HOT SPRINGS -- Through no fault of its own, this year's Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort is denied the national prominence it might have received had not Mother Nature intervened.
Oaklawn's Grade III Kentucky Derby prep, its purse bumped to $800,000, risks being overshadowed by today's Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park at Hallendale Beach, Fla. The latter race marks the 3-year-old debut of juvenile champion and early Derby favorite Fierceness, trained by Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher.
Though Fierceness will be virtually unplayable at short odds unless in exotic wagers, the Arkansas road to the Triple Crown resumes a week later than planned with no clear-cut favorite. Fair Grounds shipper Maycocks Bay is the early 3-1 choice over 4-1 Wynstock, trained by Bob Baffert, in a race that last-out Smarty Jones winner Catching Freedom is sitting out.
After Oaklawn was shut down by icy and frigid conditions on Jan. 19-21, several stakes races were pushed to this weekend. Comparative won the $250,000 Grade III Bayakoa on Friday. In addition to the Southwest, today's card will include the $250,000 Martha Washington, the $150,000 American Beauty and the $150,000 King Cotton.
What it lacks in A-list horses, the Southwest brings together 12 promising horses, many of whose trainers need no introduction. No race with Steve Asmussen, Brad Cox. D. Wayne Lukas and Baffert represented goes unnoticed. With the top five eligible finishers receiving Derby qualifying points on a 20-10-6-4-2 scale, the Southwest is a stair step to the Grade II $1 million Rebel Stakes on Feb. 24 and the Grade I $1.5 million Arkansas Derby on March 30 with 50 and 100 points, respectively, to an eligible winner.
This calls into question Baffertt's entry of Wynstock, a last-out graded winner in California. Churchilll Downs is ruling off the Hall of Fame trainer and six-time Derby winner again over a drug flap two years ago, and both the trainer and certain of his owners put up a united front this week that no Baffert-trained horse shall run another horseman's name to earn points.
Following the Oaklawn success of Newgrange and Aranian Knight, Baffert seeks a third Southwest hat trick with the Grade II Los Alamitos Futurity star.
The Solomini colt perked up with the stretch to a mile and Kyle Frey as his new rider. The first foal out of a half-sister to Grade III Oklahoma Derby winner Untrapped, Wynstock played bumper cars when challenged in his last race.
Asmussen trains Otto the Conqueror and fellow entrant Carbone, whose Dec. 31 maiden victory over the track influenced local horseman Staton Flurry to buy a share of the Mitole colt from its Texas owners. Otto the Conqueror, by 2007 Derby winner Street Sense, has back-to-back wins in the slop, which he may encounter today with rain in the forecast. Some note that his speed figure dropped in the Springboard Mile and that Joel Rosario replaced Tyler Gaffalione in the saddle.
Carbone, with Ricardo Santana Jr., is perfect in two starts with Beyer Speed Figures in the 90s. That he is a lower price (9-2) on the morning line than the more experienced stablemate (5-1) sparks intrigue.
Robert Medina-trained Liberal Arts has juicy opening odds (8-1) plus a Churchill Downs stakes win in the slop. Arrogate's son was a little slow to break his maiden (third start), but his late sire has thrown winners of the Kentucky Oaks (Secret Oath) and Belmont Stakes (Arcangelo). Cristian Torres, winning rider in the first Oaklawn points prep, keeps the mount.
Just Steel, 8-1 from the Lukas barn, held second in the one-mile Smarty Jones, his first start around two turns. At 88 and a four-time Kentucky Derby winner, Lukas gives a young horse every chance and how far Just Steel can carry his speed may be central to solving the Southwest puzzle. Ramon Vazquez stays abroad.
Awesome Road ships up from New Orleans without fanfare for Cox, who Essential Quality won the 2021 Southwest and doubled in the Belmont. Florent Geroux is up on the early 8-1 shot.
Others to watch include Remington stakes winner Magic Grant for Eddie Milligan Jr., Chris Landeros riding, and Maycocks Bay (Francisco Arrieta for Mike Stidham), whose low program odds may owe as much as anything to his connections, the mighty Godolphin Stable. Also entered are 12-1 Mystik Dan (Brian Hernandez Jr. for Ken McPeek), 15-1 stablemate Common Defense (Julien Leparoux) and 30-1 maidens Charleston (Jinks Fires) and Linebacker (Jordan Blair).
The 11th of 12 races on today's card, the Southwest's scheduled post time is 4:50 p.m. First post is 11:30 a.m.