HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) Trainer Steven Asmussen was waiting on the right time to unveil Tapiture as a 3-year-old.
Oaklawn Park provided exactly that opportunity Monday, and the prized colt ran away down the home stretch to win the $300,000 Southwest Stakes.
The win came in the season debut for the colt, which won its final race as a 2-year-old at the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. Tapiture earned 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points with the Grade 3 win, also setting the stage for a likely follow-up performance at Oaklawn in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes next month.
"He's an extremely talented horse we feel real good about," Asmussen said. "We need him to keep getting better, getting stronger. Big step forward today, but he's going to have to keep getting better because the competition will as well."
Tapiture began the day at 3-1 before falling to 5-1 at race time. Despite the drop in odds, the colt - ridden by Ricardo Santana Jr. - easily outkicked even-money favorite Strong Mandate down the stretch for a 4 1/4-length win.
Tapiture paid $13, $4.80 and $3.20. Strong Mandate returned $3.40 and $2.80, while Ride On Curlin was third and paid $3.80 to show.
Oaklawn's series of Kentucky Derby prep races continues with the $600,000 Rebel Stakes on March 15 and the Arkansas Derby on April 12.
After snow and bitterly cold temperatures much of the year resulted in multiple cancellations, temperatures soared into the 70s on a sunny afternoon for the 25,622 in attendance at Oaklawn Park.
The track conditions were just right for Tapiture, who surged into a lead group with Tanzanite Cat and Ride On Curlin on the backstretch of the 1 1/16-mile race.
Tapiture stayed closest to the rail among the lead trio before beginning to pull away on the final turn. The colt then easily kicked his way ahead of his challengers down the stretch, earning $180,000 for the win.
"He was working really nice," Santana said. "I put him in good position, and when he turned for home, he was gone."
Strong Mandate, ridden by Joel Rosario, began the day as a 2-1 favorite before going off at even money. The D. Wayne Lukas-trained colt was on the outside of the lead group on the backstretch before surging into second place down the home stretch and earning $60,000.
"He didn't have the cleanest of trips," Lukas said. "We had wanted to be more forwardly placed, but he got bumped leaving the gate and was actually wide the whole trip. ... We'll just go back to the barn and look at the Rebel Stakes."
Ride On Curlin, the son of Curlin, won his only other start this year - an allowance race at Oaklawn Park on Jan. 12. He was ridden by Calvin Borel and earned $30,000 for finishing third.
After winning the Smarty Jones Stakes last month, Tanzanite Cat settled for fourth and earned $15,000.
Asmussen, a two-time Eclipse Award winner for Trainer of the Year, also won the Preakness Stakes in 2007 with Curlin and 2009 with Rachel Alexandra.
He couldn't have been happier on Monday with the debut of his latest Kentucky Derby hopeful in Tapiture.
"I think the series sets up really well for him," Asmussen said. "I thought this was a good starting point for him, and hopefully we'll be able to stay in the series here."