The last time J P'S GUSTO (Successful Appeal) attempted dirt, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) at Churchill Downs in November, the Grade 1-winning ridgling finished more than 15 lengths behind divisional leader Uncle Mo. Needless to say, the connections of the Del Mar Futurity (G1) hero hope for better in Monday's $250,000 Southwest S. (G3), the first in Oaklawn Park's triumvirate of graded preps leading up to the Kentucky Derby (G1).
The one-mile Southwest marks J P's Gusto's first start for trainer Joe Petalino, who acquired the bay earlier this month. Based in California with David Hofmans throughout his juvenile campaign, J P's Gusto also notched the Best Pal S. (G2), Hollywood Juvenile Championship (G3) and Willard Proctor Memorial S. as well as finished second in the Norfolk S. (G1) prior to the Breeders' Cup. After floundering in Kentucky, J P's Gusto rebounded to finish second in the CashCall Futurity (G1), re-rallying after losing ground around the far turn.
Dr. John Waken, who campaigns J P's Gusto, chose to base the classic prospect in Hot Springs, Arkansas, this spring, attracted by the purses on offer and the progression in distance from one mile to 1 1/8 miles during Oaklawn's classic prep schedule. The series continues with the March 19 Rebel S. (G2) over 1 1/16 miles and April 16 Arkansas Derby (G1) over nine furlongs.
There is no shortage of rivals with vast amounts of upside in the Southwest field. Among the more established contenders is CALEB'S POSSE (Posse), who rallied through a dense fog to prevail in the January 17 Smarty Jones S. at Oaklawn by a widening 2 3/4 lengths. A dominating winner of the Clever Trevor S. at Remington in November, Caleb's Posse was shaking off the effects of a poor showing in the Springboard Mile at Remington the previous month.
ELITE ALEX (Afleet Alex), a debut winner at Delaware Park last July, has already generated a lot of buzz following an unlucky second against allowance foes on January 15. From the barn of Tim Ritchey, who trained Afleet Alex to victories in the Arkansas Derby (G2), Preakness S. (G1) and Belmont S. (G1), Elite Alex broke in a tangle and conceded the early leaders 10 lengths before turning in a sustained stretch rally to finish second by a neck in that one-mile heat. Calvin Borel, who competed in Dubai last week, will be back to ride the Canadian-bred.
Another Delaware graduate, YANKEE PASSION (Yankee Gentleman), enters off a 2 1/4-length score in a six-furlong Oaklawn allowance on January 27 for trainer Larry Jones, who has two runner-up finishes in the Kentucky Derby to his credit with Proud Spell and Eight Belles in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Yankee Passion, who has yet to race around two turns, is a homebred for former Kentucky governor Brereton Jones.
ARCHARCHARCH (Arch), the even-money favorite in the Smarty Jones off a sharp score in the Sugar Bowl S. at Fair Grounds, pressed the pace that day but wilted to fourth, more than 13 lengths behind Caleb's Posse. Other Smarty Jones also-rans hoping to rebound are GRANT JACK (Harlan's Holiday), the Springboard Mile winner, and the D. Wayne Lukas-trained maiden BONAROO (Dynaformer).
Lukas might stand a better chance with last-out maiden winner DERIVATIVE (Mr. Greeley), who rolled to a 5 3/4-length score over the Southwest course and distance nine days ago. Another dominating maiden winner in the field is GHOST IS CLEAR (Ghostzapper), who graduated by 7 1/4 lengths going six furlongs at Fair Grounds for Mike Maker. Rounding out the field are longshots BRICKYARD FAST (Sharp Humor), the Petalino-trained Springboard Mile runner-up, and PICKO'S PRIDE (Cactus Ridge).