Most Likely Winner: Midnight Bisou (#10)
Despite drawing a full field of 14 fillies, the narrative heading into this year’s Kentucky Oaks is focused on just two runners, the favored pair of Monomoy Girl and Midnight Bisou. Both are undefeated in 2018, and have dominated the competition on their respective circuits. Each filly enters this race off victories accomplished by decisive margins, at odds-on mutuel prices. These two have been so convincing during the prep season that not one of the 12 challengers lined up to face them is listed at under 10-1 on the morning line. Indeed, at first glance, this race appears to be fairly straightforward. Yet, there is still a race to be run, and given a fully subscribed field of young fillies – most of which have never gone this distance – things are scarcely guaranteed to proceed exactly as planned.
One thing is guaranteed: If you correctly identify a filly that is capable of deposing one or both of these titans, you will certainly get paid.
As is typical in large fields, the Pace Projector is predicting a fast early pace. Classy Act (#3), who sped off to clear advantages in each of her recent prep races, is predicted to secure the lead. Her connections have decided to remove the blinkers for this race and, while she is still expected to be in front, she may have some company. Both Take Charge Paula (#9) and Monomoy Girl (#14) possess the early speed to populate tracking positions just off this likely leader. We could also see some early initiative shown by Rayya (#7), who has led in most of her races in Dubai this winter, and Heavenhasmynikki (#8), who will be stretching out around two turns for the first time. If the aforementioned fillies overexert themselves as they sort themselves out, it should help the cause of the late-running Midnight Bisou (#10) and the other closers.
Let’s go through the entire field:
#1, SASSY SIENNA (15-1): The fillies that completed their preparations in Arkansas, New York, and Florida were lucky to avoid both of this race’s favorites. Sassy Sienna is the most accomplished filly among those that spent the winter at Oaklawn Park, having placed in all three preps run at that track. She won the Fantasy, defeating a legitimate rival, Wonder Gadot. However, it was not an impressive score – visually, or when measured against the clock. She’s been most effective when racing up close to the early pace, and that could be problematic given the number of fillies that are faster than her in the early stages. Pass.
#2, COACH ROCKS (12-1): Following an inauspicious start to her career, in which she hinted at possessing ability but failed to deliver on multiple occasions, Coach Rocks finally put it all together in her Valentine’s Day maiden win. While that victory was visually impressive, she still left some questions to be answered. She had led throughout after setting a moderate early pace while racing over an intensely speed-favoring surface (indicated by the red color-coded Race Rating in PPs). Many justifiably regarded her as having been flattered by circumstances in that race. Yet, instead of caving in the face of greater pressure in the Gulfstream Park Oaks, she had a response for all of those outstanding questions, and then some. Breaking from the same post 2 that she will occupy in this race, she got shuffled back through the opening furlong. The plan had been to have her forwardly placed, but instead Luis Saez was forced to weave his way through traffic before launching a wide, sustained move that carried her to victory. The resulting 106 TimeformUS Speed Figure is not particularly fast, but the manner in which she accomplished it suggests that she may have even more to give. The Gulfstream Park surface often discourages horses from making the kind of late move that she was able to put forth. Past the wire, she galloped out far in front of the field, suggesting that added distance is well within her wheelhouse. Dale Romans knows how to win major races in Kentucky, and he’s been very high on this filly all along. One of a few upset possibilities.
#3, CLASSY ACT (15-1): The addition of blinkers this winter has taken her performances to the next level. She always had speed, but the blinkers prompted her to use that early aggression as a weapon. In both Fair Grounds stakes, she opened up clear advantages in the first few furlongs, daring her opponents to chase her. It’s no coincidence that both of those races were dominated by closers. Classy Act set the honest pace that allowed Monomoy Girl to make that visually impressive last-to-first move in the Rachel Alexandra. While Monomoy Girl ran the superior race, Classy Act put up a solid fight and was hardly disgraced in defeat. Without Monomoy Girl in the mix, some might view her fourth-place finish in the Fair Grounds Oaks as a disappointment, but the TimeformUS Speed Figure for that race tells a different story. Classy Act earned a 113, five points higher than the number assigned to winner Chocolate Martini, due to the exceptionally fast early pace that she set. That number puts her within range of the two favorites. However, the ability to earn fast TimeformUS Speed Figures means very little if she uses up all of her energy setting yet another fast pace. Therefore, her connections have removed blinkers in the hopes of slowing her down a bit. If she’s able to successfully ration out her speed, I believe that she has the talent to compete with the likes of Midnight Bisou and Monomoy Girl. Another contender.
