2015 Kentucky Oaks Day Stakes Preview

It may be the opening week of Arlington on the local scene, but this week Picks & Ponderings takes a road trip to Louisville for Kentucky Derby week.  And we mean “road trip” this week in the literal sense, with our own Nicolle Neulist heading down for the 2015 Kentucky Derby.  But before they take in the First Saturday of May live and in person, we have a little matter to attend to: the First Friday in May.

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Photo courtesy Nicolle Neulist.

Before the craziness and the commotion of the Derby is the Friday card at Churchill, which is just as stellar.  Two Grade One races highlight the card, each of which will be previewed in depth below.  However, Picks & Ponderings also offers selections for the other stakes on the undercard as well.    Both halves of the P&P duo have dissected the stakes in their entirety, and a full grid from both authors is available at the bottom of the page.  The all stakes selections are done in conjunction with Hello Race Fans! as both Paul and Nicolle are on a panel to provide win-only selections for that site as well.

NBC Sports Network will televise Churchill’s races live in a day-long program that airs from 12:30pm to 6:00 pm. HRRN chimes in with live radio coverage on its site, XM 206, Sirius 220, and various affiliates.  HRRN’s coverage is now in tow with Westwood One as well.

Authorship of each race in this piece (to eliminate redundancy) is denoted by initials at the end of the race, PM for Paul Mazur and NN for Nicolle Neulist.  All races in this preview are slated for Friday May 1.

Churchill Downs — Race 7 — G1 La Troienne Stakes — One and one-sixteenth miles on dirt — post time 2:08 pm ET

Inaugurated in 1986 and graded two years later, the La Troienne – as a race for older female distaffers – began life as the Louisville Breeders’ Cup Handicap (or even as the Louisville Budweiser Breeders’ Cup Handicap), which is not to be confused with the Louisville Handicap that is run around Memorial Day at a mile and a half for turf males.  A Grade Two until last year, the race changed namesakes in 2010 when it became the La Troienne Stakes, taking a namesake from a race that was formerly called the La Troienne that is now the Eight Belles (a race for sophomore fillies around one turn).  And if you weren’t able to follow that bouncing ball, just remember La Troienne for what she was: a blue hen. Imported to the United States in 1931 by Col E. R. Bradley (the same one with a Fair Grounds race named for him), she produced fourteen foals – of which twelve made it to the races and four won stakes. One of her foals was Businesslike – who in turn produced Busanda, who produced Buckpasser, who produced Relaxing – the broodmare sire of Easy Goer.  And all of which had stellar racing and/or breeding careers.  This race – with Grade One status and a pot of three hundred grand – for older females on the dirt – has a stakes winners list that includes Jewel Princess (1996), Escena (1998) and Unrivaled Belle (2010) who both won the La Troienne and the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in the same year.  Mares like Spain (2000) and Ginger Punch (2008) have won both the La Troienne and the Breeders’ Cup Distaff but in differing years.

In a rendition of the La Troienne that doesn’t have a a Don’t Tell Sophia or an Untappable or a Beholder or a Close Hatches, we get the “B” team of distaffers. Perhaps ten furlongs of the Delaware Handicap last summer was too far for MOLLY MORGAN, who shows that as her only blemish in the recent past performances.  With five wins and ten top-three finishes in thirteen tries over the Churchill surface, she’s obviously got an affinity for this dirt and wasn’t disgraced in chasing around Don’t Tell Sophia last year.  With none of the amazons here, she holds a class advantage.  With speed from GOLD MEDAL DANCER, there’s a target for her to set sights on.  And she had a yucky outside post going a mile and a sixteenth at Gulfstream.  MOLLY MORGAN exits the G2 Royal Delta at Gulfstream where SHEER DRAMA got a nice press and inherit trip to take down that race at the eight and a half furlongs they’ll travel in the La Troienne.  The Gulfstream form on her has been dazzling with respect to figures.  And down at Gulfstream she traded decisions with House Rules, the most recent winner of the Top Flight during Aqueduct’s spring meet.  SHEER DRAMA must prove the Gulfstream form can translate to Churchill.  While she’s paired off top figures and hasn’t been seen since taking down the Royal Delta, sometimes Gulfstream form doesn’t travel well.  Trainer Bill Mott has two in the box for the G1 La Troienne. One of them is MY MISS SOPHIA, a cast-off from the Todd Pletcher barn that was the runner-up in last year’s Kentucky Oaks but is emerging from a long lay after a clunker in a small stakes at Monmouth..  The other, and more regarded one to these eyes, is AMERICA.  On the radar as a probable for the G3 Sixty Sails, AMERICA has been in mothballs since winning the Affectionately over the Aqueduct Inner Dirt in January.  She got good over the fall and winter at Aqueduct, but she’s taking a step up in class.  Still, she’s part of the racing gift that keeps on giving: the higher price of an uncoupled trainer entry.  Junior Alvarado climbs aboard a runner with a local work over the Churchill surface in late April, and Mott hits at a very respectable 19% wins/47% wins with this length of layoff.

