The 139th running of the Kentucky Oaks appears to be one of the strongest in recent years, with several standouts like Dreaming of Julia and Unlimited Budget as well as juvenile filly champion Beholder expected to line up. In fact, not since 2007 has the champion two-year-old filly contested the Oaks, and one has to go all the way back to 1999 and Silverbulletday to see the Eclipse Award-winning juvenile filly win the Race for the Lilies.
While any one of Friday's runners would have been the obvious choice in prior years, these fillies had the misfortune to be born in the same year. And not only in the same year, but three years before Churchill Downs instituted a new points system to make the Kentucky Derby field. It would not have been surprising to see the connections of a couple of these opt for the Derby instead of the Oaks in the older graded earnings method, but they would have had to face the boys in a points race to gain any kind of ground into making the Run for the Roses. Only one took on that task, but trainer Kenny McPeek said even before Pure Fun competed in the Lexington that it was just a tightener for the Oaks.
Trainer Todd Pletcher holds a strong hand in Saturday's Kentucky Derby, but his prospects don't end there. On Friday, the five-time Eclipse Award-winning conditioner has four of the likely 11 runners in Kentucky Oaks 139, and there is a very good possibility he'll come up aces on both days.
Speed seems to be the byword for Oaks 139, and a fast surface on Oaks Day could see the current record of 1:48.64 shattered by any number of runners from this star-studded group.
With all of this in mind, I took on the task of weighing the strengths and weaknesses of all the fillies who are likely to enter the starting gate on May 3. They are ordered, not by preference, but by points standings.
1. Beholder (164)
Pros: Beholder has already proven herself capable of leading a field all the way home, a move that has paid off with wins in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, Las Virgenes and Santa Anita Oaks. The swift filly was originally thought more suited to sprint distances but has carried her speed up to 1 1/16 miles thus far. Her only setback this season actually came in the 6 1/2-furlong Santa Ynez, where the Richard Mandella charge ran second but was diagnosed soon after the race with a throat ulcer that has since been cleared up. Beholder has proven quite adept at holding enough in reserve to fight in the stretch if challenged, and there have been 24 previous wire-to-wire winners in the Oaks.
Cons: Front-running miss could burn herself out on the lead. There is so much early speed in this field that, even if she gets away with the lead, the others could force a swift pace, leaving Beholder with nothing left for the stretch run. She'll also be trying to stretch her speed through 1 1/8 miles for the first time and, though she's done well at 8 1/2 furlongs, the bay filly has yet to face a field of this quality in 2013.
2. Rose to Gold (164)
Pros: Unheralded filly is flying under the radar heading into the Kentucky Oaks and could go off at a nice price. She's captured her last two by easy margins, including a 4 1/2-length triumph in the Fantasy over a sloppy, sealed, track at Oaklawn Park. Rose to Gold actually floated over that sloppy course, which only enhances her chances considering how mercurial spring weather is in Kentucky. She also brings in one of the top jocks at the track in Calvin Borel, who has really meshed with his mount. Rose to Gold has taken a shine to Churchill Downs' dirt, breezing half-miles in :48 1/5 and :47 4/5 in her past two moves.
Cons: Chestnut miss just does not seem to have the speed to go early with others in this field, and she has done her best running on or pressing the front. Rose to Gold could either find herself chasing a faster-than-normal pace or be forced to try new tactics of settling in midpack before putting in a run late. Both of those moves have the potential to backfire.
3. Unlimited Budget (160)
Pros: This unbeaten filly is exiting a win in the Fair Grounds Oaks, a race that has traditionally produced both Kentucky Oaks winners and top-three finishers. In fact, the 1 1/16-mile contest saw the winner go on to take the Kentucky Oaks in back-to-back years, twice, thanks to Ashado (2004) and Summerly (2005), and then Proud Spell (2008) and superstar filly Rachel Alexandra (2009), the latter of whom devastated the Kentucky Oaks field by a still-standing record of 20 1/4 lengths. Unlimited Budget could continue that tradition considering last year's Kentucky Oaks diva, Believe You Can, scored in the Fair Grounds Oaks one race prior. The other stakes Unlimited Budget has captured have also produced Kentucky Oaks winners, and the bay miss has proven quite capable of closing from off a fast pace to win, as evidenced in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds in her season opener. Trained by Todd Pletcher, who's saddled two Kentucky Oaks winners in Ashado and Rags to Riches, the filly is one of only four in the field with experience at the distance, taking the nine-furlong Demoiselle in her juvenile finale.
Cons: Unlimited Budget might have hit her peak in the Fair Grounds Oaks. She's steadily improved her BRIS Speed ratings, but jumped up to a 102 figure for that race, her first triple-digit number. She also earned triple-digit Early Pace ratings for the contest, and any regression against this field will take her out of contention.
