Recent Oaklawn Park arrival J P's Gusto will be the one to beat when he faces 10 fellow 3-year-olds in the $250,000 Southwest Stakes (gr. III) Feb. 21 at the Hot Springs, Ark. track.
A multiple graded stakes winner in Southern California last year, J P's Gusto was recently transferred to trainer Joe Petalino at Oaklawn by his owner, Dr. John Waken's Gem Stable, with the races leading up to $1 million Arkansas Derby (gr. I) April 16 in mind.
The ridgling son of Successful Appeal out of the Caller I. D. mare Call Her Magic won the Hollywood Juvenile Championship (gr. III), Best Pal Stakes (gr. II), and Del Mar Futurity (gr. I) -- all sprints -- in succession last summer for trainer David Hofmans.
J P's Gusto, the only graded winner in the Southwest, has not been out since running second to Comma to the Top in Hollywood's 1 1/16-mile CashCall Futurity (gr. I) Dec. 18. In his only prior race on dirt, he finished sixth in the Grey Goose Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) at Churchill Downs Nov. 6, never recovering after being carried wide on the clubhouse turn.
His limited experience on dirt and the two-month layoff probably helped prompt several trainers to take a shot in the one-mile Southwest, which is the ninth race on the Presidents' Day program. The race has a 5:02 CST post time.
J P's Gusto will team with 2010 Eclipse Award champion jockey Ramon Dominguez. They will break from post 5 under 117 pounds.
"I'm all set to take all the stones they throw at me if he doesn't run any good," joked Petalino, a former assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg. Petalino said he got the horse through his connection with another former Van Berg assistant, John O'Hara, who is now an adviser to Gem Stable.
J P’s Gusto, who arrived at Oaklawn Feb. 9, worked six furlongs in 1:15 3/5 five days later under jockey Bryan McNeil in his first drill over the main track.
“He came to me with four works already in him,” Petalino said after the drill. “He’s hasn’t missed any time so he’s pretty much ready. He’s doing pretty good here and he seems to like the track.”
Petalino also entered Brickyard Fast, making his first start for owner Baccari Racing Stable since running second at 54-1 odds in Remington Park's Springboard Mile Dec. 11. The Sharp Humor colt will be ridden by McNeil from gate 10.
The 122-pound high weight in the field is Caleb's Posse , who circled the field in the one-mile Smarty Jones Stakes in the fog at Oaklawn Jan. 17 and stormed home a 2 3/4-length winner over a good track. Owned by Don McNeill and trained by Donnie Von Hemel, the son of Posse bombed in the Springboard Mile before that, finishing seventh as the 9-10 favorite.
Eddie Razo Jr., who rode Caleb's Posse in the Smarty Jones, retains the mount. They drew the rail, which they overcame in the Smarty Jones.
Trainer Jinks Fires sends out Robert Yagos’s Sugar Bowl Stakes winner Archarcharch, a distant fourth in the Smarty Jones last time as the even-money choice. The spate of recent bad weather, causing Oaklawn to cancel six straight race cards at one point, also affected the robust Arch colt's preparation, Fires said after a 1:15 six-furlong breeze Feb. 14.
“I was really hoping I could get him into an allowance race because he’s such a big horse, it’s about the only way I can really get him what he needs,” said Fires. “Unfortunately we weren’t able to get a race to go, and then Mother Nature let us know that (this workout) would have to be good enough.”
Also coming out of the Smarty Jones are the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Bonaroo (fifth) and Springboard Mile victor Grant Jack (seventh), from the Bret Calhoun barn.
Elite Alex, a son of 2005 Arkansas Derby winner Afleet Alex , was second by a head in an optional claimer at one mile over the track Jan. 15 after rallying from last for trainer Tim Ritchey. It was just the second start for the Ontario-bred colt who broke his maiden at Delaware Park last summer.
“He’s super good right now and he feels like the real deal," warned jockey Calvin Borel.
Yankee Passion breezed five furlongs over the Oaklawn track in a bullet 1:01 Feb. 16, fastest of 44 at the distance. That convinced trainer Larry Jones that he was ready for his first two-turn test following two wins and a second in three sprint efforts.
"This makes him a definite," said Jones after the drill. "He did what we asked."
Brereton C. Jones' Kentucky homebred son of Yankee Gentleman captured an optional claiming event at six furlongs Jan. 27 as the 4-5 favorite by 2 1/4 lengths.
Picko's Pride, second to Yankee Passion last time, also joins the Southwest cast for trainer McLean Robertson.
Robertson said he liked the way the son of Cactus Ridge relaxed in that race.
“He may not be as talented as some of the others in there, but if a 3-year-old can prove he will rate and make one run, you’ve got to take a chance,” Robertson said.
Last-out maiden winners Derivative, a Lukas trainee who could set the pace, and Ghost Is Clear, a Fair Grounds shipper for Mike Maker, complete the field.
$250,000 Southwest Stakes (gr. III, Race 9, 5:02 p.m.), 3-Year-Olds, 1 Mile
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Caleb's Posse (KY), E Razo Jr., 122, D K Von Hemel
2. Derivative (KY), T J Thompson, 115, D W Lukas
3. Ghost Is Clear (KY), C J Lanerie, 115, M J Maker
4. Grant Jack (KY), M C Berry, 119, W B Calhoun
5. J P's Gusto (KY), R A Dominguez, 117, J Petalino
6. Archarcharch (KY), J K Court, 117, W H Fires
7. Bonaroo (KY), J M Johnson, 115, D W Lukas
8. Yankee Passion (KY), G Saez, 115, J L Jones
9. Elite Alex (ON), C H Borel, 115, T F Ritchey
10. Brickyard Fast (KY), B McNeil, 115, J Petalino
11. Picko's Pride (KY), I Ocampo, 115, M Robertson