Selections:

#8 MOLLY MORGAN (4/1)

#5 SHEER DRAMA (3/1)

#4 AMERICA (10/1)

Longshot: GOLD MEDAL DANCER looks to be on the engine, duplicating her theft job of the Azeri. MY MISS SOPHIA might join her while being overly keen first of the layoff.  Add in SHEER DRAMA, and the pace could get too hot. #1 TIZ WINDY (15/1) would be helped if this happened, and having Julien Leparoux aboard a closer is an asset.  TIZ WINDY is a homebred of the late Jim Tafel  (of Street Sense and local Street Spice) fame, and this one’s in Carl Nafzger’s barn.  That means Nafzger might not have tightened the screws first off the layoff or even second, as she reported home fifth in her last two outs.  But an even fifth first off the shelf at Gulfstream and a blanket-finish fifth show that the target is here and now.  Blinkers go on for TIZ WINDY in this start, her seventh over the Churchill dirt that she’s won on twice before.  –PM

Churchill Downs — Race 11 — G1 Kentucky Oaks — One and one-eighth miles on dirt — post time 5:49 pm ET

The 141st edition of the Kentucky Oaks (GI) offers a purse of $1,000.000, and drew a full field of fourteen three-year-old fillies plus one also eligible: 2014 Alcibiades S. (GI) winner PEACE AND WAR. The Oaks has been run at Churchill Downs for as long as the Derby, though it was originally run later in May.  Modeled at first after the Epsom Oaks, the earliest editions of the Kentucky Oaks covered 1 1/2 miles.  Through its history it has been run at distances as short as 1 1/16 miles and as long as 1 1/2, but has held steady at its current nine-furlong distance since 1982.  It moved to its customary place on the calendar, the day before the first Saturday in May, in 1946.  Though no Illinois-bred filly has won the Oaks, a pair of stakes on the Chicago summer calendar hearken back to the 1884 running.  Modesty, the namesake of the Modesty Handicap (GIII) at Arlington, won that edition of the Oaks.  That year, jockey Isaac Murphy rode her to his first and only Kentucky Oaks victory.  Murphy, of course, lives on locally as the namesake of a stakes race for Illinois-bred fillies and mares at Arlington Park.

The road to the Oaks goes through CONDO COMMANDO this year.  The sun rises in the east, it sets in the west, and CONDO COMMANDO will send.  Wise guys frequently knock her: “oh, she got a great trip”…”oh, there was a speed bias that day”…”oh, she’s a slop monster”…but, the fact remains that she has gotten the job done every time she has been able to get on or near the lead early.  She had some early pressure in her maiden win, and she also got some hassle from PUCA and ANGELA RENEE at various points in the Gazelle (GII) as well.  She survived, and she thrived.  ESKENFORMONEY has shown enough early pace that she could go with CONDO COMMANDO early if she wants, but if she sat off Ekati’s Phaeton down in Florida instead of playing a game of chicken with her, it would seem folly to want to do so with CONDO COMMANDO.  LOVELY MARIA has also shown early speed, but again, she has shown enough ability to rate that it could be tactical error to send forth and create a snappy early pace for someone else to attack late.  I’M A CHATTERBOX is way too versatile to get into that fight up front, and MONEY’SONCHARLOTTE and SARAH SIS do not have the kind of early speed to make them credible threats up front.  ANGELA RENEE may try, but she has proven time and time again to be a cut below.  A mile and an eighth is no problem for CONDO COMMANDO, as she has won at the distance twice, and she should be sharp as a tack third off the lay.  Knock Rudy Rodriguez if you wish, but his 25% record with shippers also suggests that he would not be sending her out of New York unless he thought she had a chance to win this.  CONDO COMMANDO is going to send, and with no other one-way speed in the field…to get those lilies, you’re going to have to pass her.