4. Dreaming of Julia (132)
Pros: A 21 3/4-length romp in the Gulfstream Park Oaks. 'Nuff said, right? Well, throw in a 107 BRIS Speed rating that is only topped by Beholder's 110 garnered from a six-furlong dash at Santa Anita and Dreaming of Julia will likely go off favored in the Kentucky Oaks. The bay miss easily took over rounding the turn in the Gulfstream Park Oaks race and merely extended her margin while running under her own power in the lane. She also finished the last furlong in :12.85, meaning the sophomore wasn't slowing down even if she did look like she was merely galloping in the final yards. It should also be noted that Dreaming of Julia's final time in the Gulfstream Park Oaks was 1.9 seconds faster than Orb's final clocking in the Florida Derby four races later on the same card.
Cons: The Todd Pletcher trainee is another who seems to need the lead, or be close, to really put in her best run. During the Juvenile Fillies, she never seemed happy when well-back early, pinning her ears and running wide. She only appeared to settle once ranging up closer to the pace while wide. That same situation came up again in her 2013 opener in the Davona Dale, when Dreaming of Julia found herself chasing a loose-on-the-lead Live Lively all the way home. She was much closer to that rival in the Gulfstream Park Oaks and jockey John Velazquez moved a bit earlier, too, to get her on the lead. A duel between her and Beholder, who also wants the front, can only be detrimental to both fillies, but Dreaming of Julia hasn't done so well with the alternative of stalking either.
5. Close Hatches (100)
Pros: Close Hatches is one of three fillies in Kentucky Oaks 139 who will enter the race with a perfect record, and one of only four with prior experience at the 1 1/8-mile distance. That came when the Bill Mott trainee wired the Gazelle at Aqueduct by 3 1/4 lengths in early April, but her debut proved the Juddmonte Farms colorbearer has the versatility to come from well back and win as well. Sprinting seven furlongs in that January 26 career opener, Close Hatches rallied while wide from more than five lengths back to take command entering the stretch and pull away under a hand ride. Jockey Joel Rosario wrapped up on the filly in the final yards, allowing her to coast under the line, and that experience could end up being even more useful against this year's speedy Oaks field. Close Hatches appears to have the speed to challenge on the front end, but might be better served to bide her time in midpack before putting in a late rally to run down her tiring rivals.
Cons: There have been 10 unbeaten Oaks starters since 1977, but only three of those would go on to capture the Run for the Lilies, with the last coming in 1986 when Tiffany Lass wrapped up a championship three-year-old campaign with a short neck victory in the race. Also, since 1977 there have been 19 Oaks starters who did not race as a juvenile, with only White Star Line in 1978 overcoming that stat to win the race. And finally, there have been 10 fillies since 1977 who entered the Oaks starting gate owning just three prior starts, with Flute in 2001 being the only one to win. Close Hatches will be carrying not only Rosario but the weight of history in her Kentucky Oaks try.
6. Flashy Gray (60)
Pros: Flashy Gray is one of only three in this year's field with prior experience winning under the Twin Spires, that coming when she captured a 6 1/2-furlong sprint by 10 1/4 lengths last November. She was sold and transferred to trainer Bill Mott's barn after that display and proceeded to capture her seasonal bow at Gulfstream by 4 3/4 lengths at seven furlongs. The gray miss was second throughout the Honeybee and Fair Grounds Oaks behind a tough pair, and really improved her BRIS numbers in her last one.
Cons: Flashy Gray had every opportunity to pass Rose to Gold in the Honeybee and Unlimited Budget in the Fair Grounds Oaks, but folded when those rivals answered her challenge. Though she has put forth good efforts going 1 1/16 miles in her past two, the sophomore might relish a bit less ground, as evidenced by her romping wins going sprint distances at Churchill last year and Gulfstream in February. Her prior experience under the Twin Spires, while helpful, may not be enough to overcome this tough group of routing fillies.
7. Princess of Sylmar (50)
Pros: Princess of Sylmar excelled over the inner dirt at Aqueduct over the winter, posting dominating wins against stakes competition that mirrored her 19-length romp when breaking her maiden at Penn National last November. The chestnut earned a stellar 115 BRIS E2 Pace rating for her tracking trip in the Gazelle last out, but it is her well-honed ability to rate that could see the filly in good standing as the field turns for home in Oaks 139.
Cons: The Pennsylvania-bred miss is one of trainer Todd Pletcher's lesser entries and, thus far, has faced reasonable pace scenarios. Despite her game run in the Gazelle, she might not be fast enough to keep up with these. Actually, jockey Javier Castellano kept after the filly in the final yards of the Gazelle, despite the obvious fact that she was already beat, and she was visibly weary when crossing under the wire 3 1/4 lengths behind the winner.
