Road to the 2023 Kentucky Derby – The Grade 3 Southwest Stakes – By Eric Solomon

This feels like the first truly serious prep for the 149th Kentucky Derby. Bob Baffert is shipping in Arabian Knight, a 2.3 million dollar Uncle Mo colt, who dominated a maiden special weight field on the Breeders’ Cup undercard in November at Keeneland. He’ll make his long awaited second start in stakes company, going two turns for the first time. He’s been installed as the even money morning line favorite, but this will be a serious test. Brad Cox, who feels like has won just about every prep race outside of New York, Florida, and California thus far this season, has three live runners. Post time for this race is set for 4:57 (CT). 

One other point of interest to note, starting with the Lecomte Stakes last week, these January and February prep races have been given added importance this year in regards to Derby Points. The point value for these two races along with the Withers, the Robert B. Lewis, the Holy Bull, and the Sam F. Davis, have been increased to 40 total points. Other than the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which offered a total of 60 possible points, all of the other North American races have been worth a possible 20 points. As a result, there should be a shakeup in the Derby Points Standings over the next few weeks. 

Oaklawn Park Saturday 1/28/23, Race 10: The Grade 3 Southwest Stakes

40 Total Derby points (20/8/6/4/2)

1 – Sun Thunder (10-1 ML, 175-1 Circa): The first of two horses that Ken McPeek will send out in this race was a dominant maiden winner when going one mile here last month. He’s a son of Into Mischief out of the Medaglia d’Oro mare Greenfield d’Oro. While an injury cut her career short on the track, all three of her foals to race have been winners. Her three starters have started 16 times on dirt, with 14 in the money finishes, five of which were wins. He’s worked well since his last race, where he did overcome some trouble to get the job done. He’ll need to take another decent step forward, but I do think he’ll get a pace to close in to. I think he has a chance of adding value to the bottom of the vertical exotics. 

2 – Corona Bolt (6-1 ML, 100-1 Circa): Flavien Prat is back in town to ride another contender for Brad Cox. He showed up on New Years’ Day to ride Victory Formation to a dominating win in the Smarty Jones Stakes for this barn. He comes back today to ride this impressive, undefeated son of Bolt d’Oro. He was a winner on debut at Churchill, sprinting 6 and ½ furlongs in November. Cox opted to run him on the same day as Jace’s Road at the Fair Grounds, but he ran in the Sugar Bowl Stakes, which was a six furlong sprint. He crushed that group while being geared down late, posting a 97 Beyer Speed figure, which is tied for the highest mark in this field. His dam was 0-9 in her career, sprinting on synthetics in Canada in each start. She foaled two other horses to make it to the track, the most successful being Proven Strategies, who is a stakes winner on turf. Horses sired by Bolt d”Oro are winning 15% of their route races in a limited sample size thus far. Nine of those runners have been on this course, where two have won and another four have finished in the money. He’s likely going to have to handle some early pressure with the heavy favorite, Arabian Knight, breaking outside of the other speed threats. I suspect he’ll likely go into the gate as the second choice in the wagering, and he is surely a viable alternative to the favorite in this race. 

3 – Jace’s Road (4-1 ML, 85-1 Circa): He was my pick in the Gun Runner last month, primarily because I thought he’d get an easy, uncontested lead. That proved to be the case as he handily disposed of his six rivals in that race, opening up late after setting some easy fractions up front. He comes in as the second choice on the morning in this race, and he is one that I’ll be playing against in this spot. There’s a decent amount of speed signed on here, with his stablemate to his inside and some runner stretching out from sprint races outside of him. He hung in gamely to be third in the Iroquois Stakes in September when there was a strong early pace, however, I think the water is considerably deeper today and I’m not convinced he’ll be able to adapt his game.

4 – Western Ghent (20-1 ML): D. Wayne Lukas loves to run his horses and his son of American Pharoah is coming off a career best effort in his local debut. After dismal efforts in stakes races such as the Hopeful, the Street Sense, and the Kentucky Jockey Club, he ran a much more competitive race in the Smarty Jones, finishing 4th at 56-1. He tried to go with the race winner, Victory Formation, early on, but that one came over a bit causing him to pull back a bit. He never threatened to win the race, but it was an encouraging sign that he stayed on after the early trouble, as opposed to backing up badly. While I think there’s a chance that he could upset one of the less prominent three year old stakes as this year goes on, I think he’s still significantly overmatched against a much stronger group. 

