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Kentucky Oaks Preview
The $1 million Kentucky Oaks (G1) is the nation’s premiere race for three-year-old fillies. Six of the past 10 winners were crowned divisional champion at the end of the season, and Friday’s 137th renewal highlights a dynamite card at Churchill Downs that includes six stakes. Probable favorite R Heat Lightning dropped out of consideration earlier in the week due to a knee injury, but a strong field of 13 remains in the “Run for the Lilies.”
The Oaks will be televised live on VERSUS from 5-6 p.m. (EDT).
Joyful Victory is the one to beat in the 1 1/8-mile event. Transferred to trainer Larry Jones after her two-year-old campaign, Joyful Victory recorded smashing victories in both starts this year at Oaklawn Park, scoring by 8 ¾ lengths in the Honeybee (G3) prior to a seven-length romp in the April 10 Fantasy (G2).
She’s improved significantly since her only previous appearance at Churchill Downs, recording a non-threatening fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) last November, and Joyful Victory’s 111 BRIS Speed rating from the Honeybee is by far a field-best. The gray lass turned heads earlier this week with a blazing five-furlong workout over a wet track at Churchill Downs, so the possibility of showers Friday shouldn’t affect her.
Joyful Victory didn’t receive the best draw in post 1, but she’s tractable enough to drop in behind the speed in order to secure decent positioning into the first turn. Jockey Mike Smith will then look to settle in midpack, biding his time before beginning to attack on the final turn.
Kathmanblu and Zazu also rate as serious contenders.
The Kenny McPeek-trained Kathmanblu will make her first start over the track since an eye-catching 8 ½-length win in the Golden Rod (G2), the headliner for two-year-old fillies in Churchill Downs’ November meet, and was top class on both dirt and turf last year. The versatile filly opened 2011 with a victory in the grassy Sweetest Chant at Gulfstream Park and switched back to the main track for the Rachel Alexandra (G3) at Fair Grounds, rallying to a 1 ¼-length decision.
Kathmanblu exits a troubled third over Keeneland’s Polytrack in the April 9 Ashland (G1), traveling extremely wide around both turns, and the late runner is eligible to improve upon that effort Friday. She’s well-drawn in post 4 with Julien Leparoux.
Southern California invader Zazu will bring stellar form into the Oaks for trainer John Sadler. A neck second when opening this year in the seven-furlong Santa Ynez (G2), the gray filly relished the additional ground in the two-turn Las Virgenes (G1) next out, impressively outkicking the well-regarded Turbulent Descent by 1 ¼ lengths in the one-mile event. That rival exacted a measure of revenge in the March 5 Santa Anita Oaks (G1) at 1 1/16 miles, barely holding by a neck following a desperate rally from Zazu, but the runner-up managed a 111 BRIS Late Pace rating.
Zazu has been freshened 62 days for the Oaks and figures to relish the additional ground with her pedigree and run style. The gray also appears to be training well in preparation and made a nice impression when visiting the track at Churchill Downs for the first time Wednesday. Top California pilot, and regular jockey, Joel Rosario will be in for the mount, and Zazu received a favorable starting position in post 6.
Joyful Victory is the 5-2 favorite on the morning line, and Kathmanblu and Zazu are both 4-1 co-second choices.
A couple of intriguing fillies, Summer Soiree and Plum Pretty, come next on the morning line at 5-1.
Summer Soiree will look to flash to the front and lead all the way. She smoked her rivals on the engine two starts back at Oaklawn Park, winning a two-turn allowance by 9 ¾ lengths, and turned in a stirring 10 ¾-length runaway performance in the March 26 Bourbonette Oaks (G3) last out on Turfway Park’s Polytrack. The rapidly-developing filly was sold to Team Valor International and transferred to Graham Motion following her last start, and her connections had to be pleased with post 3. Gabriel Saez retains the mount on the speedy miss.
Plum Pretty is trained by the Hall of Fame conditioner Bob Baffert, who won the 1999 Oaks with Silverbulletday, and the bay walloped overmatched rivals by an amazing 25-length margin in the March 27 Sunland Park Oaks, netting her first stakes win as well as a 102 BRIS Speed rating. She recorded non-threatening thirds in the Santa Ynez and Las Virgenes prior to that, but those were only the respective second and third starts of her young career. Plum Pretty is a candidate to keep moving forward off her encouraging win last time, but post 12 could hurt her chances of making an impact on the class hike. She likes to sit close and jockey Martin Garcia will have to find a way to secure a good trip without compromising her during the early stages.
The remaining contestants are considered outsiders, all listed at 12-1 or higher.
Maiden winner St. John’s River is easily dismissed from post 13, but she’s a bomber (high-odds runner) to consider for the bottom of the top three. Listed at 30-1 on the morning line, the one-dimensional filly will drop to the back of the pack after the gates open with hopes of making a dynamic late run. A full sister to multiple Grade 1 winner Panty Raid, the Andrew Leggio Jr. trainee waited too long to offer her best in the 1 1/16-mile Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) last out, but received a 109 BRIS Late Pace rating after closing with a rush to record a close second. Her last three starts are all respectable, albeit against second-tier rivals, and she’s crying out for more distance. St. John’s River figures to love the stretch out to 1 1/8 miles.
Lilacs and Lace merits a look off her Grade 1 victory in the Ashland, but she’s probably better on turf or synthetics. Fair Grounds Oaks winner Daisy Devine may contribute to the early pace from post 9, but the added distance and class hike loom as potential obstacles for the hard-trying filly to overcome.
Bouquet Booth showed promise over the winter, recording back-to-back stakes victories, but she’s tailed off in her last two starts against better rivals, finishing fourth both times. She’ll need to improve significantly to challenge. Her Smile could move up in her first start for Todd Pletcher, who captured the 2007 Oaks with Rags to Riches, but the dark bay has struggled against lesser company in her recent starts.
Holy Heavens, Street Storm and Suave Voir Faire don’t look fast enough to make a serious impact.
Joyful Victory is the top selection; she’s sitting on another big race for Jones, who won the 2008 Oaks with Proud Spell and has displayed plenty of confidence in recent weeks, comparing Joyful Victory in spirit to the ill-fated Eight Belles, who finished an excellent second in the 2008 Derby. Look for Joyful Victory to rally to the lead by midstretch and carry her momentum to the wire.
Kathmanblu is an imposing presence -- she’s received three solid preps in advance of the Oaks and could be ready for a career best returning to Churchill Downs – and will try to reel in Joyful Victory late. But she winds up in the second slot.
St. John’s River offers the opportunity for value in third. The longshot will be picking off rivals in the stretch run beneath jockey Rosie Napravnik.
Zazu is difficult to leave out of the top three, but her lack of a top BRIS Speed rating is a major concern (career-best 96). We respect her chances from off the pace, but will let her prove us wrong in the fourth slot.
Summer Soiree rates a chance to steal the race on the front end at decent odds. The main concern is whether a couple of other front runners, Lilacs and Lace and Daisy Devine, will soften her up on the early lead. She’s a very promising filly, so we wouldn’t dissuade anyone from using the promising lass on the class hike, but she rounds out our top five.
Enjoy the Oaks!