How to Bet the Southwest Stakes

February 16th, 2019

When I started handicapping the $500,000 Southwest Stakes (gr. III) on Presidents’ Day at Oaklawn Park, I initially began by trying to separate the six runners coming out of last month’s Smarty Jones Stakes.

I took note of the fact that #1 Gray Attempt won the Smarty Jones in gate-to-wire fashion, tenaciously clinging to a narrow advantage down the homestretch while giving the impression that he was in better control of the race than his bare margin of victory suggests. But I also took note that runner-up #10 Long Range Toddy was conceding Gray Attempt three pounds that day, and that the situation will be reversed for the Southwest, a six-pound swing in Long Range Toddy’s favor.

I noted that #9 Bankit failed to fire as the favorite in the Smarty Jones and should probably be forgiven and judged off his previous form, which includes a head defeat against Long Range Toddy in the Remington Springboard Mile. And I noted how #4 Boldor was rallying late to finish just a half-length behind Gray Attempt, with #8 Six Shooter coming on even faster at the finish.

And then I concluded that I really don’t want to play any of the horses emerging from the Smarty Jones. The race came back with a modest Beyer speed figure (84), the finish was crowded, and over the last dozen years it has been difficult for Smarty Jones runners to be competitive in the much tougher Southwest Stakes, which offers a larger purse and Grade 3 status.

Among the newcomers to catch my eye in this Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race is #7 Sueno, who ships in from California for trainer Keith Desormeaux. Notably, five of the last ten horses to win the Southwest were based in California, including last year’s winner My Boy Jack, who was trained by—you guessed it—Keith Desormeaux.

Desormeaux has been quite effective with his infrequent Oaklawn shippers in recent years, including Sonneteer, who won the 2018 Fifth Season Stakes at 29-1 one year after finishing second in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at 112-1. And judging from Sueno’s solid runner-up effort in the Sham Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita, he’s every bit as good as My Boy Jack and Sonneteer were at this point in their careers. The Sham wasn't a particularly fast race, but Sueno did race reasonably close to quick early fractions and might have moved prematurely in the homestretch. He struck the front in between calls, but was nabbed in the final strides by the deep-closing Gunmetal Gray.

Notably, Sueno will carry just 117 pounds in the Southwest, five less than Gray Attempt. The same goes for #5 Jersey Agenda, the eye-catching winner of a one-mile allowance race at Oaklawn Park last month. Trained by Steve Asmussen, Jersey Agenda looked quite comfortable setting the pace that day and produced a strong burst of acceleration in the homestretch to pull away and win by 2 ¾ lengths. He’ll have to contend with Gray Attempt on the front end, but if he can settle into a pace-pressing position, that could lead to a perfect trip.

I also respect #3 Cutting Humor, who ships in from Florida for trainer Todd Pletcher. Over the last five years, Pletcher has been wildly successful at Oaklawn Park, winning five Derby prep races while scoring with 12 of his 30 starters overall. At first glance, Cutting Humor might seem a bit overmatched—he could only finish second in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Gulfstream last month—but Cutting Humor did not get off to the best of starts, and the winner (Bourbon War) is a nice colt who posted an 89 Beyer. I don’t think it’s a stretch to conclude that Cutting Humor—with the benefit of a better trip—could have a legitimate chance to win or hit the board in the Southwest.

Here’s how I would play the race:

$1 exacta: 3,5,7 with 3,5,7 ($6) $1 trifecta: 3,5,7 with 3,5,7 with 1,3,5,7,9,10 ($24)

Good luck!