2017 Southwest Stakes and Razorback Handicap Preview

oaklawn_main_logo_1904Saturday the Derby trail makes its one-off visit to Golden Gate Fields for the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby.  Monday, however, the road to the first Saturday in May returns to conventional dirt for Oaklawn Park’s second of four points races: the Southwest Stakes (G3).  The Presidents’ Day card in Hot Springs also features the Grade 3 Razorback Handicap, the second of Oaklawn’s series of stakes races for older dirt route horses.

Morning lines were not available at original publish time. Updated February 20 to add morning lines. Edited February 20 to account for the scratches of DAZZLING GEM and CHIEF OF STAFF from the Razorback, and COOL ARROW from the Southwest.

Monday, February 20: Oaklawn Park

Race 7: Razorback Handicap (G3), four-year-olds and up, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 4:09pm CST

The Razorback Handicap shares its name with the mascot of the sports teams from the University of Arkansas.  In recent years the Razorback Handicap has been run on Rebel Stakes (G2) day, the immediate local prep for the Oaklawn Handicap (G2) at the end of the meet.  Not this year — the Razorback switched places with the listed Essex Handicap, which has been pushed a month forward to Rebel Day.  The conditions, however, remain the same as they have been for most of the race’s history: a mile and a sixteenth on the dirt for older horses.  Inaugurated as a five and a half furlong sprint in 1960, the race was stretched to a mile and seventy yards in 1961, and then out to its current distance in 1969.  Just one horse has won the Razorback on the way to a championship that same year: Blushing John (1989), who would win that year’s Eclipse award for Champion Older Male.  Temperence Hill (1981) had already won an Eclipse when he took the Razorback; he was the previous year’s Champion Three Year Old.

Several Razorback Handicap winners have also seen success on Chicago-area ovals.  Royal Glint (1976) was a three-time stakes winner in Chicago; he won the 1974 Sun Beau Handicap and the 1976 Hawthorne Gold Cup (G2) at Hawthorne, as well as the 1975 Arlington Handicap (G2) across town.  Royal Glint also used to have a stakes run in his name at Hawthorne.  Spotsgone, who won the 2010 Razorback Handicap by disqualification, broke his maiden at Arlington in 2005 and returned there to win the 2007 Hanshin Cup (G3).

When this was originally published, we handicapped for rain. This morning, the rain was supposed to begin a couple hours before the Razorback. Now? It’s set to start a while after the Razorback.

With that the case, GUN RUNNER finally looks to be catching a break. He has had precious few breaks this year, with his Pegasus plans dashed by the quarantine at Fair Grounds. GUN RUNNER’s biggest vulnerability has been an off track — but with severe storms holding off for a few hours, GUN RUNNER stands to get the fast dirt he loves. He can fire off a lay, as he proved when he won the Risen Star last year in his sophomore debut. He has been able to take good form to different tracks, so this being his first try at Oaklawn isn’t a concern. He has three wins in four tries at this mile and a sixteenth distance, with his only loss coming in the slop. He is fast enough, he will be forward yet ratable. Longshot players hoped fervently for rain; team GUN RUNNER hoped equally fervently for clearer skies. So close to post, it seems team GUN RUNNER will get its wish, and he has no excuse not to win this.

HAWAAKOM rates as the most interesting of the spoilers.  He comes here second off a break, and his first race back was a sharp victory in the Louisiana Stakes.  HAWAAKOM rallied from last into a pace that was not exceptionally fast, something he may have to do here as well.   His late pace shines in this field, and he could get more to chase with BLUE TONE, GUN RUNNER, and perhaps even SMACK SMACK possible to show some speed.  HAWAAKOM also has some back form at Oaklawn, with a win and a second in three tries.  Those starts came against softer company than this, but HAWAAKOM is a better horse now than he was two years ago.

There are several who can show speed here, of course.  But, SMACK SMACK does not always send to the front, and GUN RUNNER sits back sometimes, too.  This leaves just enough chance that BLUE TONE could dictate terms.  Here, he may get a favourable setup, and even if someone goes with him, he has shown the ability to get the best of a speed duel.  This will be a step up for him: last out he wired the San Gabriel (G3), but he ran against a field of turf horses who were washed off to turf.  Here, he faces true dirt horses.  That said, BLUE TONE is himself a dirt horse.  His connections entered him in the San Gabriel hoping it would be washed off, and they got their wish.  This will be BLUE TONE’s test of whether he can compete with this class of dirt horses, but Jose Ortiz should give him the best possible chance to prove that he can.

