Ky. Derby prep trends: Southwest has 2 distinct winning styles

Ky. Derby prep trends: Southwest has 2 distinct winning styles
Photo: Justin Manning / Eclipse Sportswire

There have been two proven ways to win the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn. For horses trained by Bob Baffert, it has been go to the front and stay there. For others, it has been closing from off the pace. 

History is poised to repeat itself one way or another Saturday. Arabian Knight (1-1), the morning-line favorite, may try to lead again from gate to wire, this time against eight other 3-year-olds who will try to catch him in the Grade 3, $750,000 points prep for Kentucky Derby 2023.

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Amr Zedan’s $2.3 million Uncle Mo colt could become Baffert’s record-breaking sixth winner in the Southwest. Conveyance, Secret Circle, Castaway and Super Ninety Nine had a front-running style in common.

Even Newgrange last year was never farther back than 2 1/2 lengths in third through the first six furlongs. Fourth in the stretch, he was within three-quarters of a length making his winning move.

Conversely, nine of the last 11 Southwest winners who were not trained by Baffert came from at least fourth place or no fewer than three lengths behind at any given call.

These were the Southwest winners’ past-performance lines since 2000, according to Equibase:

Year  Winner1/41/23/4StrFin
2022Newgrange  3 -  2  3 -   2 1/2  3 - 24 -    3/41
2021Essential Quality  5 -  3 1/2  4 -   2 1/2  3 - hd11
2020Silver Prospector  6 -  1 3/4  3 -   1 1/2  3 - 111
2019Super Steed  9 -  5 1/4  9 -   3 1/2  5 -    1/211
2018My Boy Jack  8 -  8 1/2  9 -   8 1/2  8 - 3 3/411
2017One Liner  4 -  3  4 -   2 1/2  3 - 32 - 11
2016Suddenbreakingnews14 - 1514 - 12 1/212 - 8 1/25 - 5 1/21
2015Far Right  9 -   9 3/4  8 -   9  8 - 4 3/44 -    3/41
2014Tapiture  2 -      1/2  3 - hd  111
2013Super Ninety Nine  1  1  111
2012Castaway  2 -      1/2  2 -     1/2  2 - hd11
 Secret Circle  2 -   1  2 -   1  2 - hd2 - hd1
2011Archarcharch  5 -   6 1/2  4 -   3  4 -    3/411
2010Conveyance  1  1  111
2009Old Fashioned  2 -   1  2 -   2  2 -    1/211
2008Denis of Cork  5 -   8 1/2  5 - 18  4 - 93 -    1/21
2007Teuflesberg  1  1  111
2006Lawyer Ron  1  1  111
2005Greater Good  7 -   9 3/4  7 - 11 1/4  6 - 4 1/43 - 4 1/21
2004Smarty Jones  2 -   1 1/2  2 -   2 1/2  2 - hd11
2003Great Notion  1  1  111
2002Private Emblem  4 - 10  4 -   8  4 - 1 1/43 - 1 1/21
 Paloma Parilla  3 -   2 1/2  3 -      1/2  111
2001Son of Rocket  1  1  111
2000Afternoon Affair  5 -   4 1/2  3 - 3.   2 - 1 1/211

Quirin Speed Points, the Brisnet feature that quantifies running styles, show only two of the nine Southwest horses this weekend with an E, or early, designation, meaning a likelihood to be on or near the lead on the backstretch of the 1 1/16-mile race. Arabian Knight has an E 6, and the D. Wayne Lukas-trained maiden winner Western Ghent (20-1) has an E 3. The higher the number between 0 and 8, the more likely a horse is to be forward in the first turn.

Jace’s Road (4-1), Corona Bolt (6-1) and Frosted Departure (15-1) all are E/Ps,e meaning early-pressers, horses who tend to stalk or rate the pace. Red Route One (10-1) and Hit Show (10-1) are P horses, or pressers, who are more likely to be in mid-pack. Sun Thunder (10-1) and El Tomate (30-1) are S horses, or closers.

Although the Southwest has been a points prep since the current qualifying system started 10 years ago, it has not had a rich history of producing Kentucky Derby winners, not even going back to its roots as in March 1968 as the Southwest Handicap. Only Lil E. Tee in 1992 and Smarty Jones in 2004 graduated from the race to win the roses in Louisville.

A correlation may be made between the Southwest’s penchant for rewarding closers in the winter and the Derby’s trend that rewards being forward early come spring. Six of the last nine winners of America’s biggest race never were farther back than third place at any chart call. Rich Strike was an 80-1 exception last year. The other two, Country House in 2019 and Mandaloun in 2021, did not even cross the finish line first.

Only seven horses from the Southwest have hit the board in the Derby. This was how they all did since 2000:

YearHorseQuirinSWDerby
2022Barber RoadS 22nd    6th
2021Essential QualityE/P 41st  *3rd
2020   
2019Cutting HumorP 47th*10th
 Long Range ToddyE/P 53rd*16th
2018My Boy JackS 01st    5th
 CombatantP 02nd  18th
2017Lookin At LeeS 03rd   2nd
 HenceS 17th  11th
2016SuddenbreakingnewsS 01st    5th
 WhitmoreS 02nd  19th
2015Mr. ZE 63rd  13th
 Far RightS 01st  15th
2014Ride On CurlinE/P 53rd    7th
 TapitureE/P 41st  15th
2013Will Take ChargeP 36th    8th
2012    
2011ArcharcharchP 41st  15th
2010DublinS 22nd    7th
 Mission ImpazibleE/P 53rd    9th
 ConveyanceE 81st  15th
2009    
2008Denis of CorkP 21st    3rd
2007Hard SpunE 64th    2nd
 TeuflesbergE 51st  17th
2006SteppenwolferS 02nd    3rd
 Lawyer RonE/P 61st  12th
2005Greater GoodS 2  
2004Smarty JonesE/P 71st    1st
 Pro PradoS 23rd  13th
2003    
2002Private EmblemE/P 51st  14th
2001Arctic BoyS 22nd  12th
2000   

It is not all about styles. There also is the reluctance of trainers to race their best 3-year-olds before Oaklawn’s older, bigger preps, namely the Rebel (G2) and the Arkansas Derby (G1). According to the Churchill Downs media guide, the Southwest has a collective Kentucky Derby record of 39: 2-2-3, the Rebel 59: 3-2-3 and the Arkansas Derby 118: 7-5-8.

Seven Kentucky Derby winners raced beforehand at Oaklawn, including Sunny’s Halo in 1983, Lil E. Tee in 1992, Grindstone in 1996, Smarty Jones in 2004, Super Saver in 2010, American Pharoah in 2015 and Country House in 2019. Most skipped the early prep races, but they all showed up for the Arkansas Derby.

Arabian Knight might be the exception, at least in the minds of Derby futures bettors in Las Vegas. Even though he would have to be transferred to another trainer by Feb. 28 because of Baffert’s Churchill Downs suspension, he was the 8-1 favorite Wednesday morning at Caesars Sportsbook and the 11-1 second choice behind Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Forte at Circa Sports.

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