If anyone thought that somehow, by virtue of champion Songbird’s defection from Friday’s $1 million Kentucky Oaks (GI) due to illness, that the race lost its luster, nothing could be further from the truth. Of the 15 entered for the nine-furlong test, nine are graded stakes winners with five graded stakes runner-ups and another who was third in graded company.
So, though champion Songbird will not be in the gate, just about every other decent filly in North America who either chased her or avoided her for the better part of a year will be in the Oaks starting gate.
The Friday weather in Louisville is expected to be perfect, with afternoon highs in the low- to mid-70s and sunny skies, so expect a dry track and a Churchill Down facility full of happy fans. Last year 125,000 packed into Churchill Downs and set a record, so it wouldn’t be a surprise for that record to fall a year after racing saw its first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
Over the course of history, the Oaks has been run at several distances from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/2 miles, but has been contested at the current nine furlongs since 1982.
Since it was first contested in 1875, some amazing ladies have worn the blanket of Oaks lilies after a victory, a virtual “Who’s Who” list of female legends of the turf, including Modesty, Princess Doreen, Black Maria, Easter Stockings, Alcibiades, Wistful, Real Delight, Cicada, Blue Norther, Dark Mirage, Susan’s Girl, Bold ’n Determined, Princess Rooney, Fran’s Valentine Open Mind, Lite Light, Silverbulleday, Bird Town, Ashado, Rags to Riches, Blind Luck, and perhaps most notably, 2009’s Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra.
One of the most poetic twists involving this year’s Oaks is that Rachel Alexandra’s only daughter, now aptly named Rachel’s Valentina, has been installed the 7-2 favorite to repeat where her mama made a worldwide name for herself seven years ago. The daughter of Bernardini has never disappointed or failed to shine, breaking her maiden by two lengths last summer and following it up with a strong victory in the Spinaway Stakes (GI). Her runner-up finish to Songbird in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) was better than the 5 3/4-length defeat that shows on paper and, after her winter freshening, she finished an impressive second to longshot closer and fellow Oaks runner, Weep No More, in the Ashland Stakes (GI) in her first start of the year.
The knocks against her, despite her current position as morning-line favorite, are:
- She hasn’t won in her only two starts around two turns.
- She is making only her second start off a layoff.
- She’ll be facing an extremely tough field while attempting nine furlongs for the first time.
Still, it’s hard to argue that she isn’t in capable hands with trainer Todd Pletcher at the helm, since he’s won three Oaks so far in his career, and she’ll also be ridden by Hall of Famer John Velazquez, who won this race for Pletcher in 2004 aboard Ashado.
Though the 11 post position isn’t ideal for this proven stalker, she is bred to be a force, has trained like she’s a force and carries some forceful connections in her trainer, jockey and owner Stonestreet Stables. Rachel’s Valentina is a deserving favorite under the Twin Spires, but she will need to be sure to put it all together perfectly to defeat this field and wear the blanket of lilies.
For months, Land Over Sea chased champion Songbird and finished behind her a whopping five times, producing three seconds, a third and a seventh-place finish. But the minute she got out of the champion’s shadow, she shined like the sun and won the Fair Grounds Oaks (GII) by an eye-popping 4 1/2 lengths. She has been more than just a confirmation that Songbird is heads and shoulders the best of her division, she also proved her own mettle and resilience and has always showed up with her best.
While the Oaks field is tough and deep, she is nothing if not consistent and has put up some really strong numbers, both in terms of speed and pace figures. While owner Paul Reddam, trainer Doug O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez have yet to win an Oaks, it’s hard to argue with how they prep horses for big races considering they’ll be partnering to send favored champion Nyquist out in the Kentucky Derby the following day and have already won the roses with I’ll Have Another in 2012.
The knocks on Land Over Sea here are that she’s only won two of her eight career starts, regardless of competition, and the runner who was second to her last time out, Dream Dance, is a 30-1 outsider in here, which may indicate the level of competition she defeated. The daughter of Bellamy Road is bred to handle the stretch-out and though never much of a morning glory, surely has to be fit from racing three times so far this year. While the 13 isn’t an idea post position, she’s shown some versatility in her running style and can sit up on the pace or a few lengths back and still be able to close, so that characteristic could only help her chances in here. With her best, a trip to the winner’s circle would not be a surprise.
At one point, it seemed like there was a bit of a rivalry brewing between the best in the West in Songbird and the best in the East in Cathryn Sophia. The latter won her first four races, including two graded stakes, by a combined margin of 30 1/2 lengths and was considered a formidable opponent to challenge the champ on the first Friday in May. Unfortunately for Cathryn Sophia, Songbird got sick and the matchup would never materialize.