Selections:

#1 GUN RUNNER (4/5)

#5 HAWAAKOM (10/1)

#3 BLUE TONE (9/2)

Longshot:  In addition to the locals who have won the Razorback before, Illinois-bred #2 DOMAIN’S RAP (6/1) ran a close second behind Upstart last year.  He proved a horse for the Oaklawn course last year for owner Danny Caldwell, trainer Federico Villafranco, and rider Ramon Vazquez — and this year, at nine, he may be better than ever.  DOMAIN’S RAP has won twice at Oaklawn already this year, both in the listed Fifth Season Stakes and in a top-shelf allowance.  His loves for both the course and distance defy reproach.  The biggest question is the slop, as DOMAIN’S RAP has three exacta finishes and three off-board finishes on off tracks.  But, with money likely to go to several others in the field, it may well be worth giving the old man a chance in the rain over his favourite domain.

Race 9: Southwest Stakes (G3), three-year-olds, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 5:09pm CST

The Southwest Stakes will be run for the fifty-second time this year.  The race was run in 1959, 1962, and then every year from 1968 to the present day.  Originally a sprint, the race was extended 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.


Smarty Jones holds safe from Two Down Automatic to win the 2004 Southwest Stakes. 

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.

Taking chalk in a field of 13 can be tough…but sometimes you try, try, try again to find a strong enough alternative, and continue to come up empty.  In short: if you can’t beat UNCONTESTED, join him.  He won the Smarty Jones easily over a sloppy track last out, so the track condition should suit him nicely again.  Sure, there are a few others who have shown speed here: WARRIOR’S CLUB, CHIEF KNOW IT ALL, and maiden winners DILETTANTE and HENCE.  But, WARRIOR’S CLUB faltered over slop last out in the Smarty Jones, and couldn’t keep up with UNCONTESTED.  CHIEF KNOW IT ALL seems the biggest threat to UNCONTESTED getting the lead he wants — but he got marooned all the way in the 13 hole, dampening his chances.  A return to last out could be too good for these foes as well, and if UNCONTESTED takes a step forward second off the lay, he gets even more dangerous.

PETROV chased UNCONTESTED home in the Smarty Jones.  Like UNCONTESTED, PETROV comes here second off the lay, so has some upside in that regard.  He also keeps rider Jose Ortiz in the irons; Ortiz has been excellent with trainer Ron Moquett this Oaklawn meet, with four wins and another three money finishes in ten tries together.  On pace, PETROV also garners interest — if some of those less experienced horses take enough of a step forward to annoy UNCONTESTED up front, PETROV could get first run.  Distance is the big question, however — PETROV’s dam Saracina keeps throwing sprinters, making it questionable whether he will actually take the needed step forward on the stretch out.

There are plenty of wild cards in the Southwest, but none more wild than ONE LINER.  This Todd Pletcher charge graduated last summer at Saratoga, then disappeared until the winter at Gulfstream.  He picked up right where he left off, clearing his N1X by daylight on January 26.  This will be ONE LINER’s first try going a route, but trainer Todd Pletcher excels with first-time routers: 26% wins and 55% in the money, across a sample size that actually means something.  He also came from just off the pace in both of his victories, suggesting that he can show some tactical speed once again.  Though ONE LINER has not run over mud yet, the pedigree suggests he will take to it.  Oaklawn isn’t usually Todd Pletcher’s stomping ground, but with the deep sophomore bench he has now, he needs to find preps for all of them.  He can fit a horse there just like he can anywhere else (remember Danza?), and this up-and-comer intrigues at a price better than you’d get on him at Gulfstream or Aqueduct.

Selections:

#3 UNCONTESTED (5/2)

#8 PETROV (5/1)

#11 ONE LINER (7/2)

Longshot:  LOOKIN AT LEE will be the Steve Asmussen A, and on class and form (last year’s, anyway — he’s in off a lay since November) he rates for an underneath share.  But, if you’re looking to play a bomb on top?  How about the other Asmussen, #10 HENCE (20/1)?  HENCE grabbed a couple of underneath shares in maiden special weights last year, but put it all together in his three-year-old debut.  That came over something much like he’ll get today: a mile and a sixteenth over an off track at Oaklawn.  Ramon Vazquez, who booted him home to that victory, returns to the irons.  That race he won has already been franked, as second-place Horse Fly returned to win next out, and has been entered in next weekend’s Risen Star (G2).  On pace, HENCE rallied from midpack to win last out, though he showed some ability closer to the front two starts back — in other words, he has versatility.  HENCE will need a step forward to contend with these — but with the immaturity he showed last out, he could take that step forward just by showing more professionalism.

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