Come Over to the Dark SideThe Kentucky Oaks is Where It's At
By Valerie Grash
Admit it. Injured contenders falling by the wayside; highly touted colts failing to perform to expectations; and generally unsatisfying, unpredictable results in the Derby preps have you feeling confused, pessimistic or even downright depressed. Uncle Mo, The Factor, To Honor and Serve, Rogue Romance, Premier Pegasus, Soldat, Brethren…the lengthy list of disappointments grows exponentially as the first Saturday in May draws nearer, while Brilliant Speed, Midnight Interlude, Animal Kingdom, Watch Me Go, Twice the Appeal and Toby’s Corner join a motley list of likely Derby starters. It’s enough to make your head spin.
Honestly, don’t you think it’s time you came over to the dark side? The Kentucky Oaks is where it’s at, folks. Unlike their male counterparts, this year’s 3-year-old filly crop has demonstrated intense competitiveness with scintillating performances and race times comparable to – or better than – the 3-year-old colts. Moreover, the best female contenders are getting stronger with each race, and emerging contenders validate prior good form – another difference from the sophomore colts.
Topping the list of stellar 3-year-old fillies are R Heat Lightning and Joyful Victory, both impressive dual-graded stakes winners since February. How impressive? In each of their four graded stakes wins, they devastated their opponents by more than seven lengths. Obviously, it’s tough to compare times over different tracks and at slightly differing distances. However, run on the same day, over the same track and at the same distance, the G1 Florida Derby and G2 Gulfstream Oaks make a legitimate point of comparison between male and female competitors. Both winners, Dialed In and R Heat Lightning, carried 122 pounds and ran against virtually the same number of foes (eight in the Derby, seven in the Oaks). Yet the fillies led by R Heat Lightning covered the 9-furlong distance in 1:49.27, nearly a full second faster than the boys (1:50.07) did one race earlier – and, particularly importantly, they closed faster (12:77 to 13:69) in the final split.
In terms of continued strong form, consider the top four finishers in Santa Anita’s Grade 1 Las Virgenes back on February 5 – Zazu, Turbulent Descent, Plum Pretty and May Day Rose, respectively. Next out, Kentucky Oaks-bound Zazu narrowly lost the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks to Turbulent Descent, winner of the Grade 2 Beaumont at Keeneland on April 17. Plum Pretty destroyed a far less talented field in the Sunland Oaks – by 25 lengths – to punch her ticket to Kentucky, while May Day Rose followed up a disappointing Santa Anita Oaks performance with a win over Hearts On Fire in the Instant Racing Stakes on the Arkansas Derby undercard.
Let’s keep connecting the dots. In late January at Oaklawn, Hearts On Fire lost an allowance race by nearly 10 lengths to Summer Soiree, a War Front filly who next out crushed the Grade 3 Bourbonette Oaks by nearly 11 lengths – a performance impressive enough to cause her owner/breeder Brereton Jones to accept a doubtlessly obscene amount of money from Team Valor to sell her. The fourth-place finisher in the Bourbonette, Lilacs and Lace, returned a mere two weeks later to capture the Grade 1 Ashland. She’s now Kentucky Oaks bound as well.
Late Oaks nominations include the lightly raced and regally bred Arienza, daughter of 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri, who was a distant runner-up to Joyful Victory in the Grade 2 Fantasy; and Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks runner-up St. John’s River, a full sister to Grade 1 American Oaks victress Panty Raid. Other legitimate Oaks contenders include Grade 2 Fair Ground Oaks winner Daisy Devine and fast-closing third-place finisher Niji’s Grand Girl. Grade 3 Rachel Alexandra winner Kathmanblu disappointed ever so slightly in finishing third in the Grade 1 Ashland, but her connections feel confident about her Oaks chances, considering how well she ran over the Churchill track in last November’s Grade 2 Golden Rod.
With this group of powerful and accomplished fillies set to run on May 6, the Kentucky Oaks promises to be a dynamic and competitive event, so as hard as it may be, avert your eyes from the train wreck that is the Kentucky Derby and rejoice in the true talent on display in the Oaks. You never know how it might pay off – or if the next superstar will be born. Consider this: since 2007, more Kentucky Oaks winners have gone on to win the Preakness or Belmont than Kentucky Derby winners have, thus the time has come to give the fillies their due.