The Kentucky Derby is America's greatest horse race, the one owners, trainers and jockeys want to win more than any other. But from a purely competitive standpoint this weekend at Churchill Downs, the marquee race on Friday – the $1 million Kentucky Oaks, Churchill's championship event for 3-year-old fillies – promises to be in a league of its own, sporting the deepest and most competitive field in the race's 139-year history. The 10-horse field includes three unbeaten fillies, and yet none of the three is expected to start as the betting favorite.
Instead, the public choice could be Dreaming of Julia, who ran the fastest race by a 3-year-old this year – male or female – when she won the Florida Oaks at Gulfstream Park by the length of the grandstand, her fourth victory in six career starts. Or it could be Beholder, the speedy invader from California who captured the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last fall at Santa Anita.
The 10-horse field includes three unbeaten fillies, and yet none of the three is expected to start as the betting favorite.
Those two will tackle the unbeaten trio of Midnight Lucky (2 for 2), Close Hatches (3 for 3) and Unlimited Budget (4 for 4). All told, the 10 Oaks entrants have combined to win 34 of 57 starts.
“It's the best Oaks I've ever seen, and I've been here 32 or 33 years,” trainer Bernie Flint said Thursday. Yet Flint, a four-time Churchill Downs training champion who will saddle 20-1 outsider Seaneen Girl in the Oaks, is confident that his horse has a big chance against the big girls.
“We're a graded-stakes winner right here at Churchill Downs, and that was when she was a lot younger,” Flint said of Seaneen Girl, who practically blew up the tote board when she won the Grade 2 Golden Rod in November and paid $64 for a $2 win ticket. “I think we're going to get 'em. I think all those big fillies have been running hard to try to get the points, and they've used them quite hard. I think we've got a fresh horse and that's what it takes.”
So forget Dreaming of Julia for a moment – though that could be difficult after she ran nine furlongs in 1:48.97 in the Florida Oaks, nearly two full seconds faster than Orb in the Florida Derby on the same afternoon. The long shots in this Oaks field have impressive resumes, too.
Princess of Sylmar has won four of six starts but is 20-1 in the morning line. Rose to Gold (15-1) has won five of seven starts. Pure Fun won the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet in December but is 30-1 in the Oaks.
Among the horses who might offer a profitable betting opportunity, there's been a lot of backstretch buzz about Close Hatches, a 6-1 shot who is handled by Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott and will be ridden by the scalding-hot Joel Rosario. How often does one get 6-1 on an undefeated Mott filly with Rosario in the driver's seat?
Pure Fun's trainer, Ken McPeek, said he will reserve judgment on the quality of this Oaks field for at least a few months.
“It's hard to say how good it is. That will hash out in the fall when they start running against older mares,” McPeek said. “But our filly is a good filly. She's been off form and we're trying to get her back on the surface she really likes.”
"It's the best Oaks I've ever seen, and I've been here 32 or 33 years.”
Pure Fun, like so many other horses, fell victim to the delicate balancing act that trainers encounter when trying to round a horse into peak form for a specific target, in this case the Kentucky Oaks. After winning the Hollywood Starlet on Dec. 8, she didn't start again until March 23 in the Bourbonette at Turfway Park.
“We were going to run her in the Honeybee and the Fantasy, that was the plan, but nothing goes as planned, normally,” McPeek said. “She got behind schedule, we had to use the Bourbonette as her first prep, she came out of that with a slight fever for three days, and we couldn't run back in the Fantasy. So nothing has been straight-line.”
Pure Fun will have to run a straight line, and quickly, to take down a field of potential superstars. Beholder has seldom been headed in her eight-race career, while Midnight Lucky, long shot Silsita and a few others all possess a quick turn of foot. The pace should be fierce. The prize – an estimated $564,200 to the winner, plus the traditional garland of lilies – is there for the taking.
“I think that's a good thing for her,” McPeek said of Pure Fun. “She's going to be laying back and waiting to make her run. That's the way we want it.”