After his fourth victory in Oaklawn’s last nine Kentucky Derby points races, trainer Brad Cox is now plotting the next moves for his army of 3-year-olds on the Kentucky Derby trail.
Cox’s prospect list grew Sunday when he sent out the 1-2 finishers in the $250,000 Smarty Jones Stakes, Oaklawn’s first of four Kentucky Derby points races. Heavily favored Victory Formation, co-owned by prominent North Little Rock, Ark., businessman Frank Fletcher and Spendthrift Farm, remained unbeaten with a front-running three-length victory over Angel of Empire. Victory Formation (3-for-3) was making his stakes and two-turn debut.
Ridden for the first time by Flavien Prat, Victory Formation covered 1 mile over a fast track in 1:38.14 to earn a preliminary Beyer Speed Figure of 91, a career high. Victory Formation ($3.20) equaled the shortest-priced winner in the Smarty Jones’ 16-year history.
“He’s a pretty smart horse,” Cox said during training hours Monday morning at Oaklawn. “I know I’ve said that several times, but he really is. He’s a horse that doesn’t overdo it. He’s not too hard on himself and I think that’s going to take him a long way and, hopefully, allow him to get more ground and, obviously, have a long career of racing.”
Cox said Victory Formation appeared to exit the Smarty Jones in good shape physically, adding that next-race plans are pending for the son of 2017 Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit. Cox said Victory Formation is scheduled to return to Fair Grounds, where he has been based this winter. Victory Formation, Tapwrit’s first stakes winner, remained at Oaklawn Wednesday morning. Cox also has a division of horses at Fair Grounds.
Oaklawn’s Kentucky Derby points series continues with the Southwest Stakes (G3) at 1 1/16 miles Jan. 28, the Rebel Stakes (G2) at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 25 and the Arkansas Derby (G1) at 1 1/8 miles April 1. Cox said “it’s too early” to tell whether Victory Formation will return to Oaklawn for other Kentucky Derby points races, particularly the Arkansas Derby (G1), a race Fletcher covets the most.
“I’m well aware that Frank would like to win the Arkansas Derby, but we’ll do what’s best for the horse and see if he takes us there,” Cox said.
Cox said next-race plans also are pending for Angel of Empire, who breezed twice last month at Oaklawn in advance of the Smarty Jones. Angel of Empire, by champion and 2017 Arkansas Derby winner Classic Empire, already owns two victories around two turns at Horseshoe Indianapolis. Angel of Empire received a preliminary Beyer Speed Figure of 86, a 16-point jump from his previous best.
“Same thing,” Cox said. “The goal with him is to try and get him to the Kentucky Derby and try to win one of these Grade 1’s along the way. I don’t know which one. Once again, too early to tell. But he really stepped up. He showed me a lot (Sunday). I thought he could. Told (Joe) Talamo in the paddock, he’s a horse that’s going to come running. He’s going to stay on. I think with more ground, the better for him.”
Victory Formation earned 10 points toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby for his Smarty Jones victory. Angel of Empire received four points. Based on official rankings released late Sunday afternoon by Churchill Downs, Cox has six of the top 15 horses on the latest Kentucky Derby leaderboard – No. 4 Jace’s Road (13 points), No. 5 Instant Coffee (12), No. 6 Victory Formation (10), No. 11 Loggins (4), No. 12 Verifying (4) and No. 15 Angel of Empire (4).
Cox also trains unbeaten Corona Bolt, blowout winner of the Sugar Bowl Stakes at six furlongs Dec. 26 at Fair Grounds; Giant Mischief, runner-up in the Remington Springboard Mile on Dec. 17 at Remington Park; Hit Show, a sharp entry-level allowance winner at one mile Dec. 17 at Oaklawn; Tapit’s Conquest, who broke his maiden at 1 1/16 miles Oct. 1 at Churchill Downs; and Tapit Shoes, who broke his maiden at 1 1/16 miles Dec. 3 at Fair Grounds.
Cox said he plans to start Corona Bolt, Hit Show and possibly Jace’s Road in the Southwest. Jace’s Road, by Quality Road, was a 5 1/2-length winner of the Gun Runner Stakes at 1 1/16 miles Dec. 26 at Fair Grounds in his last start. Giant Mischief, Cox said, is pointing for the Rebel.
Cox said he also has a handful of unstarted horses whom he believes still could make the Kentucky Derby trail. Zozos, for example, finished 10th in the 2022 Kentucky Derby for Cox after debuting in late January at Fair Grounds.
“Listen, it’s not just the Derby,” Cox said. “It’s the Triple Crown, right? Like it could be Preakness horses along the way.”
Cox, the reigning two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer, won the 2021 Kentucky Derby via disqualification with Mandaloun and the 2021 Belmont with champion Essential Quality. Essential Quality launched his 3-year-old campaign with a victory in the Southwest.
Cox’s first brush with the Kentucky Derby came in 2016 with Dazzling Gem, who won his first two career starts as a 3-year-old early in the Oaklawn meeting before finishing third in the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) at Fair Grounds and fourth three weeks later in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1).
“Obviously, Essential Quality and Mandaloun were the first two horses we ran in the (Kentucky) Derby,” Cox said. “As much as you think you can follow this stuff, and I have followed it pretty much my entire life, the experience of having those horses on the trail, it does mean a lot. I think there’s a little bit of an advantage to having multiple horses on the trail because you don’t have to get in a hurry or you don’t feel like, ‘Hey, look, this points race is coming up.’
"Dazzling Gem, kind of my first horse that was on the Derby trail, I did something that I probably wouldn’t do again, and that was run him in the Louisiana Derby and then the Arkansas Derby," Cox continued. "Ultimately, probably could have got in (Kentucky Derby) off the AE, looking back at it. But I probably spent the horse, and he never was quite as good as maybe he could have been if we have just taken a deep breath. But you get the Derby fever.
“I do think it helps you when you have multiples. We are in a good position, but, obviously, we have a lot of work to do. We’re trying to give all these horses an opportunity to be the best they can be.”
The Smarty Jones was the 269th career Oaklawn victory for Cox. He has 29 career stakes victories in Hot Springs. In addition to the 2021 Southwest and 2023 Smarty Jones, Cox won the 2021 Smarty Jones with Caddo River and the 2022 Arkansas Derby with Cyberknife.
Cox entered Wednesday with 1,968 career North American victories, according to Equibase. He won 31 races last season at Oaklawn to finish third in the standings.