Only one horse in this field looks like a threat if CONDO COMMANDO does get loose on the lead, and she looks like just as big a threat if CONDO COMMANDO does get some pressure from an eager horse or an interesting tactical decision: STELLAR WIND.  She began her career at Laurel, scoring an emphatic win the first time she stretched to a mile.  She shipped to California, and won both the Santa Ysabel (GIII) and the Santa Anita Oaks (GI) emphatically.  She should be midpack or near the back early, but not off in the clouds like INCLUDE BETTY or BIRDATTHEWIRE stand to be.  Her turn of foot followed her from Laurel to Santa Anita, and she has dynamite late pace working for her.  She has never gone a mile and an eighth before, but being by Curlin out of a Malibu Moon mare, nine furlongs should be easily within her grasp.  She may just be a faster horse than CONDO COMMANDO, and could prove best no matter how well things set up for the New York speedster early.  If CONDO COMMANDO does get a bit too much pressure, or wither a bit on the class test, STELLAR WIND will have an even better chance.  To borrow a term from poker…STELLAR WIND has a few more outs than CONDO COMMANDO, and thus she gets the nod.

I’M A CHATTERBOX has done nothing wrong at age three.  Fresh off the move to the Larry Jones barn, she danced on the front end in the Silverbulletday, closed to win the Rachel Alexandra (GIII), and stalked and pounced to take the Fair Grounds Oaks (GII).  She has shown great versatility of pace, and Florent Geroux was aboard for all three of those starts — showing he knows how to ride her in any of these ways.  A mile and a sixteenth is the farthest she has gone, though she has covered that with aplomb down at Fair Grounds.  Her class and her consistency are admirable.  A mile and an eighth is a question, being by Munnings.  Still, her dam won going as far as a mile and a sixteenth, and I’M A CHATTERBOX has looked good in her last two starts going that eight and a half furlong trip.  The biggest knock on her are the two uninspiring starts at Churchill Downs.  It could be that she has improved that much on the move to the Jones barn from the Ken McPeek barn, it could be that she has improved at three…but, the possibility remains that she does not love the Churchill track.  For the horse likely to go off favoured here, that may be just enough to make her a tougher sell.

With respect to the undersides of intra-race exotics, sometimes what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  Though Dallas Stewart does not have a Commanding Curve or a Golden Soul in the Derby this year, he does have a credible spoiler type in the Oaks: rail-drawn FOREVER UNBRIDLED.  The field of fourteen, combined with her off-pace style, makes the rail less onerous than it would be in a bigger race like the Kentucky Derby.  Though her only win to date was in a maiden special back in December, she hit the board in all three of the Fair Grounds prep races.  She has never missed the board in five starts, and consistently hit the board against the types she will run against here in the Oaks.  Though FOREVER UNBRIDLED may not go off at the same 47/1 odds as her Stewart-trained dam Lemons Forever did when she won the Oaks in 2006, she should not be far off.  Given both her racing record and her trainer’s Oaks and Derby history, do not ignore her on those lower rungs.

Selections:

#12 STELLAR WIND (7/2)

#5 CONDO COMMANDO (4/1)

#8 I’M A CHATTERBOX (4/1)

Longshot:  #14 PUCA (15/1) was gaining ground on CONDO COMMANDO last out in the Gazelle, going the same distance as the Kentucky Oaks.  She should be even fitter here, third off the lay.  PUCA’s stalking style should keep her within range of the lead no matter how much pressure there is early.  She also gets a rider switch back to Junior Alvarado, who rode her in her first three starts.  The experiments with running farther off the pace, sprinting, and grass were not so great…but as soon as Alvarado had her in a dirt route and got her in a stalking spot early, PUCA demolished the field.

Note that if a bit more pace were likely, INCLUDE BETTY would probably have this longshot spot, but PUCA suits what I see as the most likely pace scenario better.  If you decide others will likely send against CONDO COMMANDO, or that CONDO COMMANDO will falter on the ship, INCLUDE BETTY’s sharp late pace and likely long price merit a hard look. — NN

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