02/14/2012 5:15PM

Oaklawn: Southwest may wind up split

Tom Keyser
Secret Circle, with Rafael Bejarano riding, wins the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Secret Circle and Longview Drive were among four Southern California-based 3-year-olds who flew into Arkansas on Tuesday in advance of the Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn on Monday. The shippers, along with local stakes winner Junebugred, who breezed a bullet half-mile Tuesday, top a list of 21 probables for the one-mile Southwest, which has a good chance of being split into two divisions. If it is, each division will be a Grade 3, and each will have a purse of $250,000, said David Longinotti, the assistant general manager for racing at Oaklawn.

“There’s a strong possibility of splitting, depending on how many go,” said Pat Pope, the racing secretary at Oaklawn. “There’s got to be two strong fields to consider it.

“I’m real excited. I can’t remember when this was done, in a long, long time, to have this kind of stature of race, with this kind of field, looking at a split.”

Secret Circle, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint, and Longview Drive last ran in the Grade 3 Sham at Santa Anita on Jan. 7, finishing a respective second and third. The flight Tuesday also brought Castaway and Unbridled’s Note, who each won maiden special weight races in their last starts.

A few hours earlier, a trio of Southwest candidates worked sharply on a muddy main track at Oaklawn. Chief among them was Junebugred, who breezed in 48 seconds, first set after the renovation break, at about 9 a.m. His final quarter-mile was in 22.80 seconds, according to Oaklawn’s head clocker, Jim Hamilton. He galloped out five furlongs in 1:00.80.

Junebugred is the leading local candidate for the Southwest after he darted to a neck win in the $100,000 Smarty Jones at a mile at Oaklawn on Jan. 16. He was listed in Daily Racing Form ’s first Derby Watch of the season and he was also an individual interest in the first pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, closing at 58-1 on Sunday. The national nods make Junebugred the highest profile 3-year-old that his owners, Alex and JoAnn Lieblong, and his trainer, Steve Hobby, have had after decades in racing.

“You’re very fortunate to get one mentioned for something like this,” said Alex Lieblong, a prominent businessman who lives in Conway, Ark. “One guy told me years ago – and he had a lot of money – ‘You can’t money-whip this game. It’s luck.’

“We’re on the list, and it’s an honor to be on the list.”

Junebugred turned heads in the one-mile Smarty Jones, when he darted through a hole along the rail and got up for a neck win under regular rider Joe Bravo. The race was his first start of the year, his first in a stakes, and his first at two turns, and for the effort he earned a career-high Beyer Figure of 93. Since the Smarty Jones he has thrived, said Hobby.

“I think he’s moved forward,” he said. “We’ve got the race under his belt now, and it was just the third start of his life, so experience has got to be better. And he’s done nothing but good since the race. He’s eating well. He feels good. He’s bucking and playing. He’s a real happy horse.”

The Lieblongs purchased Junebugred, a son of Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Corinthian, for $20,000 at the Keeneland September yearling auction in 2010. The horse was bred in Kentucky by Gainesway.

“He’s a May 28 foal, but you couldn’t ask for better conformation,” said Lieblong. “I thought May 28 . . . but he’s put together perfectly. I also like that he’s out of a Dixieland Band mare. That kind of sold me. I like Dixieland Band for a broodmare sire.”

Junebugred joined Hobby at the track as a 2-year-old, but ended up making the first two starts of his career with trainer David Fawkes.

“Hobby had him down there at Delaware Park, and he was doing well,” Lieblong said. “But the Northeast had that big hurricane come through, Irene, and it did a little damage to their main track.”

Junebugred was sent to Fawkes and debuted at Monmouth Park in October, finishing third in a maiden special weight at six furlongs. In his next start Nov. 26, he won a maiden special weight at Aqueduct going a one-turn mile. He then returned to Hobby at Oaklawn.

In the Smarty Jones, his willingness to go through tight quarters up the rail impressed the Lieblongs.

“He showed some guts,” said JoAnn Lieblong.

Junebugred is named for a fishing lure that the Lieblongs’s son, Jason, used to win a fishing tournament. Other top horses the couple have in training include Telling, a two-time winner of the Grade 1 Sword Dancer at Saratoga for Hobby who is currently with Fawkes in Florida, and Duke of Mischief, who the Lieblongs race in partnership. Duke of Mischef is also in Florida but is being considered for the Grade 3, $125,000 Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn on March 10, said Lieblong.

For now, though, the focus is on Junebugred and the Southwest, which is the first of Oaklawn’s two graded preps for the Arkansas Derby.