McPeek colt runs away with Southwest

Mystik Dan, with jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. aboard, takes the upset victory in Saturday's Grade 3 $800,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park. (Submitted photo courtesy of Coady Photography)
Mystik Dan, with jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. aboard, takes the upset victory in Saturday's Grade 3 $800,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park. (Submitted photo courtesy of Coady Photography)

HOT SPRINGS -- Mystik Dan, whose sire won the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile twice, is poised to make Ken McPeek a first-time winner in the race that every horseman covets but a Kentuckian, like himself, especially holds dear.

Getting a second chance with the Goldencents colt, McPeek watched Mystik Dan take the short way home -- that is, skimming the rail -- to win the Grade III $800,000 Southwest Stakes by 8 lengths on Saturday at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort.

Mystik Dan earned 20 valuable Kentucky Derby points with the win.

McPeek said if the Arkansas Derby is Mystik Dan's next outing, other competitors had better bring their best.

"I think we'll probably skip the Rebel [Stakes] and wait for the Arkansas Derby," McPeek said. "I've run him back quick and it's kicked me. So I don't think we need to do that. We just need to be patient and wait.

"We've got plenty of time and he's a fit horse. And if we go into the Arkansas Derby, they're going to have run their tail off to beat us."

Jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. plugged a hole when a tiring Otto the Conqueror drifted outside at the head of the stretch.

Just Steel held second, as he did in the $300,000 Smarty Jones at Oaklawn on Jan. 1 at the same distance, for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Liberal Arts, a Grade III winner at Churchill Downs in October, placed third in his 3-year-old debut for Robert Medina.

"I was actually thinking about it [racing to the rail after breaking from post 9] the whole way in the post parade there," Hernandez said. "I was just trying to figure out what horse I could get behind and get to the fence. I was fortunate enough, my horse left there quick enough, but not overly quick, to where I was able to get behind the leaders and make my way over to the fence. And from there, he just traveled so well the whole way.

"When we got to the second turn, I called on him and he picked it up. I was able to kind of just wait for a spot. When a seam opened up barely on the inside, he shot through there and did the rest for us."

McPeek praised Hernandez's decision-making.

"We left it [race tactics] up to Brian," McPeek said. "You can't predict all that. But he needed to learn how to rate. He needed to learn how to settle off horses and maintain that late punch, and we've been doing that in the morning every day."

Awesome Road ran fourth from post 12 for Brad Cox, whose Catching Freedom won the Smarty Jones under Cristian Torres and sat this one out. McPeek-trained Common Defense, a meet winner Jan. 13, earned two Kentucky Derby qualifying points for fifth place.

No points were left for Steve Asmussen's uncoupled pair of Otto the Conqueror (sixth after winning Remington Park's Springboard Mile in December) and Carbone (seventh off a Dec. 31 win over the track). A surprising favorite at 9-5 in his stakes debut, Carbone had jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. clad in the silks of new co-owner Staton Flurry, of Hot Springs.

Mystik Dan, a March 4 foal, was homegrown by Kentucky breeders Lance Gasaway, 4G Racing LLC and Daniel Hamby. A second-out Keeneland maiden winner by 7 3/4 lengths, Mystik Dan came into the Southwest off a fifth-place finish in the Smarty Jones. McPeek blamed himself for running the colt with a lung infection when beaten eight lengths at Churchill Downs in his third start Jan. 25.

Hernandez, aboard Mystik Dan for three starts before Justin Leparoux piloted in the Southwest, picked off horses down the backstretch while the Asmussen horses dueled themselves into submission. Carbone blinked before Otto the Conqueror, whose sire, Street Sense, won the 2007 Kentucky Derby under Calvin Borel.

Just Steel, in his second two-turn star, could not hold off the winner for long, though Lukas is sure to give Justify's son every chance to emulate his Triple Crown-winning sire's success in the 2018 Derby. Wynstock, whose Bob Baffert also trained Justify and four other Kentucky Derby winners, ran last of 10 in the Southwest, denying the Hall of Famer a stakes hat trick.

Clocked in 1:43.67 over a muddy surface, the Southwest winner paid $24.80, $14.20 and $8.80. The exacta paid $91 and the trifecta returned $277.95. Oaklawn's next points race for Derby hopefuls is the Grade 2 $1 million Rebel on Feb. 24, followed by the Grade 1 $1.5 million Arkansas Derby March 30.

McPeek, like Asmussen, has won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, but collected no Kentucky Derby win. His best runner, Tejano Run, finished second to Lukas-trained longshot Thunder Gulch in 1995 after vanning from Keeneland on race day.

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