For the second year in a row, the early favorite for the Kentucky Oaks fell by the wayside during the spring prep season. Just like Songbird a year ago, Unique Bella appeared to be set to follow in the footsteps of dominant Oaks winners like Rachel Alexandra and Untapable before a minor injury sent her to the sidelines. However, quite remarkably, less than two weeks after the announcement of Unique Bella’s setback, a worthy understudy stepped into the spotlight. Emerging out of near anonymity, Paradise Woods managed to position herself as the clear and undisputed favorite for the Oaks – and perhaps the top 3-year-old of either sex.
So, now the question becomes: Has this Kentucky Oaks once again turned into a one-horse race? Perhaps. If Paradise Woods repeats her Santa Anita Oaks performance here, she will absolutely crush this field. Yet she hardly needs to run quite that fast to merely win this race. According to both the Beyer and TimeformUS Speed Figures, she could regress 10 points or more and still come away with a victory.
For those looking for reasons to take a shot against the favorite, the TimeformUS Pace Projector offers a glimmer of hope. The early tempo in the Oaks is predicted to be fast, with Paradise Woods (#4) on the lead. However, despite this characterization, this Oaks field is not exactly loaded with front-runners. Rather, Paradise Woods’s trip may be influenced by a few key pace players. Paco Lopez on Miss Sky Warrior (#10) may choose to ride this like a match race and go after the favorite early, as could Channing Hill on Farrell (#7). A closer like Abel Tasman (#13) is most likely to benefit from one of those scenarios, but is she or any other closer fast enough to fully capitalize on the situation?
Let’s try to find those answers as we make our way through the entire field:
#1, EVER SO CLEVER (20-1): The Fantasy winner is one of a few fillies in this race to own a win over the track and has even shown herself to be capable of handling a muddy Churchill surface, which she may encounter Friday. Her late-running style fits the projected race flow, but she appears to be too slow to surpass the best fillies in here. A superfecta candidate at best.
#2, LOCKDOWN (20-1): Despite the size of this field, there are not very many truly interesting longshots. Yet this Bill Mott trainee may be one you want to consider at a price. It’s true that she’s never run a particularly fast race, but there are some reasons to believe that we may not have seen the best of her yet. Making just her third start, this full sister to Close Hatches was a visually impressive winner of the Busanda Stakes in January before getting some time off. When she returned in the Gazelle, she may have needed a race, and Kendrick Carmouche certainly made sure that she got something out of that effort. He aggressively sent this filly after Miss Sky Warrior, and they hooked up for much of the race before the eventual winner asserted her dominance. Lockdown basically stopped in the stretch, but a speed-favoring surface carried her home as she held onto second. With that race under her belt, it’s doubtful that they employ the same tactics here as they seek to work out a less stressful trip. She could surprise with a top-three finish.
#3, MOPOTISM (20-1): In her two Grade 1 attempts, she was trounced by today’s rivals Paradise Woods and Abel Tasman. Those results are not exactly encouraging, but the California 3-year-old fillies were significantly faster than their East Coast and Midwest counterparts this prep season. For instance, how might this filly have fared against Farrell at Fair Grounds this winter? Her Beyers and TimeformUS Speed Figures say she would have been quite competitive, but her odds likely will not reflect that. One to consider when adding longshots to your superfectas.
#4, PARADISE WOODS (5-2): She is not only the fastest 3-year-old in this particular race. Her 107 Beyer and 124 TimeformUS Speed Figures indicate that she may be faster than any of the colts running in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. That Santa Anita Oaks romp was a sight to behold, and she certainly deserves to be a strong favorite in this race. The question is: How comfortable are you supporting a filly whose reputation is built entirely on a single race? She wouldn’t be the first superior Thoroughbred who took a few races to realize her full potential. Handicappers had to make a similar decision about Arrogate in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic following his unexpected Travers tour de force. Considering that Paradise Woods is a daughter of Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags, I think it is plausible that she improved so significantly with the stretch-out in distance. I also believe she has the right trainer in her corner. Richard Mandella does not make the decision to ship his best horses across the country lightly, and he nearly pulled off a win in this race with Beholder a few years ago. Paradise Woods has a long way to go to match that mare’s accomplishments, but she’s certainly on her way. Unless she absolutely despises a wet track, she should be able to handle this field.
#5, JORDAN’S HENNY (30-1): She put in a game effort behind Miss Sky Warrior in the Davona Dale, but I think there are some distance limitations here, and she’s likely to get caught up in a fast pace. I’ll pass.
