Kentucky Derby week is here. As always, Picks and Ponderings is on top of it.
This piece focuses on Friday's action. We'll have a horse-by-horse look at the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, which drew a full field of fourteen. The weather calls for some rain on Friday, so we'll take that into account, and make notes on off-track acumen. And, below, we'll have our selections in all six stakes races on Friday's card.
For those who love to cheer on the locals, you'll take a special interest in the Grade 1 La Troienne, as Brian Williamson sends out Illinois-bred mare Streamline. Though Streamline has been a horse for the course at Oaklawn, she has hit the board in all three tries at Churchill Downs, making the La Troienne a logical spot for the next race in her six-year-old campaign.
In a separate piece, we will take a look at Saturday's feature, the Kentucky Derby, and have selections for all of Saturday's stakes races at Churchill Downs.
NBCSN will offer preview coverage of the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby on Thursday, May 3 from 4:00pm-6:30pm EDT. NBCSN will also offer two blocks of Oaks-related programming on Friday, May 4: one from 12:00pm-3:00pm EDT with undercard content, and another from 5:00pm-6:30pm EDT featuring the Oaks. Horse Racing Radio Network will also produce audio coverage of Oaks day, with a broadcast running from 4:00pm-6:30pm EDT on Sirius 219, XM 201, and free on their website.
Selections for the TwinSpires Turf Sprint and the Edgewood Stakes are for turf only.
Churchill Downs: Friday, May 4
Race 11: Kentucky Oaks (G1), three-year-old fillies, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 6:12pm EDT
- SASSY SIENNA (15/1) - This is the third time in a row that SASSY SIENNA has drawn the rail, and she has acquitted herself well from that inside draw. She also has strong tactical versatility, off-track form, and has run good races in multiple shapes. The biggest question is whether SASSY SIENNA is fast enough -- she has to take a serious step up to match her better foes here. SASSY SIENNA is honest enough to try, and perhaps round out a trifecta or superfecta, but she'll need a huge step forward to do better than that.
- COACH ROCKS (12/1) - COACH ROCKS intrigues -- it took her seven starts to break her maiden, but once she got over the hump, she won the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks in her next out. She has shown versatility: COACH ROCKS wired her maiden win, but prevailed from well off the pace in her stakes debut. Luis Saez rode her in both of those races, and returns in the Oaks. Both her wins came at a mile and a sixteenth, and her breeding suggests the extra half-furlong will suit her beautifully. The likely off track is a question, but she has some good enough mud influences to think she'll take to it. COACH ROCKS is getting good at just the right time, and among the horses not named MONOMOY GIRL or MIDNIGHT BISOU? She looks like the one with the best upset chance.
- CLASSY ACT (15/1) - She has an excellent mud pedigree and will be the speed of the speed, and most certainly send from this relatively inside post. But, CLASSY ACT had it all her own way on the front last out in the Fair Grounds Oaks, and tired. Yes, she set fast fractions, but here she not only goes longer, but will have more to deal with up front. She'll be a pace factor, but it seems unlikely she'll be a factor late.
- CHOCOLATE MARTINI (12/1) - One of the best stories of the Oaks, you could have claimed CHOCOLATE MARTINI for $15K in January. Her current connections claimed her for $25K in February, then won an allowance, then won the notoriously live Fair Grounds Oaks (G2). She needs another step forward to be among the best here, but based on her form since moving to the Tom Amoss barn, she's certainly not outclassed. She also gets a switch to Javier Castellano -- a drawback in that Castellano has never ridden her in a race before, though he does have far more big race experience than Mitchell Murrill (who won his first graded stakes with CHOCOLATE MARTINI in the Fair Grounds Oaks). The off track should be fine for her: not only does she have a solid off-track pedigree, but she handled an off track well enough both times she encountered one at Fair Grounds. The biggest question surrounding her is her poor debut at Churchill -- had she not figured it out yet, or did she dislike the track? All in all, though a win may be a little too much to ask, she has improved enough -- and shown enough heart -- to make sense in the exotics.
- WONDER GADOT (20/1) - WONDER GADOT has class, experience, and a win last year at a mile and an eighth. However, the Demoiselle (G2) wasn't the strongest race in the world, and she has not yet found a way to win against real Oaks prospects this year. She keeps coming close -- she hit the board in all four of her preps at age three. Her consistency is a plus, as are her tactical versatility and her off-track pedigree, and she could fill out an exotic. But, there is no compelling reason to think she magically finds her winning ways here.
- KELLY'S HUMOR (30/1) - Kelly's Humor was precocious, and made a good three-year-old debut when finishing second in the Beaumont (G2). But, there are sharper closers in this field, and the stretch out to nine furlongs looks like too much.