#4, CHOCOLATE MARTINI (12-1): It all worked out in the Fair Grounds Oaks, as she rallied to a narrow victory, completing quite a journey from her early days as a $15,000 claimer. It was her old stablemate Classy Act who helped orchestrate that Fair Grounds Oaks victory by setting the fast pace that allowed Chocolate Martini to win. This race is also likely to feature a fast early tempo, but there appear to be other more talented late runners this time. Pass.
#5, WONDER GADOT (20-1): Stamina is not an issue, as she is one of just two fillies in this race who owns a win at the Oaks distance. Her consistency in 2018 has been admirable, but she’s yet to win in four starts, despite going off at short prices. It’s hard to endorse a runner who over the course of three preps has been defeated by five rivals that she meets again here. Ultimately, she’s just too slow to match strides with the best fillies in her division. Pass.
#6, KELLY’S HUMOR (30-1): Having only made one sprint start as a three-year-old, she cedes valuable foundation to a number of her rivals, and her juvenile form is not compelling. Pass.
#7, RAYYA (12-1): The UAE Derby to Kentucky Derby transition has not been a successful one over the years, so there’s no reason to believe that a filly will be able to buck that trend in the Oaks. The magnitude of her 18-length loss to Mendelssohn may have been due, in part, to her failing to secure the early lead, as she had served as the pacesetter in her prior races. On the other hand, she was glued to the rail for almost her entire trip, and that’s precisely where you wanted to be at Meydan that night. Her new trainer will garner her some support, but she’s never shown anything on the racetrack to merit consideration in a race of this caliber. Pass.
#8, HEAVENHASMYNIKKI (50-1): Generally, you do not want to bet on a filly making her two-turn debut in a race like the Kentucky Oaks. Pass.
#9, TAKE CHARGE PAULA (15-1): The Gulfstream Park Oaks essentially evolved into a two-horse race between this filly and Coach Rocks. Despite ceding ground in the short stretch that day, she lost nothing in defeat given her performance. She finished 10 lengths clear of the third-place finisher after contesting a solid early pace that was falling apart by the end of the race. She’s not the easiest horse to ride, as she tends to lose focus during her races. She unexpectedly dropped off the pace running down the backside in the Davona Dale, and did the same thing around the far turn of the Oaks last time. You get the feeling that she would have more to give if she could just a run complete race, which is probably why her connections are adding blinkers. Generally, an equipment change is not something that I love to see in major races like this, but it could make a difference for this filly. A much greater concern is the distance of this race. She’s been able to stretch her speed out to a mile, but anything beyond that seems less than ideal. Furthermore, if blinkers make her too keen in the early going, it could further compromise her ability to see out the full trip. I’m on the fence.
#10, MIDNIGHT BISOU (5-2): It’s quite telling that there is only a single representative from California in this year’s Oaks. Midnight Bisou’s West Coast rivals are well aware that she is a special talent. Unlike so many of her Oaks counterparts, she had to prove herself against a worthy rival very early in her career. While Monomoy Girl has been relying on pure talent to compensate for her persistent greenness, Midnight Bisou had to be a professional racehorse right from the start in order to almost run down a target like Dream Tree in her first two races. That fully developed late kick has served her just as well in subsequent starts, especially as she has stretched out in distance. She has also shown versatility in her races, appearing equally comfortable laying close to a moderate pace two back in the Santa Ysabel as she was rallying from far back in the Santa Anita Oaks. In a year where few fillies have really impressed me, that far turn blitz in the Santa Anita Oaks was particularly breathtaking. The 116 and 117 TimeformUS Speed Figures that she earned in those last two victories are slightly better than the top numbers posted by Monomoy Girl, and her running style fits the projected race flow better than that of her main rival. Midnight Bisou’s trainer, Bill Spawr, rarely ships horses out of California, but he did win the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at this venue with Amazombie. She appears to have all of the tools to handle this task, and you couldn’t ask for a better pilot in this situation. The clear-cut selection.
