The Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks | 1 1/8 Miles, Dirt, 3-year-old fillies
Churchill Downs, Race 11, 6:12 PM (ET) | Go to TimeformUS PPs >>
Most Likely Winner: Champagne Anyone (#10)
The star attraction in this year’s Kentucky Oaks is Bellafina, the 2-1 morning line favorite. Many already consider her to be the presumptive winner of the race due to her superior résumé. Yet there are no merit-based head starts in horse racing. She must prove that she can overcome some new obstacles and fend off 13 challengers, many of whom bring solid credentials of their own. I find this Kentucky Oaks to be a fascinating handicapping puzzle, one that is far more complex than most of the Bellafina-focused headlines indicate.
The Pace Projector is displaying a red flag indicating a fast pace, which is not surprising given the size of this field. Yet it’s worth noting that this is not just an ordinary fast pace situation. Four of the 14 fillies in this field show up with “Leader” running styles in TimeformUS PPs, and they occupy the first four positions in the Pace Projector. Motion Emotion (#8), with her lofty 129 Early Pace Rating, is predicted to lead the field in the early going, but Serengeti Empress (#13) has the same one-dimensional running style and should be breathing down her neck. Bellafina (#4) and Jaywalk (#7) also have performed best from the front end, but they seem more likely to be forced into rating positions this time. Complicating matters further is the fact that for all of the speed types in this field there are relatively few proven closers. Longshot Chocolate Kisses (#2) has the highest Late Pace Rating – a mediocre 97 – so it’s unclear who might capitalize if the early pace falls apart.
Let’s go through the entire field:
#1, OUT FOR A SPIN (15-1): Few would have predicted that this Kentucky Oaks trail would generate a bigger surprise than Jeltrin’s 51-1 upset in the Davona Dale. Yet this filly topped that with her improbable 52-1 score in the Ashland. That victory seemingly came out of nowhere, since Out for a Spin had never run a particularly fast race despite winning two of her four prior starts. She applied serious pressure to Jaywalk early, disposed of that foe with surprising ease, and gamely held sway late. The 111 TimeformUS Speed Figure that she was assigned is actually the highest last-out number in the field by a scant point. The question is, can she repeat that miraculous feat? Some have asserted that a perceived Keeneland track bias contributed to her upset. I concede that closers did appear to have some difficulty making up ground at Keeneland that day, but the surface is coded as fair in TimeformUS PPs. Furthermore, Jaywalk also would have been aided by this supposed bias, and it’s not as if Restless Rider was that far off the pace either. I believe the performance is legitimate, yet I have some trepidation about her ability to replicate that effort under different circumstances on Friday. The Pace Projector indicates that she could be as far back as eighth in the early going, and the rail post position can be treacherous for horses with tactical speed. This filly has gotten relatively soft trips in her prior wins, so she could be in for a shock in the Oaks. That said, there is obviously talent here. Contender.
#2, CHOCOLATE KISSES (20-1): She’s the only true closer in the field, and therefore her supporters will have to hope for a total pace meltdown. Such a scenario is far from impossible, as described above. Yet, even if the early leaders do come back to the field, it’s unclear if this longshot possesses the requisite talent to capitalize. We probably saw the best that she’s capable of producing in the Honeybee, where she benefited from a blazing early tempo that cooked her main rival Motion Emotion. The 105 TimeformUS Speed Figure that she earned for that performance probably won’t be good enough to win this Oaks, but it could earn her a placing under the right circumstances. I am somewhat concerned that she ran so poorly in the Ashland in her subsequent start, but she was never really with the flow of that race. Given her expected price, I don’t want to be too nitpicky – she’s certainly worth throwing into exotics. Using underneath.
#3, LADY APPLE (20-1): I think it’s wise to evaluate this filly based solely on her 3-year-old campaign. In retrospect, the mere fact that she debuted so early last year dictated her trajectory through 2018. Asmussen wisely stopped on her in the summer, and the time away has done wonders. She returned as a more mature filly this season at Oaklawn Park, and has unsurprisingly blossomed since Asmussen stretched her out in distance. She always had a right to appreciate two turns as a daughter of Curlin, and it’s now clear that she’s inherited some of her sire’s stamina. Her route debut in March was somewhat encouraging, as she finished with decent power after stalking a moderate pace. Yet that performance only hinted at what was to come.
