Trainer Steve Asmussen, newly-named as a finalist for the 2014 class in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, was at Oaklawn Park on Friday morning to supervise final preparations for his charges competing in tomorrow’s three graded stakes as well as three other races.
The impressive winner of the $300,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) by 4 ¼ lengths here last time out is the 9-5 morning line favorite in the field of seven sophomores with Kentucky Derby dreams, even though he is top-weighted at 122 pounds and will be giving as many as seven pounds to his rivals in the 1 1/16 mile test, which serves as a prep for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) on April 12.
“Right now with the three-year-olds, you just need to keep getting better and stay in the game,” said Asmussen. “Some of them aren’t who they used to be and some of them are better than they were. That’s what makes the three-year-old picture so interesting. He’s a very nice horse and he’s very talented. I’m a little concerned with the weight that he gives quality horses tomorrow, but he’s doing well.”
Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Tapiture, who ended his juvenile campaign with an identical 4 ¼ length win in the $150 Kentucky Jockey Club Gold Cup (G2) at Churchill Downs in November, will break from post #3 under Ricardo Santana, Jr., the defending leading rider, who tops the standings here again this season.
“The post is perfect,” Asmussen said. “Ricardo fits the horse well. He’s ridden him in all but his first out and they’ve had success together.”
At this stop on the Triple Crown trail, it is essential to keep racking up enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. The Rebel offers 50-20-10-5 to the top four finishers and Tapiture currently has 22 points to put him in ninth place for one of 20 Derby berths.
“We all have to think about the points,” Asmussen said. “When you’ve got a horse of this caliber you just want to keep them around. There are a lot of good spots for them.”
Sister Ginger could fare no better than third both times here behind Pippin and Bayakoa Stakes winner Don’t Tell Sophia. Not only does she have to take on that rival in the Azeri, but the highly regarded Close Hatches ships in to begin her 4yo campaign for trainer Bill Mott.
“She’s been very consistent for us and had success here,” said Asmussen. “It’s a tall order for her this time, but they won’t scare us away.”
Grade 3 stakes winner Called to Serve has been idle since winding up third behind Game on Dude in the 2013 Santa Anita Handicap (G1) about one year ago.
“He’s a great big horse and I’m anxious to get him back going again,” Asmussen said.
Santana, Jr. also has call on Sister Ginger and Called to Serve, the 117 pound co-highweight in the Razorback.
Lukas Respecting the Rebel Competition
D. Wayne Lukas has won more Triple Crown races (14) than anyone else, so the Hall of Fame trainer has a pretty good eye when it comes to sizing up the competition among top quality three-year-olds. Might there be a horse he considers a threat to Strong Mandate in Saturday’s $600,000 Rebel Stakes (G2)?
“Every one of them,” he said Friday. “It’s a real deep field. I think this is one of the better prep races and there are some real nice horses in here. Some of them are probably not on everybody’s list like Street Strategy; that’s a nice horse. I think it’s a very, very competitive race.”
While Street Strategy, 8-1 in the early line in the field of eight, makes just his third start after breaking his maiden at second asking last out here on Jan. 30 and is flying under the radar, Strong Mandate is the 2-1 second choice and has attracted a lot of attention since winning the Hopeful Stakes (G1) at Saratoga in August.
Robert Baker and William Mack’s Strong Mandate disappointed as the even-money favorite last time out in the Southwest Stakes (G3) here when he was beaten by Rebel 9-5 favorite Tapiture by 4 ½ lengths. Now the colt, who was seventh in the Champagne (G1) and third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) last year, seeks his first win since the Hopeful, breaks from Post #4 under Joel Rosario.
“We’re just looking for a good trip,” said Lukas. “We’ve had three pretty rough trips so we want a clean trip, just a chance to see what we’ve got. We’re interested in a good experience after he’s been knocked around a couple of times. Not having 12 in the field this time (as in the Southwest) will help a lot. This is the first time in his career that he drew well. Even as a two-year-old he had all the outside posts.”
Under the Kentucky Derby qualifying points system implemented last year, Strong Mandate has to keep climbing the ladder if he’s going to be among the 20 starters in the gate. The son of Tiznow is on the outside looking in from 29th place with six points, but he can earn 50, 30, 20 or 10 more points by finishing first through fourth in the Rebel.
“All of them (the prep races offering points) are important now,” said Lukas. “I didn’t like the system at first but I think it’s probably okay. I thought it compromised the body of work of a horse completely. Under the old system, I wouldn’t have to worry about anything because we’d already have enough money.”