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King: Middle of SEC mess

LITTLE ROCK — Expecting Arkansas to be 7-7 in the SEC about 5:10 p.m. today, I couldn’t resist a look-ahead at the schedule of the Razorbacks and the seven other teams competing for third place in the conference.

The formula for projecting the final standings was simple — all eight were awarded a sweep of their home games, unless the opponent was Florida or Kentucky. Road victories were restricted to those against the two 10-loss teams, South Carolina and Mississippi State.

The result:

Georgia (8-5) finishes 11-7 and Tennessee (7-6) finishes 10-8.

Missouri, LSU, and Ole Miss, each 7-6, and Arkansas and Texas A&M, both 6-7, all finish 9-9. Also 6-7, Vanderbilt ends up at 7-11.

Termed parity in the NFL, such a mess might be viewed as mediocrity by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.

Out of it at 4-9, the Alabama schools are the wild cards. Arkansas and Missouri have a road game at Alabama while Tennessee and Vanderbilt play at Auburn. The question is whether Anthony Grant and Tony Barbee can persuade their teams to play hard when there is no goal available.

If the projected results become reality, the NCAA will be hard-pressed to take more than three SEC teams. A conference record above .500 and a spot in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament might be enough.

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Trainer Steve Asmussen sounded as if he knew about Shug McGaughey’s plans for Honor Code when Asmussen tempered Tapiture’s impressive victory in the Southwest Stakes with a word about the future.

” … he’ll have to continue to improve with the races coming up,” Asmussen said after Tapiture ran away from heavily favored Strong Mandate and 10 other 3-year-olds Monday at Oaklawn Park.

Next up in Oaklawn’s series of Kentucky Derby prep races is the $600,000 Rebel on March 15 and McGaughey has indicated that Honor Code will travel from Florida to compete. Sometimes, trainers and the horses they ship evoke a yawn. Not McGaughey. Not Honor Code.

McGaughey, who began building his reputation as one of the nation’s best at Oaklawn in the 1970s, has won nine Breeders’ Cup races and added the coup de grace to his resume when he won his first Kentucky Derby with Orb in 2013. At 12-1, Honor Code was the individual choice in early Derby wagering offered this month by Churchill Downs. He was followed closely by Cairo Prince, the horse he beat in New York in November. Also offered in the pool were Tapiture at 38-1 and Strong Mandate at 17-1. In the pool at the end of February, Tapiture will be a much shorter price and Honor Code might offer more value since he has not raced this year because of an ankle problem.

A year ago, Orb never missed a beat in training and swept two big races in Florida before winning in Kentucky. The first of those races, the Fountain of Youth, is today and Honor Code is nowhere near ready. Ideally, Honor Code would make his 2014 debut in an allowance event, but other trainers aren’t going to enter their 3-year-olds in such a race when they can compete in stakes races with bigger purses. Also too much, too soon for Honor Code are March 1 stakes races in Florida and New York.

“Two weeks after that is the Rebel, and I think that would be one I could probably make,” McGaughey told the media in Florida.

Tapiture, atop the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 22 points after banking 10 in the Southwest, earned a solid 98 speed figure at Oaklawn. The key is to continue to improve.

The next series of Derby preps, including the Rebel, offer 50 points — enough to secure a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate — to the winner. The Arkansas Derby on April 12 is one of seven races worth 100 points for first.

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Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.

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