Just like the Derby, the Kentucky Oaks was first run in 1875. Its stature and prominence in American racing has risen sharply over the years as has its popularity among racing fans. Back in 1990, when Oaks day was still truly “Louisville’s Day at the Races”, attendance was just over 67,000. They eclipsed the 100,000 mark in 1999 and set the current record for Oaks day attendance last year when over 124,000 fans gathered at Churchill Downs to watch Cathryn Sophia cruise to victory under the twin spires. The current weather forecast for both Friday and Saturday is iffy at best, but if there is any group of professionals with a lower success rate than horse racing handicappers it has to be weather forecasters, right? Who knows what kind of weather we will be dealing with over the weekend and what the track conditions will be, but wet weather can definitely wreak havoc on any handicapper’s well laid plans. Below is a preview of each of the stakes races on Friday’s Kentucky Oaks card with some notes here and there about which horses are most likely to hold their form over an off-track.
The 32nd running of the Grade 1 La Troienne for older fillies and mares at a mile and a sixteenth over the main track accumulated a cast of 9 entries as the 5th race on Friday’s card. With the expected scratch of Finest City (# 8), the pace should be quite modest. An inclination to lean toward a runner that will be near the front is probably the right strategy. Paid Up Subscriber (# 4) should be near the front of the pack as she stretches out off her 3rd place effort in the 7 furlong Madison at Keeneland, which served as her 2017 debut. She will appreciate the added ground of this trip and is very likely to improve with that outing under her belt. The daughter of Candy Ride is already a Grade 2 winner and is a perfect 3 for 3 at Churchill Downs. She is strictly the one to beat. Don’t sleep on Big World (# 3). The Louisiana-bred filly enters this off 3 straight wins, two of which came at the same distance as the La Troienne. She has a bullet work at Churchill Downs in the holster and will also be close to a modest pace. Go Maggie Go (# 9) owns a Grade 2 win over a sloppy race track and would be the most likely beneficiary of wet weather. Paid Up Subscriber has not raced over anything other than a fast race track, but her pedigree suggests an off-track should not be a problem.
The 6th race on Friday is the 14th running of the Grade 2 Alysheba for older horses going a mile and a sixteenth on the dirt. In stark contrast to its female counterpart a race earlier, this field of 11 offers an abundance of early speed. Bird Song (# 1), El Huerfano (# 3), Flashy Jewel (# 7), Noble Bird (# 8), and American Freedom (# 9) are all front-running types that will compete to be at the head of affairs early. American Freedom may be the most talented colt in the race, but the expected multi-horse pace duel will be a stern test of his stamina in his first race since August. In addition, the lone poor race of the colt’s career came last year at Churchill Downs on Derby day as a big favorite when he never factored into the race and finished a non-threatening sixth in the Pat Day Mile. He will likely go on to have a very nice year, but this is an enticing spot to play against him. Honorable Duty (# 4) has won 2 of his 3 prior attempts at Churchill Downs and comes into this riding high off of three straight stakes victories in Louisiana. His off the pace running style is a perfect fit for the projected race set-up in the Alysheba. Breaking Lucky (# 2) is clearly capable of winning this with his best effort. The concern with Breaking Lucky is that his best efforts have never resulted in wins. His highest speed figures were earned when finishing a neck behind Honorable Duty in the New Orleans Handicap, as runner-up to Gun Runner in the Clark at Churchill last fall, and when missing all the spoils by just a neck when 4th in the Woodward at Saratoga last summer. Any of those efforts would be very competitive here, but it is difficult to throw a lot of confidence behind a horse who cannot seem to get his nose down on the wire in the biggest spots. It is also worth mentioning that Noble Bird and American Freedom have held truest to form on off-tracks.
The 23rd running of the Grade 3 Twin Spires Turf Sprint at 5 furlongs on the lawn goes as the 7th race on the Oaks day card. Pure Sensation (# 8) lays over this field of 13 in terms of class and speed. The multiple graded stakes winner most recently finished 3rd in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, and a repeat of that performance or any of his 3 wins prior to it would certainly get the job done in this event. Trainer Christophe Clement says his charge is locked, loaded and ready for action, but he has warned that he may scratch if the turf conditions become too soggy. If that were to happen, the race opens up considerably. There appears to be ample speed signed on, as is usually the case in turf sprints, signifying that things may well set up for a closer. Why Two (# 4) is an intriguing prospect with the right running style to take advantage of a sizzling pace. He is perfect since trainer Mike Machowsky switched surfaces to the grass last summer, and the 3 bullet drills littering his work tab indicate his readiness for a barn that fires at 27% off the extended layoff. Partly Mocha (# 9) is another with a running style meant to succeed in a race loaded with speed. He is also a perfect 2 for 2 over the weeds at Churchill. Holding Gold (# 3) is also a strong closer that comes in with good form off his recent trip to the Keeneland winners’ circle in the Grade 2 Shakertown.