#11, MY MISS LILLY (10-1): Rarely is a race’s visual impression in such stark juxtaposition to its final time as was the case in this year’s Gazelle. How did a trio of seemingly mediocre three-year-old fillies run just as fast as older horses in the Grade 3 Excelsior on the same card? Obviously, the 92 Beyer and 111 TimeformUS Speed Figure were deserved given the evidence at hand, but the numbers just do not make much sense for any of those involved. I’m reticent to accept that My Miss Lilly is on par with the two favorites in this race based on a three-quarter length victory over Virginia Key, who was exiting a 3-length loss in a starter allowance race at Gulfstream. My Miss Lilly handled this race’s 9-furlong distance on that occasion, but it might not be so easy to replicate that feat given a faster pace and a more taxing trip. Pass.
#12, PATRONA MARGARITA (30-1): She was soundly defeated by Monomoy Girl in the Ashland after getting a perfect trip. Pass.
#13, ESKIMO KISSES (15-1): This filly comes from far off the pace, and she possesses a strong late kick. Her 112 Late Pace Rating is the best in the race, higher than that of even Midnight Bisou. However, she needs more than merely a fast pace; she would require a total meltdown in order to win. That said, there are some things to like about her. She’s clearly improved since getting off Lasix, as she declared with a resounding and legitimately fast allowance in the slop at Oaklawn. Since then, she couldn’t quite outrun Chocolate Martini to the wire when both received favorable setups two back. Monomoy Girl then easily defeated her in the Ashland, but this filly’s performance in that race was better than the 5-length margin of defeat suggests. She was reserved well off an early pace that held together and did well to finish as far clear of the rest as she did given the dynamics of that race. I don’t think she’s likely to outrun Midnight Bisou from off the pace, but I do think she’s one you want to include underneath in exotic wagers. A trifecta player.
#14, MONOMOY GIRL (2-1): Her talent is undeniable. Three-year-old fillies don’t win 5 of 6 races and record three straight 90+ Beyers and 110+ TimeformUS Speed Figures by accident. However, I nevertheless have some serious reservations about this favorite. Part of the reason that Monomoy Girl has been so visually impressive in her wins is due to lackluster competition. This dearth of worthy rivals is also the reason that she’s been able to get away with her numerous antics. Watching her races, it quickly becomes clear that she’s overly sensitive to her rider’s cues and does not appreciate the whip. She ducks in and out whenever Florent Geroux takes out his stick, and overreacts to a vigorous hand ride in the stretch. This drifting about in the stretch was her undoing in her only loss, in last year’s Golden Rod, as she weaved in and out through the final furlong, wasted action costing her the victory. Something similar occurred in the stretch of the Rachel Alexandra, as she ducked out from the whip while racing well out in front. She ran a more professional race in the Ashland, but Geroux never had to take out his stick that day. That race was also not remotely representative of the circumstances she will face here, as she was allowed to walk along on an uncontested lead. In her dirt races, she’s shown the ability to come from last, or to race on the lead, but nothing in between. How will she adapt to a 13-horse field where she is highly unlikely to be in front early? Can she stalk the pace, or run through traffic? I also have questions about her overall stamina. She was visibly shortening stride late in the Golden Rod and Rachel Alexandra, and her pedigree suggests that nine furlongs could be a stretch. All of this, and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that she drew post 14. Surely a top contender, but not one I want to bet at a short price.