02/14/2009 1:00AM

Southwest top two are athletes


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Old Fashioned and Silver City, the top two choices Monday in the Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest at Oaklawn Park, have similar physical qualities and genetic influences as three of the last five winners of the Arkansas Derby. They are athletically built horses whose quickness of foot gives them great positioning power on the racetrack. And, their natural speed is derived from significant sprinter influences found close up in their pedigrees.

The story was much the same in 2004, 2005, and 2006, when Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, and Lawyer Ron dominated Oaklawn's series for 3-year-olds.

The program begins again Monday with the one-mile Southwest, then continues with the Grade 2, $300,000 Rebel at 1 1/16 miles on March 14, and the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby at 1 1/8 miles on April 11.

Smarty Jones and Lawyer Ron swept the series in 2004 and 2006, respectively, while Afleet Alex began his 3-year-old campaign in 2005 with a win in the $50,000 Mountain Valley at six furlongs at Oaklawn before going on to an eight-length romp in the Arkansas Derby.

"They all had very, very good speed and were very good athletes, and I think along those lines there are a lot of similarities," said Bret Calhoun, who trains Silver City.

Nimble horses tend to do very well at Oaklawn. Their physical makeup enables them to get over the local surface better than larger or heavier horses who might sink into what can be a deeper track in the earlier part of the meet at Oaklawn.

Smarty Jones and Lawyer Ron were no taller than 16 hands - a hand is four inches - which would classify them as a little above average in size. Smarty Jones had great strength in his hindquarter, perhaps the influence of his dam's sire, champion sprinter Smile. Afleet Alex, who was sired by a son of noted speed source Afleet, stood about 15-3 hands while at Oaklawn and had more the appearance of a sprinter than a route horse, according to his trainer, Tim Ritchey.

Old Fashioned and Silver City are both sons of Unbridled's Song. They each have good length to their body, or barrel, according to their respective trainers. But neither is as tall as one might expect of the offspring of their 17-hand sire, whose most noted Oaklawn stakes winners were Eight Belles and Rockport Harbor - both of whom were tall horses. Calhoun puts Silver City at 16 hands and 1,000 pounds, while Larry Jones, who trains Old Fashioned, estimates his horse to be just over 16 hands and 1,100 pounds.

"He's a horse that's very light on his feet and he's just got a very efficient way of going," Jones said of Old Fashioned. "He's what you always look for in a horse, and that you can't just get because nothing is 100 percent scientific on breeding. This is what you hope to get: a horse that's got this speed and got the distance capabilities that he showed at 2 in the Remsen."

Old Fashioned, an undefeated horse purchased as a yearling at the 2007 Keeneland September sale for $800,000 by Rick Porter, is out of a mare by speed influence Meadowlake.

Silver City, who is 3 for 4, was a $700,000 buy at the same sale by Clarence Scharbauer Jr. He is out of a mare by another good speed source, Mt. Livermore.

"He does have good body length," Calhoun said of Silver City. "As you can see in his races, he's got a huge stride.

"I think he's built more to be physically mature now. He's not too big. I think he's about the right size to be doing what we're doing with him at this time. He's able to handle his body very well."

Lawyer Ron was a "versatile-made" horse, according to his trainer, Bob Holthus, and he easily adapted to the surface at Oaklawn.

"I don't believe you could have found a better fit for him," Holthus said.

Holthus said the horse's tactical speed was key to his success here, helping him get good position going into the first turn and keeping him up out of trouble in his races. Tactical speed and a "catlike quality" served Afleet Alex well, said Ritchey.

"He had the speed to use wherever you needed to use it, so you could put him in a position where you needed to be at any time," he said. "Horses don't come from way, way back here, so you've got to have a little bit of tactical speed, depending on how the race comes up, obviously, to put them in a spot where you need to be."

Silver City will be making his two-turn debut in the Southwest, which will end at the sixteenth pole, as do all one-mile races at Oaklawn. Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who plans to start Buzzin and Dreamin in the Southwest, said athletic horses have long been a good fit at Oaklawn.

"What plays to their assets here is the same thing that plays to their assets at Santa Anita," he said. "It's a short stretch. That's the key. When you turn for home here, you're there. And the same thing at Santa Anita.

"Charlie Whittingham and I used to always talk about that. If you're going to run a horse a mile for the first time, do it at Oaklawn or Santa Anita, because you waltz around there and boom, you're home. You give those horses that are long-striding, need-time-to-gather-themselves, no chance."

And sometimes, those types never do catch up.

Smarty Jones went on to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and Afleet Alex the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the sire of Afleet Alex. He was sired by Northern Afleet, not a son of Northern Afleet.