It’s here: Oaks weekend, Derby weekend, the one weekend in which horse racing is most likely to come up in casual conversation among your non-racing friends! As always, we are here to shine some light on the marquee races. In addition to this piece, Picks and Ponderings will feature a point-counterpoint preview of the Kentucky Derby, as well as Paul Mazur’s look at the Grade I Woodford Reserve Turf Classic. Both of these races will be run on Saturday.
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.
Here, however, we focus on the fillies, and Friday’s Kentucky Oaks.
The 142nd edition of the Kentucky Oaks (GI) offers a purse of $1,000.000. This year’s edition drew an overflow field: fourteen sophomore fillies, plus the also-eligible DOTHRAKI QUEEN. 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 Arlington calendar hearken back to the 1884 running. The namesake of the Modesty Handicap (GIII) at Arlington won that edition of the Oaks. It was jockey Isaac Murphy who rode Modesty to that victory, which was his first and only Kentucky Oaks win. Murphy, of course, lives on locally as the namesake of a main-track sprint stakes for Illinois-bred fillies and mares.
Horse Racing Radio Network will stream live audio of the undercard races as well as the Kentucky Derby on its website and other platforms from 3:00pm-6:00pm EDT. NBC Sports Network will also run Oaks Day programming from 12:30pm-6:10pm EDT. In Canada, coverage airs on TSN2 from 12:30pm-6:10pm EDT.
Churchill Downs: Friday, May 6
Race 11: Kentucky Oaks (GI), three-year-old fillies, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 5:49pm EST
Songbird’s defection has the same effect on the Oaks as Toro Grande’s scratch had on last Saturday’s 7th at Hawthorne: it turned a logical single into a wide open affair.
However, with her defection came the horse who some tabbed, at one point, as a possible challenger: CATHRYN SOPHIA. With Songbird in the race, CATHRYN SOPHIA was Eight Belles-bound; now, she goes to the Oaks. However, her Ashland (GI) was a severe disappointment. She has another sixteenth of a mile to cover, and though Carina Mia did not enter the Oaks, one-way sprint speed PAOLA QUEEN did enter. So, to have any chance here, CATHRYN SOPHIA is going to have to stalk off her, make a move, and sustain it at nine furlongs. This space does not buy that she can do that, and will instead wait to back up the trucks on her in an extended one-turn affair like the Test.
Another one this space is taking a stand against (despite its known affinity for her sire) is TERRA PROMESSA. Fantasy win was…rough, to say the least. In contrast to her facile scores in an Oaklawn allowance and then the Honeybee (GIII), she was terribly rank through the Fantasy (GIII). Sure, she held, but between that and the fact that she drew the rail in this full field? Time to look elsewhere.
That “elsewhere” is LEWIS BAY. She comes in off a victory in the slop at Aqueduct, in the Gazelle. However, she has fast dirt form as well, rattling off a pair of wins on a fast surface last year. In terms of pace, she is a stalking to midpack type, and should be able to sit in range off the early pace and get a relatively early run. The distance will not be a problem for LEWIS BAY — she is the only filly in the field to have a win at nine furlongs, and she has a pair of Grade II scores at that distance. In addition to her known distance aptitude, she has the always-solid pair of trainer Chad Brown and rider Irad Ortiz in her corner. Ortiz has been aboard LEWIS BAY for every one of her starts, and this consistent filly has never finished worse than second. With LEWIS BAY flying under the radar while the likes of RACHEL’S VALENTINA, WEEP NO MORE, LAND OVER SEA, and CATHRYN SOPHIA get all the airtime, let’s take a proven nine-furlong horse with top-notch connections at a price.
Though WEEP NO MORE will not be the price she was in the Ashland — or even the price she was in the Suncoast back in February — she proved in both of those starts that she can unleash a wicked closing rally against stakes-quality horses. The fact that she drew the 2 gate worries far less for her than it would many others in this field: she can drop to the back, save ground, and find her trip. That, WEEP NO MORE showed in the Suncoast: she drew the 2 gate in a field of nine, made progress inside, and was not shy about finding a way outside and through. Though her only start over the Churchill dirt was a well-beaten eighth, that came in her career debut going seven furlongs over slop. Toss it — age and a stretch to two turns have done WEEP NO MORE well. With one-way sprint speed in PAOLA QUEEN, and several others who have shown a preferences for stalking close, this race does not stand to fall apart as badly as the Ashland, but there will be some pace. Her two previous wins showed WEEP NO MORE does not need a full-on pace collapse to win.
RACHEL’S VALENTINA is hard to love, as the likely chalk in a field of fourteen. But, despite all the #TeamRachel money, she gets a nod as a defensive use. The Ashland was her first start since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Despite the long lay, she ran a cracker of a race. She did the dirty work pressing Carina Mia though tough fractions in the Ashland, yet still held on to miss by just a neck to a surging WEEP NO MORE. Here, RACHEL’S VALENTINA gets a field of fourteen instead of a field of five, and should not have to send in order to avoid a runaway speed scenario as she did last out. She has every right to get better second off the lay, and the breeding (Bernardini x Rachel Alexandra) has nine furlongs plus written all over it. She also gets John Velazquez (her regular rider from last year) back in the irons. The win odds will be short, but it would be no surprise to see RACHEL’S VALENTINA follow in mom’s footsteps.
#3 LEWIS BAY (8/1)
#2 WEEP NO MORE (9/2)
#11 RACHEL’S VALENTINA (7/2)
Longshot: Though #14 TAXABLE (20/1) fell a neck short behind stablemate TERRA PROMESSA in the Fantasy, she has more upside than the winner for what will almost certainly be a longer price. She gets an outside post, giving her a better hope than many of getting a clean trip. She does have some issues to work through based on her last out; if she had not been drifting around so much late in the Fantasy, perhaps she would have hit the wire first. Still, that was only her third lifetime start, and her second at two. She is lightly raced enough to have a right to take a step forward. TAXABLE was also a bit farther off the pace than she had been set up in the past, suggesting she is still figuring out her running style. There will be some speed in front of her; if she can sit a few lengths off it and uncork a rally like she mustered in her allowance score two back, she will be nicely set. Furthermore, fast Churchill dirt is a known quantity for TAXABLE; she broke her maiden over the surface last summer, in the easiest romp. Though she is no sure thing in the Oaks, TAXABLE should be the sort of price to send you running to the IRS window if she brings her best on Saturday.
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