#6, VEXATIOUS (20-1): She lost momentum at a few key points in the Fantasy as she was bumped around at the top of the stretch and then had to alter course in the final sixteenth of a mile. I don’t think she would have beaten Ever So Clever that day, but she may have more upside than that rival, and she looks like a filly who should love the added ground. Another superfecta option.
#7, FARRELL (5-1): She’s won five of her last six starts and is a three-time Grade 2 winner. But the complimentary observations end there. She’s never run an especially fast race, and she’s been beating up on vastly inferior competition at Fair Grounds. She’s going to take money based on a few lopsided victories, and I think she’s going to be a massive underlay. It’s hard for me to envision her dealing with the speed of Paradise Woods and Miss Sky Warrior and putting those fillies away. I’m leaving her out of my exactas.
#8, SAILOR’S VALENTINE (30-1): While it was wrapped in its traditional Grade 1 packaging, the 2017 Ashland was hardly a Grade 1 product. The race was completely devoid of top fillies, and the painfully slow speed figures assigned to the race reflect that lack of quality. A moderate pace helped propel this longshot to victory, but she’s unlikely to repeat that feat against a true Grade 1 field. I’ll pass.
#9, WICKED LICK (30-1): Farrell’s bridesmaid has never won on dirt and had been soundly beaten in two N1X optional-claiming races prior to her three straight losses in stakes company. Serves as an indictment of Farrell’s form.
#10, MISS SKY WARRIOR (9-2): She is the only horse in this race to have won going this distance, and she’s done it twice. Her 115 TimeformUS Speed Figure for the Gazelle is the highest number earned outside of California by a 3-year-old filly, and she conceivably could have run faster as Paco Lopez eased her up through the final furlong of that race. So, where did that effort come from? She’s won five races in a row, but she had never run nearly that fast before. Did she just need her first race back off the bench in the Davona Dale, or did a speed bias at Aqueduct account for her massive improvement in the Gazelle? I think it’s more likely that the latter is true, but I wouldn’t necessarily discount her because of that. Lopez rides this filly very well and should have her perfectly positioned just off Paradise Woods early. Don’t be surprised if she’s still there in deep stretch
#11, TEQUILITA (20-1): Despite her being bred to run all day, she’s been given very few chances to stretch out in distance. She’s by Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags and is out of a half-sister to the graded-stakes-winning router Offlee Wild. She’s run well sprinting, even winning the Grade 2 Forward Gal at Gulfstream, but I think there’s a strong chance we haven’t yet seen her best. She’s a grinding type, so it’s no surprise that she couldn’t follow Salty’s assertive early move in the Gulfstream Park Oaks last time. However, she never gave up and was finishing well for second in the lane. Only needs to take a minor step forward to vault herself into the trifecta at a massive price.
#12, DADDYS LIL DARLING (20-1): Like Ever So Clever, she’ll be running late, but she would need a total pace meltdown to garner more than a very minor award. That win over a muddy Churchill Downs surface in the Pocahontas bodes well for her chances with rain forecast on Friday. Yet another superfecta possibility.
#13, ABEL TASMAN (5-1): Following the derailment of Unique Bella, she appeared to be one of a handful of fillies poised to assume the role of Kentucky Oaks favorite. However, a subpar effort in the Santa Anita Oaks left her as the forgotten horse while Paradise Woods became the talk of the town. Yet this Grade 1 winner is no slouch and may be the most serious threat to the favorite. She was the only horse able to put a scare into Unique Bella this year, and you can make some excuses for her disappointing final prep. She was away slowly and had to briefly steady leaving the backstretch before getting spun out wide on the turn for home. Perhaps she won’t beat Paradise Woods, but I’d be surprised if she doesn’t significantly cut into the gap.
#14, SALTY (6-1): She has a similar profile to Paradise Woods, as they both stepped up from maiden wins sprinting to register impressive graded-stakes victories in their third starts. She won the Gulfstream Park Oaks by more than four lengths, but her win may have been even more dominant than that margin suggests. She was off slowly and taken to the back of the pack early. However, Joel Rosario apparently misjudged the pace and sent her forward to make an aggressive early move into some solid fractions. Despite making the lead very early, she didn’t stop running and maintained her momentum through the wire. Her speed figures indicate that she fits with the top four or five best fillies in the field, and she may have more upside than most of them. The outside post is not ideal, but she seems talented enough to overcome some adversity. Has an outside chance to win if the favorite falters.