Following the Breeders' Cup, trainer Brad Cox had a clear top-10 prospect for the 2021 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) with probable 2-year-old champion Essential Quality. Less than a month into the New Year, it would appear he now has two Derby contenders.
He showcased his latest Derby contender Jan. 22 on opening day of the Oaklawn Park meet when Shortleaf Stable's Caddo River took charge early in the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes and widened for a 10 1/4-length victory over Cowan. The victory earned him 10 qualifying Derby points.
Backed to 3-5 favoritism after a blowout maiden win in November at Churchill Downs in his third career start, the homebred son of Hard Spun was always in complete command Friday. He went to the lead from his outside post, raced uncontested with splits of 23:12, :47.16, and 1:12.42, and left his opponents distanced in the stretch. He raced a mile on a fast track in 1:38.19 under Florent Geroux.
Runner-up Cowan, also second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint (G2T) and Remington Springboard Mile Stakes finished 7 1/4 lengths ahead of third-place Big Thorn. Cowan was steadied on the heels of a rank rival Friday into the first of two turns. Moonlite Strike ran fourth, a neck behind Big Thorn.
Although Caddo River had never previously raced two turns, competing between seven furlongs to a mile in one-turn races last year, he had no trouble adapting Friday. He showed he was an effective router, just as his dam, the Congrats mare Pangburn, was for John Anthony's Shortleaf Stable during her career in 2014-16. She won the 1 1/16-mile Maryland Racing Media Stakes in 2016 after placing in three graded routes at 2 and 3.
Cowan, Big Thorn, and Moonlite Strike earned four, two, and one point on the Road to the Kentucky Derby by virtue of their finishes in the Lasix-free Smarty Jones.
Caddo River appears to have a bright stakes future whether at Oaklawn Park or elsewhere. Up next at Oaklawn in its 3-year-old stakes program is the 1 1/16-mile Southwest Stakes (G3) Feb. 15, one of two races under consideration for Essential Quality. Also that weekend is the Feb. 13 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford (G2) at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots.
"The distance doesn't look like it's going to be a problem," said Geroux. "Very excited about what's coming up ahead of us with him. Looks like he can run all day, which is a good problem. Hopefully, we can go on, go up the stepping stones, and have a nice horse for the first Saturday in May."
Last year, Cox was willing to shuttle stakes horses between Oaklawn and Fair Grounds, winning the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) with Wells Bayou, who had previously run second in the Southwest.
The trainer's growing stable this year includes a Florida division, creating additional options for his runners at Gulfstream Park. Cox traveled to Florida this week for the Jan. 23 Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1), a race in which Knicks Go starts for him.