Once upon a time, not all that long time ago, the Southwest (G3) at Oaklawn Park was a sleepy little stakes race held in late February or early March, with a purse ranging from $50,000 to $100,000.
Then on a sunny day in 1992, a horse named Lil E. Tee finished third in the Southwest, beaten a head for second place by Pine Bluff. A few months later, Lil E. Tee sprung a memorable upset in the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Pine Bluff battled to victory in the Preakness (G1). Suddenly, the Southwest wasn’t quite so sleepy.
Serving as a local steppingstone toward the Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn, the Southwest has risen steadily in prominence since Lil E. Tee and Pine Bluff launched it into the spotlight. Champions Smoke Glacken and Lawyer Ron won the race in 1997 and 2006, respectively, and fan favorite Smarty Jones stopped off in the Southwest winner’s circle prior to his runaway victories in the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Held over a mile for much of its history, the Southwest achieved Grade 3 status in 2008 and was lengthened to 1 1⁄16 miles in 2013, the same year it became an official Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race offering 10 qualification points to the winner. Champion 3-year-old Will Take Charge was the first runner of note to contest the newly-restructured Southwest, finishing sixth before going on to compete in all three legs of the 2013 Triple Crown.
The 2017 edition also came up strong as One Liner powered to victory in 1:41.85, establishing a stakes record. Distant third-place finisher Lookin At Lee went on to finish second in the Kentucky Derby, reiterating the Southwest’s position as an important prep for the spring classics. With a purse value reaching $500,000 in 2016 and $750,000 in 2020, it’s safe to say the Southwest is wide awake and here to stay.
By J. Keeler Johnson