Even the dark clouds and rainy skies couldn't dampen the enthusiasm of the limited numbers in attendance on Saturday for a big day of stakes racing at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas. From a perch in the press box high above the seven-furlong track, it was easy to spot the puddles that formed on the wet dirt.
After two weekends of postponements, the Southwest Stakes, which was originally scheduled for February 15, had finally made it back onto the card. The $750,000 race, the last of the Prep Series contests on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, featured one of the top contenders for the Triple Crown.
Undefeated Essential Quality, second in the qualifying points standings, hadn't raced since his victory in the November 6 Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The greatness of the horse really wasn't in question, but the long layoff created some doubt about whether he'd be able to bring home a victory against a solid seven-horse field.
Keepmeinmind, who had been scratched from the Risen Star Stakes on February 13 in favor of the Southwest, again withdrew and is expected to race in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 13. That left Jackie's Warrior and Spielberg as the main contenders to Essential Quality for the 10-4-2-1 points scale awarded in the event.
Jackie's Warrior had also been idle since finishing fourth to Essential Quality in the Juvenile following four wins to start his career, including the Derby prep Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park in October. His trainer, Steve Asmussen, had already had a great day at Oaklawn with three wins and second-place finishes in the $600,000 Razorback Handicap and the $200,000 Spring Fever Stakes.
Bob Baffert's entry Spielberg was hoping to spoil the party and was third in the morning line odds. Spielberg had been largely unimpressive in a hectic seven-race schedule, with the exception of a win in the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity on December 19 that earned him 10 qualifying points
A sloppy surface requires Essential Quality
Although the heavy rain that had plagued earlier races on the card had subsided by post time for the Southwest, the track was still listed sloppy. A muddy track often produces unpredictable results, so even though Essential Quality went off as a 3/2 favorite, there was still some uncertainty as the horses entered the starting gate for the 1 1/16-mile race.
Jackie's Warrior broke in front by the 1/4-mile pole and held the lead shortly before the horses entered the stretch run. Essential Quality had slowly been moving through the pack and finally led Spielberg into the stretch run with Jackie's Warrior third.
The top two horses increased their leads, and they crossed the finish line spaced by four lengths, with Jackie's Warrior holding off Woodhouse for the show.
Essential Quality paid $3.80, $2.60 and $2.10, Spielberg paid $5.00 and $2.80, with Jackie's Warrior paying $2.20. With the win, Essential Quality picked up 10 qualifying points for a total of 40, probably enough to gain entry into the Kentucky Derby.
Spielberg and Jackie's Warrior still have some work to do if they expect to make it Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.