At this time a year ago, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas had a fairly deep bench of classic candidates, including eventual divisional champion Will Take Charge and Preakness winner Oxbow. For the time being, Lukas will be relying solely on Strong Mandate to reach similar heights as the Grade 1-winning son of Tiznow commences his sophomore campaign against 11 rivals Monday in the Grade 3, $300,000 Southwest at Oaklawn Park.
The Southwest, which has found a popular placement on the Presidents' Day holiday in recent years, is contested at 1 1/16 miles, the same distance as the upcoming $600,000 Rebel on March 15. Oaklawn's series of classic preps concludes on April 12 with the $1 million Arkansas Derby over 1 1/8 miles.
Strong Mandate reeled off two impressive wins at Saratoga last summer, cruising by 4 1/2 lengths over maiden foes on August 17, and then returning 16 days later with a 9 3/4-length romp in the prestigious Hopeful over seven furlongs. Though he regressed with a seventh-place finish in the Champagne next out, Strong Mandate rebounded with a solid third-place finish, two lengths behind New Year's Day, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, where he was forced to use speed early to overcome post 13.
Before the foul Arkansas weather last week interrupted the training plans of several Southwest candidates, Strong Mandate posted a five-furlong bullet in 1:00 2/5 on January 27, and a half-mile bullet of :48 3/5 in the slop on February 2.
The Southwest also marks the three-year-old debut of Tapiture, who finished second to Strong Mandate in the aforementioned maiden at Saratoga on August 17. That was the first start for the Steve Asmussen trainee, who later graduated in his fourth outing when 4 1/4 lengths clear in the Kentucky Jockey Club over 1 1/16 miles at Churchill Downs.
The top three finishers from the $150,000 Smarty Jones on January 20 renew acquaintance in the Southwest, led by that race's 9-1 upset winner Tanzanite Cat. The Graeme Hall colt was victorious by 1 1/4 lengths despite stepping up in trip from 5 1/2 furlongs to one mile following a maiden win at Fair Grounds. Also back is runner-up Walt and Coastline, who finished third as the 6-5 favorite following a three-wide journey.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little disappointed that he got a little tired (in the Smarty Jones), but I wasn't surprised," trainer Mark Casse said. "But I'm happy with where we are and we got a race over the track so that should be to our advantage."
Ride On Curlin has already faced some of the major Southwest players, finishing behind Tapiture in the Iroquois at Churchill Downs in September, ahead of Strong Mandate in the Champagne, and behind Coastline in the $61,000 Street Sense at Churchill in October. A son of Curlin, who captured the Rebel and Arkansas Derby in 2007, Ride On Curlin prepped in a six-furlong allowance last month, which he won by 2 1/2 lengths.
Also entering the Southwest off sharp allowance tallies are Bourbonize, who is now two-for-two after a four-length triumph going a mile in the slop on January 10, and Kendall's Boy, a speedy son of Sky Mesa who went gate-to-wire going six furlongs at Fair Grounds the following day.
"When you look at his form, you see he was second to (Champagne winner) Havana in his first start so you walk away saying this is a very nice horse," trainer Tom Amoss said. "But the question still remains will he successfully negotiate two turns."
Louies Flower, who ended his juvenile campaign with three straight wins at Remington, including a 23-1 shocker in the $250,000 Springboard Mile, is one of two in the field trained by Bret Calhoun. The other is Son of Dixie, a tiring third to Bourbonize last time.
The Southwest field is rounded out by debut winner Paganol, who forms an entry with Tanzanite Cat, and Fire Starter, a non-threatening fifth in the Smarty Jones.