The 8th race is the Grade 2 Eight Belles at 7 furlongs for 3yo fillies. Seemingly one of the more wide open races on the card, the full field of 14 offers a plethora of contenders with none of them really leaping off the page. Most of the fillies in here are cutting back in distance off their most recent race which tends to be a fairly sharp angle for younger horses at this extended sprint distance. I find Florida Fabulous (# 9) most compelling. She has only raced twice, passing both tests in stylish gate-to-wire fashion by a combined 14+lengths. She shortens up a furlong from those mile efforts, and trainer David Fawkes will find out what he’s got in this step up in class to graded stakes company. Ghalia (# 10) is the only other entrant that appears capable of wiring this field full of mostly stalkers and closers. She is a perfect 3 for 3 after successfully stretching out to capture the Sunland Park Oaks for Todd Pletcher. The 7 furlong distance seems to be more in her wheelhouse. Union Strike (# 2) is a Grade 1 winner at the 7/8ths distance, having successfully annexed the Del Mar Debutante last summer. She returned from a winter freshening to take down the 6 1/2 furlong Santa Paula out west and ships to her first start outside California off a pair of best-of-the-morning breezes over the Santa Anita training track. Pretty City Dancer (# 4) is the only other Grade 1 winner in the field. She dead heated with Sweet Loretta (who recently captured the Grade 3 Beaumont Stakes over Keeneland’s beard course) at this same distance in the Spinaway at Saratoga. She returns to that preferred trip after two failed attempts routing at Gulfstream Park and Keeneland. The daughter of Tapit is 2 for 3 over the main track at Churchill Downs and fired a co-best of 84 half mile in :47 and 1 over the track last Friday. Benner Island cuts back from two Grade 3 route attempts at Oaklawn Park. She acquitted herself quite well in the first, finishing in the runner-up spot more than 3 lengths clear of 3rd. She had a troubled trip and checked in 6th most recently in the Fantasy Stakes. The daughter of Speightstown will likely appreciate this shorter trip, and she owns an impressive victory going a one-turn mile here at Churchill last fall.
The Grade 3 Edgewood for 3yo fillies going a mile and a sixteenth on the grass is carded as the 10th of 13 races. Assuming La Coronel (# 1a) scratches to run against the boys on Saturday, the race is wide open. You Missed It (# 12) has yet to win in 6 lifetime races, yet trainer Doug O’Neill has chosen to ship her across the country to face a deep field that includes 5 stakes winners and several other impressive allowance winners. Though she lacks a win, You Missed It has finished second 5 times in those 6 starts, including the Grade 3 Providencia and a listed stake at Del Mar. Also, the last time Doug O’Neill shipped a maiden to Kentucky to run in a stake race he won the Bluegrass Stakes with Irap, who will run in the Derby on Saturday. Dream Dancing (# 1) is a steady closer that will need some pace to run at, similar to what she got in her two victories at Gulfstream Park over the winter. Stallion Heiress (# 6) has won her 3 starts by a combined 15+ lengths and looms as the most likely pace setter in a race largely devoid of early speed. She will certainly be tested for class, but should have no excuses when it comes to negotiating a clean trip. India Mantuana (# 4) is another with solid credentials. She will be up close as well and may vie for the early lead with Stallion Heiress. The Chad Brown trainee had a troubled trip when failing to negotiate the mile and a sixteenth distance in Gulfstream’s Herecomesthebride Stakes in her latest outing. Bernadiva (# 2) has been perfect so far this year, breaking through with her maiden score in early March at Gulfstream prior to backing that winning effort up with an allowance tally at Tampa. She is improving under the tutelage of Bill Mott and retains Javier Castellano in the saddle despite the newly minted hall of famer likely having other options. Proctor’s Ledge (# 7) owns an allowance score at this distance and was finishing well after an eventful trip in the Appalachian at Keeneland.
The 143rd running of the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks is of course the feature of Friday’s card with an approximate post time of 6:12pm EST. If Paradise Woods (# 4) can reproduce anything remotely close to her front-running 11 length romp in the Santa Anita Oaks, then everyone else is running for second. Her 107 Beyer speed figure from that laugher leaps off the page in this group. It is rare to hold this much confidence in such a lightly raced filly (only 3 starts) in a race of this magnitude, but trainer Richard Mandella has spent the last several years training one of the all-time great mares in Beholder. He knows what a champion looks like, trains like, acts like, and he is not holding back in his effusive praise of his daughter of Union Rags. Of those competing for consolation prizes, Miss Sky Warrior (# 10) boasts the loftiest resume. She enters off five straight victories with four of them against graded stakes competition. She is the only one in the field to have already raced the 9 furlong distance of the Oaks, having annexed the Gazelle at Aqueduct in her most recent prep for this by a commanding 13 lengths. Miss Sky Warrior is a confirmed frontrunner, and if she tangles with Paradise Woods early she may be susceptible to a late race collapse. The two most likely beneficiaries of an early speed duel are Abel Tasman (# 13) and Salty (# 14). Abel Tasman filled the runner-up spot nearly 12 lengths behind Paradise Woods in the Santa Anita Oaks. She should be able to cut into that margin with a better break and having several others that can apply early pressure in the field. Abel Tasman also adds blinkers and has a right to improve in her second start for Bob Baffert, who, without a Derby starter this year, certainly wants to make his presence felt on Oaks day. Salty scored an impressive victory in the Gulfstream Park Oaks with a stalk and pounce trip and she can also improve even further in just her 4th lifetime start.
Rain or shine, enjoy Oaks day and best of luck padding your Derby bankroll!