It was not difficult to find the fastest workers at Oaklawn Park from the last couple days. One just had to visit the two-barn complex occupied by last year's training champion, Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas.
His barn has several potential runners who could close out President's Day weekend with a bang in the Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest Stakes for three-year-olds on February 20.
Two of those prospects posted bullets at different distances Wednesday morning, with Bluegrass Hall's Chalybeate Springs breezing a half-mile in :48 1/5 and Optimizer going five furlongs in 1:00 2/5 for the same owners.
Chalybeate Springs, a bay son of Dynaformer, broke his maiden opening weekend then disappointed when making a quick turnaround in the Grade 3 LeComte Stakes at Fair Grounds, finishing last of 13. Grade 1-placed Optimizer, a bay colt by English Channel, exits a sixth-place finish in the Smarty Jones Stakes on January 16, but has Lukas excited about a potential rebound.
"Optimizer's work was outstanding," he said. "I didn't even see how fast it was relative to the others. I just know, boy, he looked really good."
A full field is expected for the Southwest, and Lukas will have his eyes and ears open for several possibilities involving the stakes. Also under consideration is Red Jack for Bluegrass Hall and Gameday News, who broke his maiden last weekend racing in the colors of Lukas and his co-owner, famed football coach Bill Parcells. All four horses are eligible to run in a "first-level" allowance race.
"We have a lot of options at this point," Lukas said.
While Lukas may hold a full hand in the Southwest, Shadwell Farm's nice maiden winner Najjaar could try his luck in the race pending another good week of training at the Hot Springs, Arkansas, track, according to trainer Danny Peitz,
The three-year-old son of Jazil managed to stylishly catch a strong field of sophomores on January 14 in his fifth career start, and now Peitz is seeking the best place to take that next step. Certain circumstances might make the one-mile Southwest that spot.
"It looks like my horse is a stretch-runner, so the distance isn't that appealing," Peitz said. "But chances are an allowance race is probably going to be at the same distance, so we will see how the Southwest shakes out."
As one might expect when your sire won the Belmont Stakes at 1 1/2 miles, Najjaar has been gradually getting better while waiting for longer distance opportunities to come around. He debuted finishing sixth in a one-turn turf mile at Arlington Park last summer, then moved around two turns in his next four starts, finally getting the timing right with a surging victory at 1 1/16 miles last month.
The Southwest or a projected allowance race are both slated for Oaklawn's unique one-mile course that begins and ends at the sixteenth-pole.
"I've got a horse who comes from the clouds, so it won't be easy to go in a 12-horse field with only a sixteenth of a mile of a stretch to work with," Peitz remarked.
While the distance isn't ideal, Peitz may be go forward trusting in Najjaar's apparent class. He worked out Monday, going five furlongs in 1:02 2/5 under jockey Calvin Borel.
"It was a really good breeze," Peitz said. "He started off slow, but finished up really well, just like we wanted. Calvin was happy with him. He will need to have another good breeze like that and another good week for us to commit to the Southwest."