Mourinho (right) leads Combatant (white and black silks) into the homestretch of the Smarty Jones Stakes - Coady Photography

Mourinho (right) leads Combatant (white and black silks) into the homestretch of the Smarty Jones Stakes – Coady Photography

In the hours following the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes on Monday at Oaklawn Park, most of the focus was on the impressive winner Mourinho, who stamped himself as a serious Kentucky Derby contender with an authoritative victory in the one-mile race.

But while Mourinho is deserving of the accolades being sent his way, I’m just as interested—maybe even more interested—in the runner-up Combatant, who turned in a determined yet somewhat overlooked performance while finishing second.

In a small field of five horses, the front-running Mourinho had a clear pace advantage and wasted no time securing the lead. With jockey Drayden Van Dyke in the saddle for trainer Bob Baffert, Mourinho fought off a brief challenge from Tap Daddy to establish a one-length lead through an opening quarter in :23.33, then slowed down the pace noticeably during the middle of the race, reaching the half-mile pole in :48.09 with the remainder of the field bunched up behind him.

At that point, catching Mourinho was going to be difficult, and the son of Super Saver casually extended his lead to three lengths on his way to six furlongs in 1:12.27. Meanwhile, Combatant had rallied into second place after being boxed in down the backstretch, and though he couldn’t reel in Mourinho as the latter cruised through the final two furlongs in :12.63 and :12.35, Combatant stubbornly refused to give up ground and was beaten just 3 ¼ lengths at the finish while pulling eight lengths clear of third-place finisher Tap Daddy.

Given the way the pace of the race unfolded, Combatant’s determined run for second place was—in my opinion—just as eye-catching as Mourinho’s easy win under perfect circumstances. Although his pedigree suggests that he might wind up best as a turf miler (he debuted on that surface and his half-sister, Long Lashes, was a Group 3 winner in Great Britain), you can’t knock what Combatant has achieved on the main track, and he’s been improving gradually but steadily since switching to dirt last October. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him win a Derby prep before the winter is over.

As for Mourinho, he certainly looked the part of a future star and figures to be tough to beat in the February 19th Southwest Stakes (gr. III), the second of Oaklawn’s four prep races for the Kentucky Derby. But I’ll be curious see if he can exert the same level of dominance while facing larger fields and other serious speed horses, challenges he’ll surely face as the Derby preps get tougher during the coming months.