Fans enjoy a past edition of the Southwest Stakes in this file photo. (Eclipse Sportswire)
If you examine the entries for the $750,000, Grade 3 Southwest Stakes on Presidents’ Day at Oaklawn Park and conclude that Steve Asmussen will be tough to beat, you’ll be in the same boat as pretty much every other handicapper across the country.
The Hall of Fame trainer is throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the Southwest, a 1 1/16-mile Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race awarding 10 qualification points to the winner.
Gold Street left no doubt about his superiority in the Smarty Jones, leading all the way to score by 2 3/4 lengths. Racing on a muddy track, Gold Street’s final time of 1:39.63 for a mile produced strong speed figures of 95 (Beyer), 99 (Brisnet), and 98 (Equibase). Notably, Gold Street’s beaten rivals included Shoplifted and Silver Prospector, who trudged home third and fourth, respectively.
Take the results of the Smarty Jones at face value, and it’s easy to conclude Gold Street will romp to another easy victory in the Southwest. But was the Smarty Jones a fair measure of Gold Street’s ability? Possibly not.
The track was favoring front-runners that day, and Gold Street further benefited from setting slow fractions. This combination put Shoplifted and Silver Prospector (particularly the latter) at a distinct disadvantage, so given a fair track and an honest pace, we could see a completely different outcome in the Southwest.
Indeed, out of the Asmussen trio, my preference is Silver Prospector, who fell too far off the pace in the Smarty Jones. His victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club was better as he stayed closer to the pace and rallied to defeat not only Tiz the Law but also Enforceable, who returned to win the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds. With the speedy duo of #1 Wells Bayou and #5 American Butterfly very likely to ensure a quicker pace than in the Smarty Jones, Silver Prospector stands to benefit.
But might the Asmussen applecart be upset entirely by one of the half-dozen other Southwest entrants? It could be easy to overlook #9 Answer In, but that would be a mistake because this Dialed In gelding has shown flashes of serious talent for hot trainer Brad Cox.
Answer In debuted in a maiden sprint at Churchill Downs last September and ran too good to lose, coming up a nose short against future stakes winner South Bend. Answer In quickly made amends, dominating a slightly longer maiden dash at Churchill by 5 1/4 lengths — the runner-up, Race Driver, returned to win his next start.
Answer In subsequently stepped up in class and distance for the Dec. 15 Remington Springboard Mile, in which he ran a big race under adverse circumstances. After settling a few lengths off the pace, Answer In was forced to wait behind horses at the top of the stretch before squeezing through a small opening along the rail. It was an intimidating position, yet Answer In battled on gamely to finish second by a head against Shoplifted, who benefited from rallying unencumbered on the far outside.
Answer In hasn’t run in two months, but he’s been training sharply at Oaklawn Park and should be ready for a big effort. Four-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Javier Castellano retains the mount, another clue that Answer In is sitting on a strong race.
So what’s the best strategy for betting the Southwest Stakes? That depends on how bold you’re feeling.
Conservative bettors might play the exacta and call it a day. But if you’re looking for a bigger payoff, I suggest playing a trifecta with Silver Prospector and Answer In on top. If we can beat Gold Street, and perhaps get a longshot involved for third place, the reward should be lucrative.
Wagering Strategy A: Exacta
$3 exacta: 2,9 with 2,4,9 ($12)
What to say at the betting window: Oaklawn Park, 9th race, $3 exacta 2,9 with 2,4,9
Wagering Strategy B: Trifecta
$1.50 trifecta: 2,9 with 2,4,9 with 2,3,4,6,8,9 ($24)
What to say at the betting window: Oaklawn Park, 9th race, $1.50 trifecta 2,9 with 2,4,9 with 2,3,4,6,8,9