8. Midnight Lucky (50)
Pros: Midnight Lucky sped five furlongs in :59 3/5 on Sunday, outworking stablemate Code West and putting his Kentucky Derby aspirations into question after easily catching the colt despite starting a couple lengths behind. The Bob Baffert miss first came to the attention of racing fans when breaking her maiden debut by 7 1/4 lengths at Santa Anita on February 16, and became a tops Oaks prospect next out with an eight-length romp in the Sunland Park Oaks. In that latter race, the gray filly contested the pace through a swift opening quarter of :21.03 before taking a breather when reaching the half-mile in :46.44. She easily took over not long after and proceeded to set splits of 1:09.95 for six furlongs and 1:34.51 for the mile before finishing up 1 1/16 miles in a track-record time of 1:41.06. In addition to her breeze Sunday, Midnight Lucky also sped six furlongs in 1:12 at Churchill on April 22 to ready for her big day in the Kentucky Oaks.
Cons: Despite the record-setting time, which may have been aided by the sun-baked surface at Sunland Park as evidenced by another record-breaking performance in the Sunland Derby by stablemate Govenor Charlie, Midnight Lucky only earned a 98 BRIS Speed rating for her last race. That was four points lower than the 102 she garnered in her debut, and the competition in the Sunland Park Oaks was nowhere near as tough as what she'll be facing on Friday. It was an easy win, which may actually harm her chances even more as the inexperienced filly has yet to be threatened in her two-race career. Midnight Lucky owns plenty of talent but might find this year's Kentucky Oaks field more of a challenge than she can handle at this time.
9. Silsita (50)
Pros: Silsita went head-to-head with a rival in the Bourbonette Oaks and emerged a nose winner while making her synthetic debut over Turfway Park's Polytrack surface. She also beat juvenile Grade 1 winner Pure Fun, holding her to third in the race. The Todd Pletcher miss has previously proved successful on turf, breaking her maiden at Calder last November while trained by Rodolfo Garcia and then running third against optional claiming rivals in early February. She appears to be trying the same tactics that proved so successful with 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, using turf and synthetic preps, and gains the services of two-time Oaks winning-jockey Gary Stevens for Friday's affair.
Cons: The gray miss beat a 31-1 shot in the Bourbonette Oaks and her BRIS Speed ratings are below others' numbers in this field. In a previous try over a conventional dirt track Silsita finished a well-beaten fourth, leading one to believe her future might lie on either turf or synthetic tracks in the future.
10. Seaneen Girl (34)
Pros: As one of only two true closers in this speed-laden field, Seaneen Girl could pick up the pieces if the top contenders burn themselves out on the front end. She proved more than capable of that when running a close third in the Fair Grounds Oaks last out in her seasonal debut, and also came from midpack to take the Golden Rod at Churchill as a juvenile. In the latter race, the gray filly was wide rounding the turn into the stretch and battled a stubborn Gal About Town into submission to score by a half-length on the wire at 31-1. She was 24-1 in the Fair Grounds Oaks and seems likely to go off at long odds once again in the Kentucky Oaks. Though she seems a cut below the others, Seaneen Girl has already proven her tenacity and ability to out-run her odds.
Cons: As already stated, Seaneen Girl appears outclassed by this stellar field. She has been unable to earn a triple-digit BRIS Speed rating in seven prior starts, and it would take an upset to find the chestnut in the Kentucky Oaks winner's circle.
11. Pure Fun (20)
Pros: Pure Fun ended 2012 on a high note, taking an optional claimer at Churchill Downs by 9 1/4 lengths prior to shipping to California and adding a one-length score in the Hollywood Starlet to her resume. Her best BRIS Speed rating (97) to date came in her Churchill effort, which could mean she has a particular affinity for that surface. Trainer Kenny McPeek has been conservative with the chestnut lass since her eight-race juvenile campaign, giving her a nice break between the Starlet and her sophomore bow in the Bourbonette Oaks. Pure Fun obviously needed the race following the layoff, but still looked a challenger in the lane of the Bourbonette Oaks despite being five wide before settling for third on the wire. Earning a 95 BRIS Speed figure for that effort, she was only 4 3/4 lengths behind the winner when seventh against the boys in the Lexington on April 20, and McPeek made it plain he only ran the filly to get another race under her girth prior to the Oaks.
Cons: Pure Fun's numbers in no way compare favorably to the top contenders in the Oaks field, and her inconsistent record (3-1-2 from 10 starts) doesn't offer much encouragement either. Her Starlet win came against a suspect crowd over a synthetic track, with the best filly in the group unraced since her fourth-placing in that race. We just can't see Pure Fun as a true contender in Oaks 139.