May 17, 2022

Three points to ponder: 2022 Southwest Stakes

Costa Terra shown breaking his maiden at Ellis Park (Coady Photography)

With formlines converging from different circuits, Saturday’s $750,000 Southwest S. (G3) will offer clues reverberating beyond the Oaklawn Park Road to the Kentucky Derby.

Here are my three points to ponder:

1. Newgrange is unlikely to get another Sham scenario.

Newgrange isn’t eligible for the Southwest’s Derby points (on the 10-4-2-1 scale), since trainer Bob Baffert is suspended by Churchill Downs Inc. But needless to say, the unbeaten morning-line favorite should have a major say in how the race develops, and how many points are left on the table for his rivals.

His front-running win in the Sham (G3) didn’t tell us much, considering that any decent colt would be able to pull off a coup in similarly congenial circumstances. His sprint maiden win two starts back could be more instructive. In his Del Mar debut, Newgrange had the high speed to attend the pace perched out wide before punching clear.

You can envision Newgrange working out either kind of trip from post 10 in the Southwest. But he’ll likely have to expend more energy early, sandwiched between newly blinkered Classic Moment (post 9) and fellow speed Call Me Jamal (post 11), and that’s the rub. Will Newgrange carry his speed for 1 1/16 miles in the more testing circumstances of the Southwest?

2. Can Dash Attack confirm Smarty Jones form?

The other unbeaten entrant, Dash Attack, has exceeded expectations in his first two starts, both at this venue. You could describe the Ken McPeek trainee (and co-homebred) as something of a pleasant surprise as a 10.80-1 maiden winner who followed up as a 7.70-1 chance in the Smarty Jones S. There was a lot to like about his stakes debut. Smoothly recovering from a slow start, Dash Attack showed tactical flexibility and maneuverability as he hugged the rail, angled out, and mowed them down with good-looking strides.

Off that evidence, Dash Attack figures to confirm form with the other half-dozen coming out of the Smarty Jones. Yet a couple of variables could impose themselves, from track conditions to posts and trips. The Munnings colt was eligible to enjoy the off tracks he’s encountered, especially the sloppy Smarty, which theoretically could have put him in the best light.

The Southwest will be a different playing field, on a fast track, that might give a few of his Smarty rivals the chance to improve. For example, Ben Diesel is drawn better. Dealt a bad hand from his far outside post last time, and consequently embroiled in a speed duel that sapped him, Ben Diesel projects a more feasible passage on the rail. Note that before their unplaced efforts in the Smarty Jones, Ben Diesel and Vivar also tried the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) where they were fourth and sixth, respectively.

3. Is Costa Terra poised to put it all together?

As a well-bred son of record-setting freshman sire Gun Runner, Costa Terra was on my radar last summer. The flaxen-maned chestnut did well to score first out over an inadequate five furlongs at Ellis Park, where he closed furiously to prevail at the wire. Costa Terra nearly duplicated the feat with a belated charge in the Ellis Park Juvenile, but his mental immaturity appeared to be the difference between victory and a half-length third.

In the circumstances, it’s revealing that Steve Asmussen pitched the Winchell homebred into the Breeders’ Futurity (G1). While the added distance was appealing, Costa Terra needed to polish his game to handle the class hike. Under patient handling, he bided his time near the rear and made a steady, rather than spectacular, move to improve into fifth. The race admittedly set up for closers, but the result reinforced my instinct that he’s capable of a lot more as his brain and body mature. Saturday will give us a better idea of where he stands on the developmental curve.

The Breeders’ Futurity was deeper than another points race yielding Southwest contenders, the Remington Springboard Mile. Hence I suspect that Costa Terra has more long-term upside for the Triple Crown trail. That said, Springboard Mile runner-up Osbourne showed a most likeable attitude at Remington, and his professionalism could mean more at this stage.