Albaugh Family Stables, a regular presence in the Kentucky Derby (G1) with six starters since 2016 and their best finish coming last year with third-place Angel of Empire , are on the Derby Trail again.
The Iowa-headed stable—led by Dennis Albaugh and his son-in-law and racing manager Jason Loutsch—kicked off 2024 with a stakes victory from their newly turned 3-year-old Catching Freedom in the $300,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 1 at Oaklawn Park. His 2 1/2-length victory in which he ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.59, resulted in a career-best 95 Equibase Speed Figure.
“A good present on New Year’s Day,” Loutsch said Jan. 2 after the Constitution colt’s win.
With the Smarty Jones an official qualifier on the Road to the Kentucky Derby series, Catching Freedom picked up 10 Kentucky Derby points, placing him ninth in the standings, with higher-level points races to follow this winter and spring. Officials at Churchill Downs, where the 1 1/4-mile Derby will be run May 4 for the 150th time, use qualifying points to promote the first leg of the Triple Crown and as a preference system when the classic is oversubscribed.
Catching Freedom gave the appearance Monday of a horse who should relish longer distances. Eighth after a quarter-mile, he made steady progress through the race and closed in the stretch to win going away, with a final sixteenth timed in :6.25 under Cristian Torres.
The Smarty Jones followed a fourth-place finish in an allowance optional claiming race at Churchill Downs at 1 1/16 miles Nov. 9, which had been preceded by a debut win at a one-turn mile there Oct. 1 for trainer Brad Cox.
“Going into the race, I was hoping for a big effort and just to show us that he belonged on the trail, and he did that yesterday,” Loutsch said. “I thought he was really professional.
“Still, coming down the stretch, he was still a little green on the wrong lead and then finally at the sixteenth pole, he got to the right lead and finished up strong. So, overall, I was really impressed with this first race of the year and, it gives us some optimism going forward, no doubt.”
Just Steel ran second in the Smarty Jones, a neck ahead of Informed Patriot . The former appeared a bit weary late, though the Smarty Jones was just the second route for Just Steel, who won the Ed Brown Stakes sprinting at Churchill Downs in November.
He “might have been a little bit short. I thought he ran very well,” said his trainer, Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas. “The one thing about it, it’s a four-race series before you get to the Derby, so you’ve got to be a little bit careful.”
The other three legs of Oaklawn’s series for 3-year-olds include the $800,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Jan. 27, the $1.25 million Rebel Stakes (G2) Feb. 24, and the $1.5 million Arkansas Derby (G1) March 30.
Cox typically does not run a single horse in all of the legs, more often shuttling 3-year-olds between Oaklawn and Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, which also has a lucrative stakes program for 3-year-old males.
Albaugh Family Stables and Cox won the Arkansas Derby last year with Angel of Empire, who as the Kentucky Derby favorite would run a length and a half behind Mage . He would finish in a dead heat for fourth in the June 10 Belmont Stakes (G1) and a troubled third in the July 29 Jim Dandy Stakes (G2) over a sloppy track at Saratoga Race Course when repeatedly bumped by victorious Forte .
Angel of Empire’s 3-year-old season concluded with that race, and he was given the second half of 2023 off to prepare for his 4-year-old year. The Classic Empire colt has resumed training at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, where Cox likes to keep many of his better stakes horses during the coldest winter months.
“He should have his first work back in the next week or two,” Loutsch said.
As for Catching Freedom, he is not the only potential stakes player on the Derby Trail for Albaugh Family Stables. Lightline , a City of Light colt who rallied from last to finish second behind the promising Carbone in a mile allowance optional claiming race at Oaklawn Dec. 31 for Cox, is another exciting young horse, Loutsch said.
Last year, Albaugh Family Stables ran three horses in the Derby when Angel of Empire was joined by the Cox-trained Jace’s Road and the Dale Romans-trained Cyclone Mischief . Jace’s Road, owned in partnership with West Point Thoroughbreds, ran 17th, while the Albaugh Family Stables and Castleton Lyons-owned Cyclone Mischief finished 18th.
Last year’s trio from Albaugh Family Stable followed Kentucky Derby finishes for them by Free Drop Billy , 16th in 2018; J Boys Echo , 15th in 2017, and Brody’s Cause , seventh in 2016. Romans trained those three, all of whom were graded winners at ages 2 or 3.
Loutsch said he appreciates Dennis Albaugh’s investment in acquiring young horses and the teamwork from everyone involved from start to finish. Catching Freedom was a $575,000 purchase from the Warrendale Sales consignment to the 2022 September Yearling Sale at Keeneland.
“Our goal is to buy eight to 10 colts a year, and to get to this many Derbies, and last year to have three and the favorite going into the gate, it was a huge accomplishment for our stable, but I don’t take it for granted,” he added. “It’s a tough game and I cherish every time we get to come to Churchill.”
Four months before this year’s race, a return appearance could be unfolding.
Courtesy of The Bloodhorse