By Lynne Snierson
When bursting onto the scene in March, the brilliantly fast Gamine was called a superstar in the making by her Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert.
Gamine gets the chance to fulfill the prophecy when she takes on eight other talented 3-year-old fillies in the $1.25 million Kentucky Oaks (G1) on Friday at Churchill Downs.
Finishing first in all four of her starts by a combined 32 lengths, and with two Grade 1 scores on her resume, Michael Lund Petersen’s $1.8 million dollar purchase comes into the Oaks as the even money favorite with Hall of Famer John Velazquez in the irons.
Johnny V guided Gamine in her last two races: a dazzling, 18 ¾-length romp in the Acorn Stakes (G1) at Belmont on June 20 and a seven-length win in the Test Stakes (G1) at Saratoga on Aug. 8.
“She’s fast. Really fast. She’s brilliant,” said Baffert, the two-time Triple Crown winning trainer and three-time Oaks winner, who will saddle Authentic and Thousand Words in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby (G1). “You need to be at your best right now. She’s been training really well and she shipped well. The most important thing is that she breaks well.”
Departing from post 5 in the 1 1/8-mile Oaks, Gamine is expected to get plenty of fight from the remarkably consistent Swiss Skydiver, the 8-5 second choice on the morning line, who is the other acknowledged leader of this division.
Peter Callahan’s Swiss Skydiver is trained by Kenny McPeek and she will be ridden by Tyler Gaffalione, who was aboard when she took the Alabama Stakes (G1) on Aug. 15, as they break from the rail.
Gamine and Swiss Skydiver, whose only loss in her last five races was a runner-up finish against the boys in the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) two months ago, appear poised to dictate the early pace in a race loaded with speed.
“Tyler is a great jock and we’ll probably let him do his thing,” said McPeek, who has gone winless in nine previous Oaks attempts. “From the inside, we’ll let her run to the first turn. It only takes one horse to get off a little awkward to change everything.”
Gamine has never been behind at any point in any of her races and the triple digit Beyer Speed Figures in her Grade 1 victories attest to her blistering speed. Nonetheless, although she is a daughter of Into Mischief out of a Kafwain mare and bred to handle the nine furlongs, she has yet to answer the question of how far she can carry that speed.
Gamine’s blowout wins have come at 6 1/2 furlongs, 7 furlongs, and one mile. In her second career race at 1 1/6 miles at Oaklawn Park, one in which she was later disqualified for a medication violation, her winning margin was just a neck. The runner-up that day was a fast-closing Speech and the two will tangle again in the Oaks.
Speech, owned by Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Sol Kumin’s Madaket Partners, has also been the runner-up to Swiss Skydiver, who should have no problem with the distance as she is cutting back to 1 1/8 miles from the 1 ¼ miles Alabama.
Speech finished four lengths behind Swiss Skydiver in the Santa Anita Oaks (G2) at 1 1/16 miles on June 6. Then, with neither Gamine nor Swiss Skydiver to contend with, in her last start in the Ashland Stakes (G1) at Keeneland, Speech notched a statement win by three lengths under Hall of Famer Javier Castellano.
Trainer Michael McCarthy will leg up Castellano before they break from post 4.
“We’ve got speed inside of us and speed outside of us so, hopefully, we can get a nice, clean break and tuck in right behind it,” said McCarthy, who competes in the Oaks for the first time although he’s been here three times before with winners Princess of Sylmar, Ashado and Rags to Riches as Todd Pletcher’s assistant. “In the Kentucky Oaks everybody is probably going to be on their ‘A’ game. I have a lot of faith in this filly.”
Kaleem Shah and trainer Simon Callaghan are confident in their filly, Donna Veloce, who just missed in the Starlet Stakes (G1) and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) last year, as well. They’re bringing back the $800,000 yearling purchase and a daughter of Uncle Mo, who is bred for the distance, back from a long six months break
Ricardo Santana, Jr. picked up the mount after Flavien Prat, who has ridden her in all four of her starts, elected to stay at Del Mar due to COVID-19 protocols for jockeys. Once they depart from post 3, he’ll have to figure out the trip on Donna Veloce, who runs well off of a protracted layoff.
The field for the Oaks, from the rail out: Swiss Skydiver (Tyler Gaffalione, 8-5); Tempers Rising (Julien Leparoux, 50-1); Donna Veloce, Ricardo Santana, Jr., 15-1); Speech (Javier Castellano, 5-1); Gamine (John Velazquez, 1-1); Bayerness (Rafael Bejarano, 50-1); Shedaresthedevil (Florent Geroux, 20-1); Hopeful Growth (Manny Franco, 30-1) ; and Dream Marie (Joe Talamo, 50-1).
The has a post time of 5:45 p.m. ET and will be run as the 12th of 13 races on the Churchill Downs Friday card. The race will be broadcast NBCSN as part of the network’s Oaks Day coverage from 3-6 p.m.
Lynne Snierson, a former director of communications at Arlington Park and Rockingham Park, currently is a freelance writer and racing publicist. She covered thoroughbred racing as an award-winning sportswriter for newspapers In Boston, Miami, and St. Louis. She lives in New Hampshire. Secretariat remains her all-time favorite horse.