Today’s $750,000 Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park has the usual Bob Baffert flavor: 2/1 morning-line favorite Newgrange, shipping in from California in search of Baffert’s record-tying fifth Southwest title.

Dash Attack-Southwest preview
Kenny McPeek’s Dash Attack splashed his way to victory New Year’s Day in the Smarty Jones. Can he do the same on a dry track as the 7/2 second choice in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park? (Image: Coady Photography)

But there’s a new contender awaiting: Kenny McPeek, who finds himself in the unfamiliar role of trainer of Kentucky Derby favorites. No, he doesn’t have Derby futures darling Smile Happy in Arkansas. Just fellow stable standout Dash Attack (7/2), joining the 1 1/16-mile hunt for the 10-4-2-1 Derby points going to the top four finishers.

A Dash Attack win adds 10 more points to the 10 he already has from winning the Smarty Jones earlier this month. It would also give the Munnings colt – who closed at 34/1 in the last Kentucky Derby Future Wager – his third win in as many starts. Both of his wins came at a mile-plus, both came with 90+ Equibase Speed Figures, and both came on sloppy tracks.

Today’s forecast in Hot Springs, Ark. Is sunny, with a high of 55 and zero chance of rain for a race running in January for the first time. Normally, the Southwest runs in late February, but with Oaklawn’s new, earlier December start, all the Derby preps were moved up.

McPeek brings in a real contender

“It looks like a good next spot for him,” McPeek told Oaklawn Park. “Baffert’s horse coming in from California, obviously looks like he’s got a lot of raw talent. There’s some others in there that have run well. Look, it’s never easy, but our colt’s doing good.”

Baffert’s Newgrange does have a lot of talent, which went on display earlier this month in his Sham Stakes victory at Santa Anita Park. Unlike the Southwest, which hasn’t sent a runner to the Derby winner’s circle since Smarty Jones in 2004, the Sham claims the last two Derby winners: Authentic (2020) and the late Medina Spirit last year.

Like Dash Attack, Newgrange is 2-for-2, with a maiden win and that nearly three-length, front-running Sham score. This is his first start outside of California and it likely won’t be his last. Baffert is an Oaklawn constant during Derby prep season. He uses that track as a second avenue for his Derby prospects, preferring to keep them separate as long as possible.

Seven horses from the Smarty Jones await in the gate

That said, of course, Baffert’s horses are ineligible for Derby points or starts at any Churchill Downs track, due to his suspension. That hasn’t stopped Baffert from sending Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez to Arkansas with Newgrange.

Meanwhile, as Newgrange acclimates himself, six other Smarty Jones starters join the fray. He and winner Dash Attack are joined by Barber Road (second in the Smarty Jones), Ignitis (third), Kavod (fourth), Vivar (fifth), Ben Diesel (seventh) and Dontcrossthedevil (12th).

Barber Road (5/1) finished second in both his stakes starts: the Lively Shively last November at Churchill Downs and the Smarty Jones. That said, his 96 Equibase from the Lively Shively makes him quite competitive in this field. He gets eight-time Oaklawn riding champion Ricardo Santana Jr. in the irons today. Santana replaces Reylu Gutierrez, who answered the riding call on Chess Chief in today’s $3 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park.

“We’ve competed against them and know where we stand,’ trainer John Ortiz said. “I think the horse has improved since (the Smarty Jones), and I think with the added distance, he’s going to improve more. … With a fast track, I expect him to be a little closer and more involved.”

Southwest Stakes’ purse brings the colts to the yard

Two others should be involved in this competitive field: Osbourne (8/1) and the aforementioned Ignitis (10/1). Osbourne’s trainer Ron Moquett bypassed the Smarty Jones in favor of the Springboard Mile at Remington Park. There, he watched the gelded son of 2014 Southwest champion Tapiture finish second to Make It Big by a half-length.

“I like our chances,” Moquett said. “I think it’s a good shot to see where we’re at. There are some nice horses in here, obviously. You hang $750,000 up and there’s going to be some people showing up wanting it.”

Grade 3 Southwest Stakes/Oaklawn Park

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Ben Diesel, 10/1 (Jon Court/Dallas Stewart)
  2. Dash Attack, 7/2 (David Cohen/Kenny McPeek)
  3. Don’tcrossthedevil, 30/1 (Ramon Vazquez/Phil D’Amato)
  4. Kavod, 12/1 (Francisco Arrieta/Chris Hartman)
  5. Costa Terra, 12/1 (Tiago Pereira/Steve Asmussen)
  6. Osbourne, 8/1 (David Cabrera/Ron Moquett)
  7. Ignitis, 10/1 (Luis Contreras/D. Wayne Lukas)
  8. Barber Road, 5/1 (Ricardo Santana Jr./John Ortiz)
  9. Classic Moment, 12/1 (Martin Garcia/Steve Asmussen)
  10. Newgrange, 2/1 (John Velazquez/Bob Baffert)
  11. Call Me Jamal, 30/1 (Geovanni Franco/Mike Puhlich)
  12. Vivar, 12/1 (Florent Geroux/Brad Cox)

One of those is Oaklawn presence and Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who brings in Ignitis. No stranger to upsets here or elsewhere, Lukas won the 1992 Southwest with Big Sur, who beat that year’s Kentucky Derby winner (Lil E. Tee) and Preakness winner (Pine Bluff). He almost won the Smarty Jones with 31/1 Ignitis. A victory here would give Lukas his first Southwest title since Big Sur – 30 years ago.

“I think he’s earned the right to run in this next race in the 3-year-old series,” Lukas said. “He’s still a little bit green. He still hasn’t learned exactly all the little things we’d like to have a 3-year-old learn, but that’s true of so many of them at this time of year.”

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