The Fantasy represented a significant step up in class for Lady Apple, and she passed that test with flying colors. Despite the fact that she had contested the pace in all of her prior starts, this time she rated kindly about four lengths off the leaders. She then seamlessly advanced into contention on the far turn, and patiently waited for room when blocked in on the rail at the quarter pole. As soon as a seam opened up, she shot through with an excellent turn of foot. Mike Smith on leader Motion Emotion attempted to tighten things up at the eighth pole, but Lady Apple was determined, holding her position against the rail while grinding out the victory. Others have run faster her top figure of 107, but this filly displayed real guts in that Fantasy performance. She has improved with every start so far this year and only requires one more step forward to put her over the top. She’s drawn an excellent post position, and her adaptability should allow her to work out a favorable trip from here. I doubt she goes off as high as her 20-1 morning line, but she still figures to offer better value than all of the other contenders I might consider. The narrow selection.
#4, BELLAFINA (2-1): The favorite returns to the site of her last defeat. Some have given her a pass for her Breeders’ Cup performance, but I didn’t feel that she had a major excuse that day. She was about three wide around the clubhouse turn, yet was in perfect position to strike coming to the quarter pole and had little to offer. I’m not typically a strong believer in horses for courses, but Bellafina did not seem to get over this Churchill strip with the same ease we saw in her surrounding races.
This year she has put together an undefeated campaign, winning a trio of stakes races at a variety of distances. However, she has not faced the best horses in her division, having beaten just nine individual rivals across that series of races. My main concern with Bellafina is the distance. She clearly is an extraordinary talent in one-turn races, as she proved when she returned with a dazzling score in the seven-furlong Santa Ynez. Yet her two-turn performances have just not been quite as inspiring. She displayed some signs of stress in winning the Las Virgenes after receiving token early pressure up front. Her Santa Anita Oaks victory was seemingly more impressive, but she was facing an inferior group of horses who just didn’t want to go that far. Her 108 TimeformUS Speed Figure hardly makes her formidable in this field. Furthermore, given the amount of speed signed on for this Oaks, she will likely have to rate behind horses and deal with kickback, something she has not encountered in any of her 2019 starts.
Bellafina can obviously win this race, but I don’t believe she offers value as the favorite. I don’t even view her as necessarily the most likely winner, since a few of her rivals possess running styles that should be better suited to the projected race dynamics. A vulnerable favorite.
#5, FLOR DE LA MAR (20-1): She earned her spot in this race via a runner-up performance in the Santa Anita Oaks, but she was never a serious threat to Bellafina that day and merely held second by default as she staggered through the final furlong. Pass.
#6, POSITIVE SPIRIT (30-1): Unfortunately for this filly, the Kentucky Oaks is not run at Aqueduct. She earned her spot here on the basis of her Gazelle performance, she’s hard to endorse based on that effort. She was allowed to control the pace up front through slow fractions and was still unable to hold on for the victory. Her experience at the 1 1/8 miles distance is something that all of her rivals lack, but that will only get her so far. She figures to find herself much farther off the pace than she prefers, and it’s hard to envision her overcoming such a trip. Pass.
#7, JAYWALK (8-1): Last year’s 2-Year-Old Filly Champion did not need to improve much on her juvenile form. She absolutely dominated those final two starts of 2018, winning a pair of Grade 1 races by a combined 11 lengths. The 114 TimeformUS Speed Figure that she earned in that Breeders’ Cup triumph is still one of the highest numbers in this field. Unfortunately, she may have actually regressed during her time away while her rivals have continued to develop and mature. Her trainer John Servis concedes that she has failed to step forward from a physical perspective, and that has been evident in her two performances this year. She lacked aggression in her dull return in the Davona Dale. She showed some signs of life in the Ashland, but still had to work a bit harder to set fractions that would have come easier to her last year. To her credit, she did battle on gamely once passed in the stretch at Keeneland, and was actually gaining ground on the leaders at the wire before galloping out strongly. She has lodged a bullet work since that race, so one could argue that she is rounding back into form. After all, it took her three starts to gear up into championship form last year, so perhaps the best is yet to come. I don’t really have a problem with that viewpoint, but I do worry about her potential trip in this race. Jaywalk is clearly best when she can set the pace, yet she is unlikely to find herself in that position with Motion Emotion and Serengeti Empress gunning from the outside. She will be a square price this time, so I’m not completely tossing her, but there are certainly question marks. A tough call.
