Bennie Stutts Jr. is looking forward to visiting northern Ohio for the $300,000 Ohio Derby (gr. II) May 31. But unlike his first trip--about 51 years ago--Stutts won’t need a snow shovel.
“I was there with my father’s stable in 1957,” Stutts said. “We were actually at Ascot Park (in Cuyahoga Falls) and got snowed in; couldn’t get a horse out of a stall for three days. But we had a heck of a getaway day. Dad had four horses in, and we won with three of them.”
Stutts, 70, has just one horse to worry about this week. He’ll saddle Smooth Air, winner of Gulfstream Park’s grade II Hutcheson Stakes and runner-up to Big Brown in the grade I Florida Derby in the 74th running of the Ohio Derby at Thistledown.
The Florida-bred son of Smooth Jazz out of the French Deputy mare Air France has won three of eight starts and has earned $395,000. Before finishing 11th in the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), Smooth Air had been no worse than third his entire career.
“He was eliminated at the gate,” Stutts said. “(Jockey Manoel Cruz) had to grab him hard, and he was knocked around pretty good. Then, he was seven-wide in the first turn. A 20-horse field is the best way to explain what happened to him.”
Smooth Air, bred by his owners, the Mount Joy Stables, was at his best in the Hutcheson, splashing to a length score over Silver Edition, with the favored Halo Najib third. Stutts, who has been training for more than 40 years, claims the Hutcheson as his biggest stakes score.
Stutts’ only other graded stakes success came in the 2003 III Fred Hooper Handicap (gr. III) at Calder Race Course with Predawn Raid, another Mount Joy runner.
Smooth Air got his final serious prep for the Ohio Derby May 25 when he worked on the synthetic surface at Arlington Park. The bay colt drilled seven furlongs in a sparkling 1:24 4/5.
“We needed to sharpen him,” Stutts said. “He worked a mile at Calder (May 18) in 1:45 4/5, but that was just a little exercise. The Arlington move was the one he needed.”
Following Smooth Air’s victory in the Hutcheson and runner-up finish (beaten just five lengths) to Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Big Brown in the Florida Derby, Stutts couldn’t control his emotions.
“No, I shed a few tears after each of those races,” he said. “The Florida Derby race gave him enough money to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. It was big. Smooth Air is the horse I have been waiting for in my career.”
Stutts is well aware that another Calder-based trainer, Pete Anderson, won last year’s Ohio Derby with Delightful Kiss.
“I hope to keep up the tradition,” Stutts said.
Smooth Air and his trainer were headed to Thistledown the afternoon of May 27. The post-position draw for the Ohio Derby will be held May 28.