We've been talking about prep races since last fall, but it's finally here: the week of the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks.
We talk about the Derby in a separate piece, of course, but here we take a look at Friday. We'll provide our detailed preview of the Oaks, and then below it, we'll have a table with our picks in all 13 races on Churchill's Friday card. This year's Oaks is a far cry from just a few years ago, when any horse with a smattering of points could enter the race if they wanted -- the race drew a full field of fourteen, plus two talented fillies on the also-eligible list.
As always, feel free to tweet us at @picksponderings or leave a comment if you have any questions, or you want to chat about any of the races coming up at Churchill Downs this Friday!
Selections for Race 1, Race 4, Race 6 (the Edgewood), and Race 10 (the TwinSpires Turf Sprint) are made for turf only.
Race 11: Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1), three-year-old fillies, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 6:12pm EDT
JAYWALK was the champ last year, but she has yet to recreate her form this year -- and, based on her two starts this year, it's looking like she may be one-way speed, at least when she faces tougher horses than a minor sprint stakes at Delaware. That's particularly bad news in this year's Oaks: SERENGETI EMPRESS is another need-to lead type with blazing early pace, MOTION EMOTION has to gun it, and FLOR DE LA MAR, LIORA, OUT FOR A SPIN and BELLAFINA will be breathing down their necks. The pace in the Oaks is going to be a sharp one, and it should set up nicely for a horse who can close.
With this said, BELLAFINA is the one to beat in the Kentucky Oaks -- we're not deluding ourselves here. She has been rock-solid in her three Oaks preps this winter and spring at Santa Anita, and she has the tactical speed to rate kindly and bear down. Yet, her one try when she shipped out of California was a disappointing fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1), and BELLAFINA is going to have to fight a lot harder for this one than she did against her overmatched foes back in California. Given that she'll have to fight for it, while stretching out an extra half-furlong, it's hard to love that her first two dams were sprinters, either. You have to use BELLAFINA, at least defensively, but there are some intriguing horses at better prices.
RESTLESS RIDER won't be a longshot, by any means, but her string of second-place runs and the presence of BELLAFINA will make her a better price than she otherwise would be. That's great news for a horse who comes second off the lay, has never been out of the exacta in seven career starts, and who likes Churchill Downs so much. Though RESTLESS RIDER is marooned on the outside, she handled a far outside gate well enough in the Spinaway (G1) last year, and she should be fine as long as rider Hernandez can drop her somewhere a few lengths from the front. She can bide her time off the hot pace, she can fire whether the track is wet or dry, and her pedigree should be fine for a mile and an eighth.
Stop me if you've heard this one before: Larry Jones has an under-the-radar three-year-old filly, she bursts onto the scene with a win in a final prep, then she wins the Oaks, and we're all banging our heads against the wall, frustrated that we discounted a newer shooter from a barn with such a long-running track record with three-year-old fillies. That's 2015 Oaks winner Lovely Maria in a nutshell, but Jones has another up-and-comer with STREET BAND. She sat off an honest pace before leaving everyone in her wake in the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2). She has matured from ages two to three; last year she felt the need to get right up on or near the pace, but once jockey Sophie Doyle started getting the call, she has begun to rate more kindly off the pace. (If you followed her closely at Arlington last year, you may have noticed the pattern -- she has the occasional speed horse, but has been a particularly good fit with horses who come from off the pace.) STREET BAND does have to navigate an outside post, but if Doyle can find a place to drop her in, they will be finishing smartly into the lane at appealing odds for such a talented, up-and-coming filly.
#14 RESTLESS RIDER (6/1)
#12 STREET BAND (15/1)
#4 BELLAFINA (2/1)
Longshot: There are two real hit-or-miss horses in this race. SERENGETI EMPRESS is the one who tends to take money, and the one who looks likely to get burned up in the pace. #2 CHOCOLATE KISSES (20/1), on the other hand, stands to be a huge price, but also stands to get a more favorable trip in an Oaks so full of one-way speed. She comes in off of a complete non-effort in the Ashland, but it's always been feast or famine with her, and she closed smartly inside two back in the Honeybee. CHOCOLATE KISSES drew the 2 gate today with only the relatively forward OUT FOR A SPIN drawn inside her, so even in this big field, she should be able to save ground and try for that late rally. You need a huge price on a horse as inconsistent as this one -- but you're going to get it, and she could not have a better setup to spring the surprise.
Below are all of Nicolle Neulist's picks for Kentucky Oaks day at Churchill Downs. 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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