#8, MOTION EMOTION (15-1): In terms of natural ability, this filly might be as talented as any member of this field. The three TimeformUS Speed Figures that she has earned since stretching out around two turns put her on the same plane as Bellafina. She was beaten by a couple of today’s rivals in the Honeybee and Fantasy, but one could easily argue that she was best on both of those occasions. She ran a remarkable race in the Honeybee in particular. Her TimeformUS Pace Figures (170 at the first call, and 151 at the second call) are about as high as you will encounter in dirt routes. She had every right to throw in the towel after setting such a pace, yet she gamely held sway before getting passed by Chocolate Kisses in the final strides. She did not have as blatant an excuse in the Fantasy. The pace of that final prep was moderately fast, but Motion Emotion still came up leg-weary in the late stages. Mike Smith is typically a good fit for a free-running filly like this, but there is obviously the danger that she will have to run too fast in the early going. As long as she breaks cleanly, Smith will have her on the lead, yet Serengeti Empress should be right on top of her, pressing every step of the way. As talented as she is, I will be somewhat surprised if she can overcome such a trip against a field of this caliber. Exotics player.
#9, LIORA (20-1): She benefited from a highly favorable pace setup when she won the Golden Rod last fall. It does not appear that she has taken a significant step forward as a 3-year-old and her running style makes her hard to endorse in a spot like this. Pass.
#10, CHAMPAGNE ANYONE (6-1): Stretching out in distance has been the key to her success. She showed promise as a 2-year-old, but didn’t put it all together until she tried two turns at Keeneland in the fall. She lost the Golden Rod in her final start last year, but had a significant excuse that day. The early pace of that race was moderate to slow, and she found herself at the back of a tightly bunched field before encountering traffic in the lane. She has returned as a vastly improved 3-year-old filly. I love the way trainer Ian Wilkes has managed her through this campaign, gradually building her back up as the distances have increased. She closed well to get within a length of Feedback in the Forward Gal and then was compromised by the slow pace of the Davona Dale.
She seemed to put it all together last time when she returned to her preferred two-turn trip in the Gulfstream Park Oaks. Wearing blinkers for the first time, she was far more aggressive in the early stages, tugging Chris Landeros up into a stalking position. She got the jump on her two main rivals at the quarter pole and gamely turned back challenges in deep stretch. Some might perceive that she was showing signs of exhaustion late, but she was actually maintaining good momentum across the wire and was never passed on the gallop-out. The 110 TimeformUS Speed Figure that she earned for that performance is just a hair shy of being the highest last-out number in the field. She figures to appreciate this nine-furlong distance and should be sitting on another top effort. In many ways, I would argue that she is actually the most likely winner given the upswing in her trajectory and her suitable running style. My only concern – and it is fairly minor – is that the blinkers may have made her a bit too aggressive. I want to see her relax somewhere in midpack here, and she seemed unwilling to do that last time. She is nevertheless a close second choice to my top selection, and I’m using her prominently in all slots. The horse to beat.
#11, JELTRIN (15-1): She defeated two of today’s rivals in that 51-1 upset in the Davona Dale. That performance may not have been a total fluke, since she had shown signs of improvement in the Forward Gal coming into the race. Yet, I still believe that her victory was largely a product of circumstances. She was sitting in the perfect spot to capitalize once Jaywalk threw in the towel, and runner-up Cookie Dough, while a nice filly in her own right, is not exactly the toughest foe in this division. This will be her first start around two turns as she attempts to win this race off a nine-week layoff. Those are some serious hurdles to overcome, but her last race suggests that there’s room to grow. Fringe player.
