Barn Notes 1/3/24

Compiled by Robert Yates

CATCHING FREEDOM - Photo Credit: Coady Photography

No trainer has won Oaklawn’s Arkansas Derby three consecutive years. If Brad Cox sets the record, it will come with a perk. The 2024 edition falls on Cox’s 44th birthday, March 30.

“There you go,” Cox said with a laugh late Monday afternoon. “I like the sound of that.”

Just three days into 2024, Cox already has one candidate in Albaugh Family Stables’ Catching Freedom, who scored a sharp 2 ½-length victory as the favorite in the $300,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Monday at Oaklawn. Catching Freedom, ridden for the first time by Cristian Torres, collected 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points for the victory, his second in three starts.

The Smarty Jones marked Cox’s sixth victory in Oaklawn’s last 13 Kentucky Derby qualifying races. That includes victories in consecutive runnings of the $1.25 million G1-Arkansas Derby with Cyberknife in 2022 and last year with Angel of Empire, who is also owned by the Albaugh family (Dennis Albaugh and son-in-law Jason Loutsch). Cox has a record three Smarty Jones victories.

“Obviously, Oaklawn’s been good to us on the 3-year-old series,” Cox said.

Cox indicated moments after the Smarty Jones that Catching Freedom will likely follow Angel of Empire’s path to May’s Kentucky Derby (he finished third as the favorite). Angel of Empire had three 2023 starts before the Kentucky Derby, finishing second in the one mile Smarty Jone and winning the $400,000 G2-Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds and G1-Arkansas Derby, both at nine furlongs.

Oaklawn’s qualifying series continues with the 8 ½-furlong $800,000 G3-Southwest Stakes Jan. 27, $1.25 million G2-Rebel Stake Feb. 24 and $1.5 million G1-Arkansas Derby. Catching Freedom is based at Fair Grounds, which runs the $400,000 G2-Risen Star Feb. 17.

“We’ll just let the dust settle,” said Cox, who was in Louisiana Monday. “We don’t want to overdo it. I would expect probably two more runs. I would say it’s highly unlikely he would return in the Southwest. He would be a horse that would probably target, either the Risen Star or the Rebel. Those would be the two races that I think would make the most sense, with bringing him along. I know it’s a great purse with the Southwest. But once again our first goal, I’d say, would be to try to win a Grade 1. Hopefully, it would be the Arkansas Derby. But, obviously, the Kentucky Derby, we want to try and get there as well.

“Excited about the horse. I think there’s a lot of improvement left. If there is, he could be a serious horse this year.”

Catching Freedom ($5.40) received a preliminary Beyer Speed Figure of 87, a career high, for his Smarty Jones victory. Unhurried early, Catching Freedom made a four-wide bid turning for home and won going away in a final time of 1:44.59. The track was fast. The Smarty Jones had been run at one mile since its inception in 2008.

Catching Freedom, a half-brother to Cox’s multiple Grade 3 runner-up Bishops Bay, made his first two starts at Churchill Downs, winning his one-mile debut Oct. 1 and running fourth in a 1 1/16-miles entry-level allowance Nov. 9. He was favored in both races.

“We thought he was a colt with a lot of potential,” Loutsch said Tuesday afternoon. “He got in trouble the last time, so we were just hoping for a clean trip. He was still a little green, but Cristian gave him a great ride.”

The Albaugh family purchased Catching Freedom for $575,000 at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale. Catching Freedom’s pedigree screams stamina. His sire, Constitution, was a multiple Grade 1 winner at 1 1/8 miles. Catching Freedom’s dam, Catch My Drift, won her career debut at one mile and 70 yards and was a stakes winner at 1 1/8 miles.

“Dennis loves Constitution, to be honest with you,” Loutsch said. “He (Catching Freedom) is kind of what we look for. The mare’s thrown some really nice horses like Bishops Bay. He checked all the boxes. It’s a long way until May, but it’s exciting.”

Jorge Abrego, who oversees Cox’s Oaklawn division, said Catching Freedom emerged from the Smarty Jones in good shape and would depart Wednesday night for Fair Grounds.

As for Angel of Empire, Loutsch said he recently rejoined Cox’s Fair Grounds division and is nearing his first work. Angel of Empire hasn’t started since finishing third in the $500,000 G2-Jim Dandy Stakes July 29 at Saratoga.

“Just gave him a rest,” Loutsch said.