Better late than never, the $750,000, Grade 3 Southwest Stakes will take place at Oaklawn Park on Saturday, awarding its lucrative purse and 17 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve qualification points 12 days later than originally planned.
The Southwest originally was scheduled to be held Feb. 15, but relentless winter weather prompted multiple postponements. Fortunately, the 1 1/16-mile race has finally found a new home on the calendar, and the assembled field is worthy of the wait.
The Southwest drew only seven horses but they represent some of the most accomplished Kentucky Derby contenders in training. Three of them have already won Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races, including #1 Essential Quality, the reigning champion 2-year-old male of 2020.
So far, no one has figured out how to beat Essential Quality. A Godolphin homebred conditioned by Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox, Essential Quality went undefeated in three starts last season. Debuting on Kentucky Derby day at Churchill Downs, Essential Quality rallied powerfully to trounce his rivals by four lengths in a maiden sprint. Stepping up in class and distance proved to be no obstacle either, as Essential Quality parlayed pace-tracking tactics into victory in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity before rallying gamely to win the Grade 1 TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance at the same distance.
Based on accomplishments, Essential Quality is the horse to beat in the Southwest. But is he invincible? Not necessarily. Drawing the rail is less than ideal; unless Essential Quality shows more speed than usual or drops well off the early pace, he risks getting boxed in behind runners. It’s also worth noting only one Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner since 2011 has returned to win his next start — even such talented Juvenile champs as Good Magic and Classic Empire suffered surprising defeats in their sophomore debuts.
So, who can spring the upset against Essential Quality? Some bettors will favor #7 Spielberg, shipping in from California for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. Since 2010, Baffert has won 15 Kentucky Derby prep races at Oaklawn, including four victories in the Southwest. And Spielberg brings respectable credentials to the table, highlighted by a gritty victory in the 1 1/16-mile, Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity.
But Spielberg has yet to defeat the toughest competition, and he enters off a disappointing fourth-place finish in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita Park, where he weakened to finish 11 1/4 lengths behind stablemate Medina Spirit. Consistency has been an issue for Spielberg, who has unexpectedly misfired in two of his last three starts. It’s hard to predict what kind of effort Spielberg will produce while facing a fierce field at Oaklawn.
Essential Quality isn’t the only Grade 1 winner in the Southwest entries. #4 Jackie’s Warrior compiled an impressive 4-for-5 resume as a juvenile, utilizing his abundant speed to wire the Grade 2 Saratoga Special Stakes Presented by Miller Lite, Grade 1 Runhappy Hopeful Stakes, and Grade 1 Champagne Stakes in succession from August through October.
Jackie’s Warrior’s lone defeat came when facing Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. With championship honors on the line, Jackie’s Warrior was beaten to the early lead but eventually advanced into fast fractions to challenge for command. Racing too close to the hot pace may have weakened Jackie’s Warrior’s finishing kick, but to his credit, the bay colt fought on gamely down the stretch to finish fourth by just 3 1/4 lengths.
The small field assembled for the Southwest doesn’t contain a ton of speed on paper, so Jackie’s Warrior should enjoy a much more favorable pace scenario in his second meeting with Essential Quality. The Steve Asmussen-trained youngster should have little difficulty securing an easy lead from post four, leaving more gas in the tank for the stretch drive. Asmussen has already won the Southwest three times, and I’m optimistic a better setup is all Jackie’s Warrior needs to turn the tables on his Breeders’ Cup conqueror.
Let’s plan our wagering strategies accordingly, favoring Jackie’s Warrior over Essential Quality on all our tickets. Bettors playing on small budgets can keep things simple, playing the favorites in the exacta. But bettors seeking bigger paydays can take aim at the trifecta or superfecta, emphasizing Spielberg and Road to the Kentucky Derby veteran #5 Santa Cruiser for third and fourth place.
Wagering Strategy on a $10 Budget: Exacta
$10 exacta: 4 with 1
What to say at the betting window: Oaklawn Park, 10th race, $10 exacta 4 with 1
Wagering Strategy on a $30 Budget: Trifectas
$10 trifecta: 4 with 1 with 5,7 ($20)
What to say at the betting window: Oaklawn Park, 10th race, $10 trifecta 4 with 1 with 5,7
$5 trifecta: 4 with 1 with 2,6 ($10)
What to say at the betting window: Oaklawn Park, 10th race, $5 trifecta 4 with 1 with 2,6
Wagering Strategy on a $50 Budget: Superfectas
$8 superfecta: 4 with 1 with 5,7 with 5,7 ($16)
What to say at the betting window: Oaklawn Park, 10th race, $8 superfecta 4 with 1 with 5,7 with 5,7
$6 superfecta: 4 with 1 with 5,7 with 2,6 ($24)
What to say at the betting window: Oaklawn Park, 10th race, $6 superfecta 4 with 1 with 5,7 with 2,6
$2.50 superfecta: 4 with 1 with 2,6 with 5,7 ($10)
What to say at the betting window: Oaklawn Park, 10th race, $2.50 superfecta 4 with 1 with 2,6 with 5,7
Good luck, and enjoy the race!