2015 Southwest Stakes Preview

Originally, the Southwest Stakes had been scheduled for Presidents' Day, but cold weather got in the way.  Oaklawn cancelled the card on Monday, and moved the Southwest Stakes to the weekend.  Race day was contingent on whether horses could train Tuesday; with Tuesday's cancellation, the race was carded for Sunday.  This causes the odd occurrence of a 10-point Derby prep happening after the 50-point preps have started, but also allows riders who had mounts in the Risen Star (GII) at Fair Grounds or the Fountain of Youth (GIII) at Gulfstream to ride those, and then head to Oaklawn to contest the Southwest on Sunday.

The Southwest Stakes will be run for the fiftieth time this year.  The race was run in 1959, 1962, and then every year from 1968 to the present day.  The race was originally a sprint, but stretched out to a mile in 1984, and then to its current 1 1/16 mile distance in 2013.  The first year in which it was a key Derby prep was 1992: though 17/1 D. Wayne Lukas bomb Big Sur wired the field that day, second-place Pine Bluff won the Preakness, and third-place Lil E. Tee took home the roses on the first Saturday in May.  Lil E. Tee went on to sire another Southwest Stakes winner: Jim'smrtee, who prevailed as a 52/1 outsider in 1999.  In 2004, Smarty Jones won the Southwest Stakes on his way to sweeping the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby, and then winning both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.  Of local interest, one Illinois-bred has won the Southwest Stakes: Clever Allemont, who won the 1985 running of the Southwest and returned to annex the Rebel as well.  Clever Allemont went on to hit the board in three graded stakes in Illinois later that year.  He was third in the Sheridan Stakes (GII) and the Arlington Classic (GI) at Arlington Park that June, and then went downstate and finished third in the Fairmount Park Derby (GIII) the next month.


Smarty Jones stalks, pounces, and holds on to score in the 2004 Southwest Stakes.

The Southwest Stakes takes place Sunday, February 22 at Oaklawn Park.  The piece was edited on Friday, February 20 to add morning lines.

Southwest Stakes (GIII), three-year-olds, 1 1/16 miles on the dirt, post time 5:09 CST

This redrawn edition of the Southwest Stakes drew a field of eleven runners.  Ten of them had originally drawn into the Southwest, though two from the original draw (J S Bach and War Story) defected to run Saturday's Risen Star instead.  One new horse entered the Southwest: recent Oaklawn allowance winner HILLBILLY ROYALTY, who makes his first foray into stakes company here.  At stake are a purse of $300,000, as well as Kentucky Derby points (10-4-2-1) to the top four finishers.

The pace in this race should not be crawling here, but should be honest.  HILLBILLY ROYALTY seems almost certain to send, with KANTUNE, BAYERD, and possibly MR. Z somewhere close early.  MR. Z has been keeping some of the classiest company of the field, or at least dancing the most dances, but he will certainly be an underlay on top.  His speeds are on the sharp side for the field, and likely honest-but-not-blazing pace should suit him.  However, MR. Z always seems to find a way to lose.  He looked home free in the Smarty Jones last out, and then blew it by doing his best Spicer Cub impression.  MR. Z should be able to hit the board on class alone, but he cannot be taken on top at a short price.  BAYERD looked surprisingly nice coming from a bit off the pace, rallying for second in the Smarty Jones after MR. Z bolted.  However, 1 1/16 miles is the longest race of his career to date, and the ability to stretch out that extra sixteenth seems questionable at best.

KANTUNE, that other horse likely to be close to the pace, steps into this field from maiden special weight company.  It took him seven starts to figure it out, but the ship east to Oaklawn (and away from the likes of Punctuate and Prospect Park) got him over the hump.  He graduated the first time he raced at Oaklawn, going the same 1 1/16 mile distance of the Southwest. Trainer Mark Casse tends to place runners well fresh off their maiden wins; he is a solid 19% with runners who graduated last out.  Shaun Bridgmohan gets the leg up again, another point in KANTUNE's favour.  Bridgmohan has been 5-10 with Casse in the last two months.  Pacewise, KANTUNE will want to be near the front early.  His previous races suggest that he does not necessarily need to be as close to the lead as he was in his maiden win.  If Bridgmohan can get him relaxed just a length or two off the early pace, he could get first run at the early leaders.  That has never been a bad place to be this Oaklawn meet.  With a reasonable step forward from his maiden win, he could win this at a very nice price.  BOLD CONQUEST has been on the shelf since a third-place finish in the Breeders' Futurity (GI) in October.  However, trainer Steve Asmussen wins at an 18% clip with runners coming off of these long layoffs.  BOLD CONQUEST has a healthy worktab stretching back to early January, and though most of the works have been at the Fair Grounds, he shipped to Oaklawn in time to get a move over the local main before the originally drawn Southwest, and has now had a bit more time to get used to the track.  Asmussen knows what he is doing when he sends his horses somewhere; he has a 21% win rate with shippers, with 51% in the money.  The pace should not pose a problem for BOLD CONQUEST; with a good chance of in front of him, he should have something to run at, and should not be coming from the clouds.  He will not have first run (that will likely be KANTUNE), but even if he runs back to the late pace numbers he already put up at two, he should mount a serious challenge down the stretch.  Finally, FAR RIGHT has a chance to follow up his Smarty Jones win with a sharp showing in the Southwest.  He looked in that race like a horse who would relish another sixteenth of a mile at Oaklawn, and already has a graded placing in his only try at that distance (over the Delta Downs bullring, in the Grade III Jackpot).  FAR RIGHT has shown an encouraging kind of pace versatility: he can stalk fairly close to the pace, or come closing late.  There are enough runners close to the pace that he probably will not be as close as he was in his maiden win, but in case the pace does get a bit slower than expected, he has that backup plan going for him.  Mike Smith, who rode this horse in the Smarty Jones, returns to the irons here: a good sign, both because of his known good effort with FAR RIGHT as well as his tendency to come through in stakes races.  FAR RIGHT will likely go off well-bet due to his last-out win, but from this vantage point, he deserves it.

One other who has an interesting angle, though this space is taking a pass, is THE TRUTH OR ELSE.  He adds Lasix for the first time here, a move with which trainer Ken McPeek wins at a 15% rate (with 48% in the money).  He kept classy company at two, finishing third in both the Champagne (GI) and the Nashua (GII).  He has been away since the Remsen (GII) back in November, though working consistently at Oaklawn.  The worry is that THE TRUTH OR ELSE will be too far off the early pace.  He switches to Calvin Borel here, who sometimes has a tendency to take the off-pace types just a bit too far back.  Without any true can't-rate types in this field, that seems a dangerous proposition, especially for a horse who would need to take a considerable step ahead of his two-year-old performances to contend with this crowd.

Selections:

#6 KANTUNE (12/1)

#9 BOLD CONQUEST (10/1)

#2 FAR RIGHT (5/2)

Longshot: BAYERD, KANTUNE, and MR. Z may or may not send, but #3 HILLBILLY ROYALTY (7/2) looks almost certain to be forwardly placed early if his two career races are any indication.  He rated just off some relatively slow fractions to graduate in the Remington slop first out, and then shook clear of an early speed duel to score emphatically against allowance company last out.  That allowance score happened over fast dirt at Oaklawn going the same distance as the Southwest, 1 1/16 miles.  The class remains a question, as these are by far the toughest horses he has faced to date.  Still the ability to handle some pace pressure gives HILLBILLY ROYALTY an out, and a reasonable step forward in speed puts him right up with the better horses in this field.  If he goes off as ignored by the bettors as he has in both of his career starts, he is the interesting price in the field.

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