5 – Frosted Departure (15-1 ML, 300-1 Circa): The second of two McPeek runners is coming off a win in the Renaissance Stakes on New Year’s Eve. That was a six furlong contest where he was on the front end for the entire race. His two tries at two turns were not good even though they were against some stiff competition. He was beaten a combined total of over 51 lengths in those races. I’ll concede that he’s probably a better horse now than he was back then, however, I think he’s just a pace factor in this race, and likely the first one to back out of there when the real running begins.

6 – Arabian Knight (1-1 ML, 11-1 Circa): Bob Baffert sends out this 2.3 million dollar son of Uncle Mo in search of his 6th career victory in this race. I noted last year that he has typically not sent his best runners here for this particular race in years past. However, of the several high priced and talented three year olds in his barn, this one rates near the top, even though he’s only made one career start. He finished well in front of Determinedly that day, who has had two wins and a third place finish in stakes company in the time in between his starts. He’s working like the good Baffert runners do in the mornings, but this is not going to be a cinch. He made the lead rather easily in his seven furlong debut, carving out respectable fractions on the front end. He had plenty left for the stretch drive, stopping the clock in a strong 1:21:98. He was never challenged that day while running on a loose lead. There’s at least three horses breaking inside of him that want to be forwardly placed, so I’m interested to see how John Velasquez will handle this. For a horse to go for that kind of money in April of 2022, he clearly has looked the part, and he might just be better than these. However, there’s not going to be much value on this horse trying something new for the first time. 

7 – Red Route One (10-1 ML, 250-1 Circa): I’m interested to see this son of Gun Runner in his three year old debut today. He won his second career start on the turf at Kentucky Downs. Asmussen decided to try him on the main track in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland where he finished third, a nose in front of Instant Coffee. He struggled in the slop in the Street Sense, but came back to run a decent 4th in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes where he never really was able to find a lane. He was covered up pretty much the entire way around the track that evening, and when he finally was able to bully his way through, there was only 1/16 of a mile left to run. He finished well despite exerting a lot of energy trying to break free. While I wasn’t very bullish on that race in general, Instant Coffee backed up his form by winning the Grade 3 Lecomte last week. Santana would likely be best to try to tuck in behind the pace, and make one run toward the leaders late. I think his last race is better than it looks on paper, and I’d say that he might have the best chance to pull off the upset in this spot. 

8 – Hit Show (10-1 ML, 135-1 Circa): The third runner from the Cox trio makes his fourth career start this afternoon and his first with stakes company. He was a handy winner in a below average maiden special weight race at Keeneland in October. He ran in allowance company on the Stars of Tomorrow card in his second start, finishing fourth that afternoon. He improved last time out in his local debut, clearing the N2L condition. He’s been working well in the mornings and I’m interested to see Manny Franco named to ride. His dam was the winner of the Black Eyed Susan and the Comely Stakes back in 2017. Her first foal to run has a maiden win in three career starts. He’s another closer that could find his way into the minor placings, but I’m thinking that might be his ceiling this afternoon. 

9 – El Tomate (30-1 ML): He was an impressive maiden breaker in his debut at Remington Park in December, winning that seven furlong race by over five lengths. While he certainly looked good on track, I’m not sure he beat much that day. This is an ambitious placement for his second career start. While stranger things have happened, it would be genuinely shocking if he won.

The Verdict: 7-2-6


While Arabian Knight (#6) may be the most likely winner in this race, I don’t see him as a stone cold lock. His maiden score on one of the biggest stages was flawless, but he had everything his own way that afternoon. Velasquez might have to use him pretty hard to make that happen today with the speed breaking inside of him. When Velasquez won this race last year aboard Newgrange, he was content to be three wide on both turns. Perhaps that gambit will work again, since he’s a better horse than that one. However, this is a much deeper field than the group that was assembled here last season.

I’ll try Red Route One (#7) on top here, thinking that he ran a much better race than it looked on paper last time out. I think that if he can take a step forward in this race similar to the one that Instant Coffee took last week, he can be competitive with this field. I think the pace scenario should favor him.

Corona Bolt (#2) is likely going to go into the starting gate as the second choice in this race, and his effort in the Sugar Bowl Stakes last month at the Fair Grounds looks very similar on paper as the maiden breaking effort from Arabian Knight. Brad Cox is off to a very strong start with these prep races, so if the price discrepancy stays rather large between these two, I’d think Corona Bolt, who has a better post, offers better value.


We’ll have coverage of every North American Derby Points Race, along with plenty of coverage leading up to the 149th Kentucky Derby on May 6th, 2023. Current futures odds from Circa or Caesars-William Hill will be provided as they are available. Feel free to reach out on Twitter @EricSolomon718.


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