- RAYYA (12/1) - Always talented, RAYYA improved as the distances went longer. She left no doubt in the 1 3/16 mile UAE Oaks (G3), and when returning to that distance in the UAE Derby (G2), she finished an honest second behind Mendelssohn. There are questions, though. She has never raced outside Dubai, and without a marked change in running style, she'll likely be close to a strong pace for the distance. Particularly with so much steam on RAYYA leading into the Oaks, the value lies elsewhere.
- HEAVENHASMYNIKKI (50/1) - Loooch always shoots for the stars. Though she was denied entry to make her debut in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last year, she picked up a small handful of Oaks points at Gulfstream; with a handful of defections in front of her, that was enough to get her into the Oaks field. But, she has been a cut below the best of the Gulfstream set, and her pedigree raises serious questions at a mile and an eighth. If she won, she'd be a great story, but at the windows? This Nicky won't have HEAVENHASMYNIKKI in any part of their wagers.
- TAKE CHARGE PAULA (15/1) - TAKE CHARGE PAULA is all class, and has a lot of talent. She even has a win over a sloppy track, a plus given the weather forecast. But, as the races have gotten longer, her performances have gotten weaker. She'll be up near the front, especially as she goes blinkers-on, and will help ensure an honest pace. But, that final furlong or two will do her no favours. Look elsewhere.
- MIDNIGHT BISOU (5/2) - Queen of the west -- once Dream Tree defected from the Oaks trail, no one could stop her. She romped in the Santa Ynez (G2), stretched out beautifully over a wet-fast track in the Santa Ysabel (G3), then posted another open-lengths score in the Santa Anita Oaks (G1). All three of those efforts came from off the pace, but from various places, giving Mike Smith some flexibility in where to place her. The question is whether she can win a down-and-dirty fight, because MONOMOY GIRL might give her one. But, even though she missed both times in close finishes, both of those were only nose defeats when she was very lightly raced -- so she'll at least hold her own, and now she knows the pleasure of victory. Between the two clear standouts, MIDNIGHT BISOU gets top billing in a head-bob.
- MY MISS LILLY (10/1) - Bred well for a mile and an eighth, took a nice step forward in the nine-furlong Gazelle Stakes, and showed a lot of heart. The question remains whether she'll run back to that effort, or regress off of it. It's a positive that she sticks with Joe Bravo, as he tends to run well in big races, no matter what track he's riding at. Perhaps not quite as much upside as COACH ROCKS, but right in that second tier of contenders along with her.
- PATRONA MARGARITA (30/1) - The Texas-bred shocked everyone in the Pocahontas (G2) last fall, but only came home well-beaten for minor shares behind MONOMOY GIRL in her two preps at age three. She needs a big step forward to win this, doesn't have the best mile and an eighth breeding, and runs into sharper closers here. She looks up against it.
- ESKIMO KISSES (15/1) - ESKIMO KISSES rallied for second behind MONOMOY GIRL, one of the clear standouts of the three-year-old filly class, in the Ashland (G1) last out. The strong pace suits her running style. The weather does, too: in her only try over a sloppy track, she came from off the pace and romped by double-digit lengths in an allowance at Oaklawn. She also gets the riding services of Corey Lanerie: her rider in the Ashland, and a strong pilot at Churchill Downs. The poor outing at Churchill last year is the big question, but she's more mature, and will likely get a wet track here, not a dry one. All in all, ESKIMO KISSES has serious longshot potential.
- MONOMOY GIRL (2/1) - Queen of the east -- dominated both the Rachel Alexandra (G2) and the Ashland (G1). She has tactical versatility, having shown the ability to send to the lead or rally from well off it. Expect the latter sort of trip -- something more like what Florent Geroux gave her in the Rachel Alexandra -- between the good bit of speed in the field and the fact that MONOMOY GIRL drew the far outside. She also has form at Churchill, a positive given that some horses just turn out to hate the track. She has the same question as MIDNIGHT BISOU has, about being able to win a close finish, as her only defeat was in her only close finish. But, she was battling for so long on the front that day, something she won't be doing here. MONOMOY GIRL is fast, versatile, classy, and the other prevalent threat to win the Oaks.
#10 MIDNIGHT BISOU (5/2)
#14 MONOMOY GIRL (2/1)
#2 COACH ROCKS (12/1)
Longshot: #13 ESKIMO KISSES (15/1)
Below are Nicolle Neulist's picks for the stakes races Friday at Churchill Downs. This will be updated as they finish handicapping the card. If you have questions about the logic behind any of these picks, please leave a comment or tweet us at @picksponderings!
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