with Oaklawn debut winner #1 Dash Attack (12-1), Lively Shively S. runner-up #10 Barber Road (4-1), and Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2) fourth-place finisher #14 Ben Diesel (4-1) among the appealing contenders. But I'm going to take a fairly uncreative approach and support morning line favorite #3 Home Brew (3-1).

Certainly Home Brew has hot connections in his corner; jockey Florent Geroux has gone 12-for-47 (26%) to start the Oaklawn meet, while trainer Brad Cox has gone 9-for-23 (39%). Together, they've won at a 25% clip over the past two months, and one of those victories came courtesy of Home Brew. The son of Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense was much the best in a one-mile allowance optional claimer on Dec. 4 at Oaklawn, leading all the way to score by 3 3/4 lengths.

Home Brew has trained sharply since then, and Cox wins at a 37% rate with horses running long for the second time, so I'm confident we haven't seen the best Home Brew has to offer. There isn't a crazy amount of speed in the Smarty Jones field, so if Home Brew secures a comfortable position on or near the lead, he can cruise to victory in his stakes debut.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Derby preps on New Year's Day?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite.

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