Cathryn Sophia is without a doubt the most accomplished runner in the Oaks field with her record of four wins in five starts, but, unfortunately, her winning races were at a mile or shorter. When she was asked to stretch out to a mile and a sixteenth in the Ashland Stakes last out as the 1-2 favorite, she didn’t show as much of a punch as in her previous races. Nonetheless, she was only beaten a half-length for third that day and was bested by 30-1 chance Weep No More and the aforementioned Rachel’s Valentina, and may only benefit from the experience.
Jockey Javier Castellano is back aboard for a third trip for trainer John Servis and while drawing the 12 hole isn’t perfect, she has proven to be an effective stalker, so a clean break and establishing a preferred position behind the pace will only help her chances.
Weep No More, another graduate of the Mayberry Farm program that produced the likes of Zenyatta and her two sons, was a bit late to the graded stakes party but show up she did, dropping a bomb on the Ashland to win by a neck after closing like a freight train from the back of the pack. The daughter of Mineshaft and the Storm Cat mare is absolutely bred for the nine furlongs and is riding an impressive three-race win skein heading into the Oaks.
The Rusty Arnold-trained lass hasn’t shown fireworks in the mornings, but fitness shouldn’t be too much of a question in this, her fourth start of 2016. Top Churchill Downs jockey Corey Lanerie returns after the exciting upset last time, and her post position of two shouldn’t be a tremendous concern considering her late running style. Hard to believe she’ll go from a 30-1 chance in her last to one of the public’s top selections in here, but stranger things have happened.
Lewis Bay was an impressive winner of the 1 1/8-mile Gazelle Stakes (GI) at Aqueduct a month ago on a muddy track by 1 ½ lengths over today’s rivals Royal Obsession and Mor d’Amour. In fact, she is the only winner at this distance, let alone the only two-time winner, having taken last year’s nine-furlong Demoiselle Stakes (GII) back in November. The well-bred daughter of Bernardini and the grade 3-winning Summer Squall mare Summer Raven is in the expert hands of trainer Chad Brown and leading jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. returns to ride, two things that only help her chances. Her post position three is perfect for her to establish her nice mid-pack position after a good break and be able to rate until the pacesetters in front of her start to tire.
Go Maggie Go, coming off a nice victory last out by 2 1/2 lengths in the Gulfstream Park Oaks (GII), may be the lone legitimate speed in this field and could own the goods to steal this one from out on the front end, especially if nobody goes with her early. It’s hard to tell what she’d prefer to do with just two career races under her belt, but since she seems to own some natural early speed, predicting she’ll easily get to the front from post position four after a good break wouldn’t be much of a stretch. Luis Saez is back aboard for trainer Dale Romans, and the lightly raced daughter of Ghostzapper appears to be maturing for her biggest career test at the right time.
Terra Promessa won the Fantasy Stakes (GIII) at Oaklawn a month ago to earn her fourth consecutive victory. It was the first time she squeaked out a win, apparently preferring to open up on her rivals, but she had a rough and rank trip that day, fighting with her rider for more than three-quarters of a mile and checking and hopping and jumping in the early going. This headstrong daughter of Curlin will be wearing the familiar Stonestreet silks when she breaks from the rail and have regular jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. aboard, so a good break and establishing position early could make all the difference for her.
Her stablemate, Royal Obsession, has never run a bad race; even her fourth-place finish in the Rachel Alexandra two back was by only 1 ¾ lengths after a very, very wide trip. She’s definitely getting better with each start — numbers-wise — and a best performance is a board-hitting performance here.
Taxable is another Asmussen-trained runner who will look familiar in the Oaks field as her connections, including owner Winchell Thoroughbreds, are two-time winners of the race — with Summerly in 2005 and Untapable in 2014. She just missed to Terra Promessa last out and is improving, so the Oaks will definitely be her acid test.
Hard to have imagined that Venus Valentine, after upsetting the Rachel Alexandra Stakes at nearly 75-1 two back, would be a 30-1 outsider in the Oaks, but she is. Maybe she regressed after dropping that bomb or maybe those behind her weren’t up to racing that day, but either way she will need every ounce of talent she owns to have a say in the final order of finish.
Mokat ships in after her runner-up finish to Songbird in the Santa Anita Oaks last out and while she has shown some talent, this may be a tough spot for her to pick up her initial graded stakes score.
Dream Dance, Mo d’Amour and Paola Queen are longshots for a reason. Absolutely talented, but maybe more suited to softer company, at least at this stage in their careers.
Dothraki Queen will draw into the race if one in the main body is withdrawn. She did win the Pocahontas Stakes (GII) under the Twin Spires last November, but hasn’t done much since a second in the Alcibiades (GII) and third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile FIllies. She’s a good filly, who has had some difficult trips, so if she gets in her connections are no-doubt hoping the outside will help her chances.