After settling for second in a pair of stakes in Southern California to close out 2017, Mourinho found Oaklawn Park to his liking as he scored a clear victory in the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 15.
The victory by Mourinho adds to the Oaklawn success of his trainer Bob Baffert, who has now won half his 36 stakes starts at the Hot Springs, Ark., track. Mourinho completed the one-mile test in 1:37.25, the second-fastest time in the history of the stakes race that started in 2008. The 3 1/4-length win gave Baffert his first Smarty Jones score.
Phoenix Thoroughbred III's Mourinho broke well under Drayden Van Dyke to secure a clear lead through a quarter-mile in :23.33 and the 3-5 favorite maintained that edge, taking the field of five 3-year-olds through a half-mile in :48.09. In the turn, Mourinho added to his advantage, opening three lengths and then four, before second-choice Combatant launched his rally, which proved too late in the one-mile test that features a short stretch, ending at the 16th pole.
The top four Smarty Jones finishers earned Road to the Kentucky Derby points (10-4-2-1), which are used to determine the Louisville classic's field if more than 20 horses are eligible.
Mourinho, a son of 2010 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) winner Super Saver , won his Sept. 30 maiden special weight debut at Santa Anita Park before finishing second there to Beautiful Shot in the six-furlong Speakeasy Stakes. He then finished second to Greyvitos at Del Mar in the seven-furlong Bob Hope Stakes (G3). Monday's race marked the first two-turn start for Mourinho.
"We always hoped he'd pass the two turn test," Baffert said. "He broke well and was able to make the early lead. He looked like he had plenty left. We're very encouraged. We're excited. It's that time of year when you start to get excited. I don't know where we'll run him back. The Southwest (Stakes Feb. 19) may be a good spot. We'll get him back to California and see what happens."
The win was especially sweet for Van Dyke, who grew up in Hot Springs and graduated from Lake Hamilton High School in 2012. This was his first win at Oaklawn. "It's extra special because it's my hometown," he said.
"He's a horse that we get to relax in the morning, so the blinkers, I think, helped keep him focused. Young horses like that need to stay focused. I think it benefited him.
"Bob (Baffert) said we're the fastest horse in the race, so to get the lead and go from there. That worked out well for us. Threw his ears up and just coasted home."