With the Kentucky Derby prep season starting to heat up, Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. takes its first turn in the spotlight with the $250,000 Southwest Stakes. Contested at a flat mile, the Grade 3 Southwest is followed on Oaklawn's road to the Triple Crown by the Grade 2, 1 1/16-mile Rebel Stakes and concludes with the Grade 1, 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby.

The Southwest Stakes, first run in 1968, was a six-furlong sprint until being lengthened to its current distance in 1984. For the next two decades, the Southwest produced several nice horses, including 1997 champion sprinter Smoke Glacken, but had little impact on the Triple Crown Series. That was until 2004, when Smarty Jones kicked off his historic run in the Southwest.

Smary Jones, who now has a Stakes race named in his honor at Oaklawn Park, swept the Southwest, Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby and went on to win that year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. For the achievement, Smarty Jones also received a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn Park.

Four years later the Southwest Stakes was upgraded to a Grade 3 by the American Graded Stakes Committee.

The 2012 edition of the Southwest is shaping up to be a strong one. Trainer Bob Baffert is shipping two of his Kentucky Derby contenders—Secret Circle and Castaway—from Southern California to Hot Springs to run in the Southwest. Secret Circle won last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint and is exiting a second-place finish in his first try around two turns in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita Jan. 7. Castaway, a son of 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, exits a Maiden-breaking win in his sixth career start at Santa Anita Jan. 21.

The 2012 Southwest will also mark the return to Oaklawn Park of John Servis, the trainer of Smarty Jones. Servis will send out Adirondack King, a son of 2006 Arkansas Derby winner Lawyer Ron, in the Southwest. Adirondack King exits a third-place finish in the Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.

“I'm tickled to be running,” Servis told the Oaklawn Park publicity department.

Another major contender pointing for the 2012 Southwest Stakes is Apprehender. The son of Posse was a sparkling debut winner at Oaklawn Park Jan. 26, but he'll be getting a major class test while stretching in distance against an expected big field.

Whitebrush, the 1984 Southwest winner, holds the Stakes record of one mile in 1:34.40. Jockey Larry Snyder, an Oaklawn Park staple for decades, has the most Southwest wins among riders with three. He won with Clever Trick in 1979, Say I'm Smart (1983) and Tarascon (1990).

Trainer Bob Holthus, who died in November 2011 as Oaklawn Park's all-time winningest trainer, also leads in most Southwest Stakes wins with five. Holthus won his first Southwest in 1988 with Proper Reality. He added consecutive wins in 2000-2001 and 2005-2006 with the most notable being the last, Lawyer Ron in 2006.

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