Although Kentucky Oaks (G1) queen Abel Tasman isn’t competing in Saturday’s $600,000 Alabama (G1) at Saratoga, three Oaks alumnae are grappling with several up-and-comers in the 1 1/4-mile test.
Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott has a contender in each category – Lockdown, third in the Kentucky Oaks, as well as Elate, just denied by Abel Tasman in the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1).
Juddmonte Farms’ homebred Lockdown is a full sister to Close Hatches, the champion older female of 2014. The siblings have had a similar itinerary for Mott. Although Lockdown fared much better in the Kentucky Oaks than Close Hatches (who was seventh at Churchill Downs in 2013), older sister had won her prep in the Gazelle (G2) and romped in the Mother Goose (G1) later in the summer. Lockdown ended up second in both of those events, well beaten by Miss Sky Warrior in the April 8 Gazelle and unable to catch Unchained Melody (pictured) after a stumbling start in the July 1 Mother Goose (now a Grade 2). Manny Franco picks up the mount since Jose Ortiz switches to stablemate Elate.
Elate was on the Oaks trail herself for a while this spring. Drawing comparisons to three-time Eclipse Award champion Royal Delta thanks to a sensational debut win, Elate placed in the Suncoast and finished an eye-catching third to It Tiz Well in the Honeybee (G3). Unfortunately, she was pulled up in the Ashland (G1) and accordingly dropped from Oaks consideration. But the Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider homebred later turned things around with a 5 1/2-length conquest of the Light Hearted S. at Delaware Park. Back up in class for the Coaching Club American Oaks, Elate gave Abel Tasman all she could handle, and might have even beaten her if not for being pinned in on the rail. Ortiz, Elate’s rider, claimed foul, and the stewards conducted an inquiry before declaring Abel Tasman the official winner. Elate gained stature, however, through her tough loss.
Kentucky Oaks fifth Salty is likewise coming off a difficult trip in the Coaching Club, where she broke slowly and closed for third to Abel Tasman and Elate. An impressive winner of the Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2) back in April, Salty was also a terrific second to Abel Tasman in the Acorn (G1) on Belmont Day. Rounding out the trio from the Kentucky Oaks is 10th-placer Mopotism, a much-improved second in the Summertime Oaks (G2) at Santa Anita and the Indiana Oaks (G3) in her last pair.
Unchained Melody has been installed as the 3-1 favorite on the morning line for the Alabama, her first attempt around two turns. Unraced at two, the Brian Lynch trainee scored first time out at Gulfstream Park in March over Actress and then checked in second at Keeneland. That remains her only loss, for Unchained Melody has since won twice going 1 1/16 miles (around one turn) at Belmont Park. She used her early speed as a weapon in the Mother Goose, and once again looms as the projected front runner at Saratoga. If Unchained Melody can last the 1 1/4-mile distance, she’ll put up a fight.
The only two fillies proven at the trip are multiple Grade 1-winning turf star New Money Honey, who tries dirt for the first time, and Holy Helena, a new celebrity thanks to her heroics on the synthetic Tapeta track at Woodbine. Both must answer the surface question here.
New Money Honey has the pedigree and running style to transfer her game to the dirt, as I argued over on the TwinSpires.com blog. And we know that she has the class. The Chad Brown pupil has swept the two marquee races held so far in her division, last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1) and the 1 1/4-mile Belmont Oaks Invitational (G1) in her latest. Like Elate, she’s by Medaglia d’Oro and bred along similar lines to his outstanding daughters, Rachel Alexandra and last year’s Alabama heroine Songbird.
Holy Helena has won on dirt, but that was just a Belmont maiden second time out for Jimmy Jerkens. Shipping north of the border to take on fellow Canadian-breds, she transitioned seamlessly to the Tapeta in the Woodbine Oaks. Holy Helena was devastating last time out in the Queen’s Plate, where she readily beat the boys in the 1 1/4-mile classic. Now the daughter of Hall of Famer Ghostzapper will try to perform at the Grade 1 level on dirt.
Another late developer worth watching is the aforementioned Actress. By Tapit and out of Canadian champion Milwaukee Appeal (runner-up in the 2009 Alabama), Actress needed the stretch-out to two turns to break her maiden in the Black-Eyed Susan (G2). The deep closer wasn’t suited by the pace set-up next time in the Delaware Oaks (G3), making her close third to It Tiz Well a bit better than it looks on paper. Chances are the pace scenario won’t be particularly fast, but perhaps the added distance can help. The 15-1 shot gets a key rider switch to Irad Ortiz Jr. too.
It Tiz Well, already mentioned as the Honeybee and Delaware Oaks winner, was a hampered fifth (promoted to fourth) in Santa Anita’s Summertime Oaks. Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer of Songbird fame, It Tiz Well has also placed to stablemate Unique Bella in the Santa Ynez (G2) as well as to Paradise Woods and Abel Tasman in the Santa Anita Oaks (G1). So although not a Kentucky Oaks runner, she’s been facing some elite three-year-old fillies.
Photo of Unchained Melody beating Lockdown courtesy of NYRA/Coglianese Photography/Annette Jasko