02/19/2011 2:26PM

J P's Gusto must show he can handle dirt in Southwest

Benoit & Associates
J P's Gusto worked six furlongs in 1:13.60 at Oaklawn for the Rebel Stakes there.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – It’s time to start sorting out the 3-year-olds at Oaklawn, which has been the prepping ground for the winners of nine Triple Crown races since 2004.

J P’s Gusto is the resident measuring stick in Monday’s Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest. Now based in Arkansas after beginning his career in Southern California, he towers over the 11-horse field as a Grade 1 winner of $527,360.

KENTUCKY DERBY NEWS: Track all the 3-year-olds on the Triple Crown trail

But despite the credentials, J P’s Gusto has questions to answer when he faces a promising group of locals in the first of two stepping-stones to the Arkansas Derby. Caleb’s Posse is already a stakes winner at Oaklawn, while Elite Alex has turned heads with his workouts. Grant Jack and Brickyard Fast are the one-two finishers from the $250,000 Springboard Mile at Remington Park, Archarcharch took the Sugar Bowl at Fair Grounds, and Yankee Passion makes his stakes debut for trainer Larry Jones.

J P’s Gusto hit town on Feb. 9, and adapting to the Oaklawn surface will be one of the biggest tests for him Monday. A synthetic track regular, J P’s Gusto has raced on dirt just once before, when sixth to division leader Uncle Mo in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill. He’s also looking for his first win at two turns. But that would not seem to be a significant issue in the Southwest, when he goes a mile off a runner-up finish in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park on Dec. 18.

“I don’t think distance is a problem, just the way he ran last time,” said Joe Petalino, who has taken over the horse’s training from David Hofmans. “He was running a mile and a sixteenth and was firing at them.

“He got in trouble in that race. He fell back.”

J P’s Gusto has natural speed, an asset that should serve him well in the Southwest, which ends at the sixteenth pole.

“I’m hoping he can come right off of it a little bit,” said Petalino, who will give a leg up to Ramon Dominguez.

Caleb’s Posse and the D. Wayne Lukas-trained maiden winner Derivative are the lone members of the field proven at the race’s configuration. Caleb’s Posse accomplished it in the $100,000 Smarty Jones, held on a foggy afternoon here Jan. 17. He won by 2 3/4 lengths, under Eddie Razo Jr.

“It set up well last time,” said Donnie Von Hemel, who trains Caleb’s Posse. “There was some pace in front of him and he was kind of in an open spot in the middle of the race, and this we didn’t see, but Eddie said he moved to them real easily. He was concerned about going too soon, but he was just kind of cruising up there.”

Elite Alex will be making his third career start, following a runner-up finish in a first-level allowance at Oaklawn on Jan. 15. Prior to that race he won a maiden special weight at Delaware Park.

“He’s a horse with a lot of ability, a lot of potential,” trainer Tim Ritchey said. “He has a very good mind. He’s extremely athletic, so he’s the right type that can make these big jumps forward, from finishing second in an a-other-than to a graded stakes.”

Elite Alex showed his athleticism in the mile allowance in which he was beaten a head after a tumultuous start. He spotted the field a number of lengths after leaping from the gate in awkward fashion, then having the ground break out from under him.

“The next step was even worse, where he had to really kind of do an Afleet Alex and pick himself up,” said Ritchey, referring to the Preakness run of Elite Alex’s sire and the champion he trained.

Calvin Borel has the mount Monday.

The field also includes the Mike Maker-trained Ghost Is Clear, who won a maiden special weight sprint at Fair Grounds in his last start, with a strong Beyer Figure of 89. Corey Lanerie has the mount.