#12, STREET BAND (15-1): There was a time when trainer Larry Jones was a dominant force in this race, but he only has a longshot in this year’s event. With the exception of Serengeti Empress, I get the sense that the fillies based at the Fair Grounds this winter were a mediocre group. There was little depth to that Fair Grounds Oaks field beyond the favorite, so there was nothing to stop Street Band from rallying to victory once her main rival tied up. She will have to do better to beat a field of caliber. Pass.
#13, SERENGETI EMPRESS (8-1): She comes into this race as something of a wild card. She’s been brilliant in her victories, but she has also lost two of her last three starts by massive margins. She failed to make the early lead in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and then seemed to be unnerved by an incident heading into the clubhouse turn, so I suppose we can excuse that performance. She returned in excellent form when taking down the Rachel Alexandra and appeared to be on her way to a similarly impressive score in the Fair Grounds Oaks before things went awry. It was revealed after the race that a bleeding incident caused her to stop so abruptly. That is a serious concern as she heads into the sternest test of her brief career. If she bled last time while in the midst of comfortable front-running trip, how will she react to the stress of potentially having to rate off another rival? Even putting aside any potential physical issues, it’s hard to envision her finding a path to success in this Oaks. If she outruns Motion Emotion to the lead, she will certainly be going too fast. However, if she is forced to rate, she is unlikely to produce a top effort. It’s quite evident that there is serious talent here, and that was on display in her blazing 58 1/5 five-furlong drill this week. However, pure speed will not be enough to secure her a share of this purse. Pass.
#14, RESTLESS RIDER (6-1): This filly is admirably consistent, having finished in the exacta in each of her seven career starts. While she may be on par with the other contenders in this Oaks in terms of sheer talent, she’s taking a slightly different path into the race. On the heels of a full juvenile campaign in which she started six times, she has only been given in a single prep race in 2019. The good news is that she ran quite well in that only start, finishing just a neck behind Out for a Spin in a fast edition of the Ashland. Yet one must wonder if she’s ready to put forth another top effort in just her second start off the layoff. Furthermore, I have some concerns about her stretching out to this distance. Restless Rider possesses a versatile running style and an effective turn of foot. However, she has fallen short in each of her last two starts after looming as a likely winner at the eighth pole on both occasions. It’s possible that a lack of stamina is being exposed, or she may be developing a tendency to wait on horses. Neither diagnosis would bode well for her chances here, and she’s also been done no favors at the post position draw. She possesses the versatility to adapt her running style to the circumstances, but I’m afraid that she may find herself too far back in the early going as Brian Hernandez looks for a spot to tuck in and save ground. She has some appeal as a racehorse, but there are too many obstacles to overcome this time. Using underneath.
#15, DUNBAR ROAD (5-1): If you like Champagne Anyone – and I do – you have to consider both of these also-eligible entrants to be serious players. Chad Brown is not the type of trainer to prematurely push his horses into ambitious spots, so the fact that Dunbar Road is entered this race can be viewed as an endorsement of her talent. She finished up with good interest at Gulfstream last time and was getting to the winner in the late stages. She’s yet to encounter any serious adversity in her short career, so she could be in for a shock if she draws into the field and has to break from the outside slot. I believe it would be wise to be aware of her potential presence, but I would restrict her use to the bottom rungs of exotics if she were to draw into this race. Contender.
#16, POINT OF HONOR (20-1): If this filly had earned her way into the main body of the field and been afforded a better post position, I might have made her my top selection. I believe that this daughter of Curlin is one of the few in this race who will truly relish the stretch-out to 1 1/8 miles. I loved the way she accomplished her first two victories, and I feel that the Gulfstream Park Oaks just did not set up for her running style. The pace was moderate and Castellano never had her in position to gain the necessary momentum. If she draws into this race, which is unlikely, the outside post position may not be quite as detrimental to her, since she figures to be rallying from towards the back of the pack anyway. Upset possibility if she gets in.
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