With the scratch of Flashy Gray on Wednesday due to a bruised foot, a field of 10 sophomore fillies will line up in the starting gate for Kentucky Oaks 139 on Friday. This year's cast is one of the best assembled in recent history, featuring three undefeated runners and the reigning juvenile filly champion. In fact, in past years it wouldn't have been surprising to see some of these headed to the Run for the Roses one day later, but the introduction of a new points-based qualifying system nixed that idea as it would have forced the fillies to take on the boys prior to the first Saturday in May.
The Derby's loss is the Oaks' gain, but upsets are nothing new to either race. I took a pass on the favorites in last year's Oaks, instead tabbing Believe You Can and jockey Rosie Napravnik in a move that paid very well as the Larry Jones filly was sent off at 13-1 after a 10-1 morning-line price.
Rose to Gold is listed at 15-1 for Friday's Oaks, a pretty high price considering she romped in her last two under Calvin Borel. That jockey has had tremendous success under the Twin Spires, and he's already bonded with his Oaks mount.
The pair first teamed up to take the Honeybee at Oaklawn Park in wire-to-wire fashion, then added a 4 1/2-length decision in the Fantasy to bring their tally to a perfect two-for-two. Prior to that, Rose to Gold opened her sophomore campaign with a nice second in the Martha Washington. Another one who opened her three-year-old season in the Martha Washington, and would make her final prep for the Kentucky Oaks a winning effort in the Fantasy, was Rachel Alexandra. That filly devastated the 2009 Kentucky Oaks with a record-setting 20 1/4-length victory en route to being named that season's Horse of the Year.
While Rose to Gold has quite a ways to reach that pinnacle, the Sal Santoro pupil has nonetheless done pretty well for herself. In addition to the Honeybee and Fantasy she's also captured the Delta Downs Princess and began her career with a pair of double-digit length wins at Calder in stakes. She's posted consistent numbers throughout her time on track and, like many in this year's Oaks, is a speedy type.
Another thing in her favor is winning experience over an off track. With Kentucky's notorious and ever-changing spring weather, the thunderstorm possibility in Friday's forecast only adds to the chances of the Oaks coming up wet. Rose to Gold is one of only three fillies in this bunch who has successfully competed on a surface other than fast. She romped in her debut at Calder on a sloppy, sealed course, then seemed to float over Oaklawn's sloppy, sealed version when taking the Fantasy. The other two, Dreaming of Julia and Unlimited Budget, both prevailed over tracks listed as good, which is just a step down from fast.
While Rose to Gold is my top pick, Unlimited Budget cannot be discounted. The lightly-raced miss has easily captured all four of her lifetime starts for trainer Todd Pletcher, including the Fair Grounds Oaks and Rachel Alexandra down in New Orleans. She's already competed at the Oaks' 1 1/8-mile distance when taking the Demoiselle at Aqueduct in her juvenile finale in November, and has been working up a storm at Churchill Downs since arriving last month.
Unlimited Budget has history on her side, as Believe You Can also captured the Fair Grounds Oaks prior to taking the Kentucky Oaks. The New Orleans contest has seen 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)
Unlimited Budget is listed at 7-2 on the morning-line, and with her accomplishments doesn't look to rise very much above that under Javier Castellano.
Dreaming of Julia will likely garner most of the attention on Oaks Day off her 21 3/4-length romp in the Gulfstream Park Oaks. Like many in this field, the Pletcher trainee is coming off a very short prep season, having made her season debut just one race prior to that race when second in her sophomore bow, the Davona Dale. The sophomore miss jumped up big time in the 1 1/8-mile Gulfstream Park Oaks, earning a 107 BRIS Speed rating, but that's a bit concerning.
While Dreaming of Julia did open her career with a pair of easy wins in New York, she had never before put together a performance like her last one. The increase in numbers and effort may mean the bay filly has already peaked, something that could be detrimental against this field, especially at probable low odds.
While I consider Rose to Gold a legitimate win prospect at good odds, I'm also tabbing Seaneen Girl as a possible longshot play at 30-1 on the morning line.
The Bernie Flint runner has made just one start this year, rallying for third behind Unlimited Budget in the Fair Grounds Oaks. She closed out 2012 with a nice half-length score in the Golden Rod under the Twin Spires to gain valuable seasoning at Churchill. Seaneen Girl also gets Napravnik in the saddle for the Oaks, a move that paid off pretty well in Oaks 138 with Believe You Can. The chestnut filly looks up against it with this stellar group, but stranger things have happened and Seaneen Girl could make it back-to-back wins for Napravnik.
Beholder appears to be the controlling speed for Friday's Oaks, but that could backfire on the Richard Mandella pupil. Last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies heroine dropped her 2013 opener in the Santa Ynez, but was diagnosed with a throat ulcer following her close second in that race. Easy wins in the Santa Anita Oaks and Las Virgenes proved that problem has cleared up, and Beholder is likely to move straight to the lead when the gates open.
Even though those tactics have worked in the past, the other speed in the race could force her hand a bit and the bay filly might have nothing left in the final yards as she tries nine furlongs for the first time in her initial foray outside of California. I absolutely respect Beholder and all she's done, but just can't see backing her at probable low odds on Friday.
Close Hatches made her racing debut in January and would be the first unraced juvenile since White Star Line in 1978 to win the Oaks. Trained by Bill Mott, the dark bay miss was a gate-to-wire winner of her stakes bow when taking the 1 1/8-mile Gazelle at Aqueduct in early April while only facing five suspect rivals that day. She's been flying over Churchill's track in the mornings but, like Beholder, her early speed could burn out before she hits the wire.
Midnight Lucky burned up the track in the Sunland Park Oaks for trainer Bob Baffert, and with the defection of his Derby horses is the trainer's only real shot at standing in the spotlight this coming weekend. The gray miss is extremely talented, as evidenced by her record-setting performance in the Sunland Park Oaks as well as the 107 BRIS Speed rating she earned for her debut, but she's never faced a situation like the Kentucky Oaks. The huge crowd and all the distractions that come with Kentucky Derby week might cause the lightly-raced filly to lose her composure a bit. Also, while her win in the Sunland Park Oaks was impressive, the other record set that day implies a blazing fast surface was in play. Midnight Lucky will have every opportunity to showcase her abilities this year, but I don't think she'll do so Friday.
Pure Fun and Princess of Sylmar both look overmatched against this field. The former is exiting a seventh-place run against the boys in Keeneland's Lexington while Princess of Sylmar had a four-race win streak broken when runner-up to Close Hatches in the Gazelle. The pair's long odds seem quite appropriate, but it should be noted that Pure Fun will be getting first-time Lasix for the Oaks, a move that has moved more than one marginal horse straight into the winner's circle.
Silsita is trying the Animal Kingdom path of turf and synthetic preps heading into a major race. Unfortunately for the gray filly, she hasn't displayed the same pizzazz and talent that massive chestnut oozed during his run up to victory in the 2011 Derby. There just aren't that many horses these days who can win on turf, dirt and synthetics like Animal Kingdom, leaving Silsita on the outside looking in for a top-four finish in the Oaks.