If you like Steve Asmussen, you’re going to love the Grade 3, $500,000 Southwest on Presidents Day at Oaklawn Park. The Hall of Famer hogs five of the 11 slots in the starting gate with three expensive  sales buys yet to justify their purchase price along with Long Range Toddy, the Springboard Mile winner at Remington, and Ninth Street, who took the Jean Lafitte Stakes at Delta Downs. All five have displayed some talent, and they present a variety pack of pace makers, stalkers and closers. The problem, however, is none look authoritative enough to bet with confidence.

Beyond Asmussen

There are two horses in the Southwest I find more appealing than all the Asmussen runners, although I’ll start this analysis with the fastest horse in the field first – Gray Attempt. While he didn’t compete in the high-profile “Stars of Tomorrow” card at Churchill Downs on Nov. 24, Gray Attempt made his second career start the next day, going gate-to-wire to win a 6 ½-furlong maiden sprint by 1 ½ lengths. The runner-up that day, Oncewewerebrothers, showed up Jan. 26 at Oaklawn Park for his second career start and absolutely blasted through six furlongs in 1:10.34 to win easily. Trainer Jinx Fires then took Gray Attempt to the Fair Grounds for the Sugar Bowl and he cruised home ahead of a solid field, earning an Equibase E Speed Figure of 101 and a Beyer Speed Figure of 92, which is tops in this field. Gray Attempt started in the outside post in a field of eight in his next start, the Smarty Jones on opening day at Oaklawn, facing four runners who show up again for the Southwest. He made the lead and crossed over without urging, clocking the first quarter in a sharp 23 seconds flat, and proved capable of getting a mile as he held on to win by a neck. On the plus side in the Southwest, he gets the inside post, so his speed should put him right where he wants to be. On the negative side, he’s going to face greater pressure this time and completing the final four furlongs in 50 seconds like he did in the Smarty Jones is not going to get it done. There have been a few days at Oaklawn this meet that have markedly favored inside speed and with the Southwest going off as Race 9, any bias should have revealed itself by then. One of the beauties of Oaklawn Park is that by having only one racing surface – dirt – you can get a more definitive understanding of how the track is playing simply by having a greater sample of races to develop a profile.

Pletcher’s Library

Two slots off the rail is Todd Pletcher, having a library quiet start to his Derby Trail campaign, with Cutting Humor, a $400,000 son of First Samurai, who is going to win the race. After a useful second in his debut in the slop at Belmont, Pletcher sent Cutting Humor out to Keeneland, where he found a very tough maiden field. Under Jose Ortiz, Cutting Humor fanned five wide into the first turn and then stayed out in the middle of the track down the backside in a tracking position. Into the far turn, Ortiz roused him, wide again, and Harvey Wallbanger, with a terrific head of steam, stormed right by him. Harvey Wallbanger then engaged in a transfixing stretch duel with leader Plus Que Parfait, but when you looked up at the end, there was Cutting Humor plugging along, only 6 ¼ back in third. I found that very impressive, and Harvey Wallbanger three races later won the Holy Bull. Cutting Humor then broke his maiden at Gulfstream Park West and in his first allowance test he ran into a colt named Bourbon War, a son of Tapit who is simply exploding with talent. Cutting Humor finished second in that 1 1/16-mile race Jan. 18 and put up a 103 E Speed Figure, which would be hard to beat in here. Pletcher launched Audible last year at Oaklawn and he clicks like crazy when he shows up at the track: 4-for-8 off 31-plus-day layoffs; 7-for-18 with Oaklawn runners the past three meets; 7-for-15 with stakes runners. Cutting Humor is a tempting 3-1 on the morning line and has drawn a snug slot to track the pace. Bolder is the Asmussen runner who looks like he will have the greatest chance to win. After a two-month freshening, he made his two-turn debut in the Smarty Jones and ran just off Gray Attempt’s right flank all the way around the track. Gray Attempt had run three races without a break going in and that recency may have benefitted him. Bolder figures to be much tighter for his second start, and Asmussen traditionally wins more second time back than first. Bolder showed no quit in the lane in the Smarty Jones, and he has the speed to find a clear running path. There is, however, an outsider in the field of great intrigue – Six Shooter at 20-1 for Paul Holthus. He won a mile race on the same Nov. 25 Churchill Downs card that Gray Attempt won on, and his race’s half-mile time was a full second faster – at the longer distance. He had a horrible outing next out in the Springboard, when jockey Alex Canchari appeared to panic midrace and began riding out of control. Holthus next sent Six Shooter to Delta Downs for a two-turn 7 1/2 -furlong race Jan. 5 and he won easily under jockey Thomas Pompell using what has become his trademark style – getting good forward position, relaxing and dropping back and then coming on for the stretch drive. Six Shooter picked up Stewart Elliott for the Smarty Jones and broke in a flight of three behind the pace, in tight between the two others, a place horses often do not like to be. Elliott dropped him back, but smack in between two others a flight behind. When it was time to go on the turn, Elliott shifted Six Shooter out and attacked four wide. Gray Attempt wasn’t going to be caught, but Six Shooter’s fourth-place finish was better than it looks on paper. He finished with great enthusiasm. For whatever reason, Holthus is adding blinkers for the Southwest. The Trappe Shot gelding has a sharp 59 4/5-second five-furlong work for this. Elliott is going to have him once again within four or five lengths of the pace. With the added sixteenth of a mile, he will have a good opportunity to work out a better trip and not be caught between horses going around to the backside. Only two other runners besides him have three wins on their resume – Gray Attempt and Long Range Toddy. You’ll get every bit of that 20-1. Take advantage of it.

John Scheinman’s top horses:

  1. Cutting Humor; 2. Bolder; 3. Six Shooter; 4. Gray Attempt
HANSON: How to bet the Southwest Stakes (Coady Photo/Oaklawn Park)