Tapiture and Stablemates Ready for Big Day
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 tomorrowâ€™s three graded stakes as well as three other races.
Sister Ginger takes on six other fillies and mares in the $200,000 Azeri (G2) and Called to Serve competes against six males in the $200,000 Razorback Handicap (G3), but itâ€™s $600,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) contender Tapiture who is generating the buzz.
The impressive winner of the $300,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) by 4 Â¼ 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.
â€œRight now with the three-year-olds, you just need to keep getting better and stay in the game,â€ said Asmussen. â€œSome of them arenâ€™t who they used to be and some of them are better than they were. Thatâ€™s what makes the three-year-old picture so interesting. Heâ€™s a very nice horse and heâ€™s very talented. Iâ€™m a little concerned with the weight that he gives quality horses tomorrow, but heâ€™s doing well.â€
Winchell Thoroughbredsâ€™ Tapiture, who ended his juvenile campaign with an identical 4 Â¼ 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.
â€œThe post is perfect,â€ Asmussen said. â€œRicardo fits the horse well. Heâ€™s ridden him in all but his first out and theyâ€™ve had success together.â€
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.
â€œWe all have to think about the points,â€ Asmussen said. â€œWhen youâ€™ve got a horse of this caliber you just want to keep them around. There are a lot of good spots for them.â€
Sister Ginger could fare no better than third both times here behind Pippin and Bayakoa Stakes winner Donâ€™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.
â€œSheâ€™s been very consistent for us and had success here,â€ said Asmussen. â€œItâ€™s a tall order for her this time, but they wonâ€™t scare us away.â€
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.
â€œHeâ€™s a great big horse and Iâ€™m anxious to get him back going again,â€ 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 Saturdayâ€™s $600,000 Rebel Stakes (G2)?
â€œEvery one of them,â€ he said Friday. â€œItâ€™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 everybodyâ€™s list like Street Strategy; thatâ€™s a nice horse. I think itâ€™s a very, very competitive race.â€
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 Mackâ€™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 Â½ lengths. Now the colt, who was seventh in the Champagne (G1) and third in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile (G1) last year, seeks his first win since the Hopeful, breaks from Post #4 under Joel Rosario.
â€œWeâ€™re just looking for a good trip,â€ said Lukas. â€œWeâ€™ve had three pretty rough trips so we want a clean trip, just a chance to see what weâ€™ve got. Weâ€™re interested in a good experience after heâ€™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.â€
Under the Kentucky Derby qualifying points system implemented last year, Strong Mandate has to keep climbing the ladder if heâ€™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.
â€œAll of them (the prep races offering points) are important now,â€ said Lukas. â€œI didnâ€™t like the system at first but I think itâ€™s probably okay. I thought it compromised the body of work of a horse completely. Under the old system, I wouldnâ€™t have to worry about anything because weâ€™d already have enough money.â€
Oaklawn Barn Notes March 14
Tapiture and Stablemates Ready for Big Day