The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs is the longest continually contested sporting event in the United States (run every year since 1875). The second longest? The Kentucky Oaks, which was originally run a few days after the Derby, but is now traditionally run on the Friday afternoon before to the first Saturday in May.
This year's Kentucky Oaks (post time 5:45 p.m. ET on Versus) will not include arguably the best three-year-old filly in training as R Heat Lightning, the impressive winner of the G2-Davona Dale and the G2-Gulfstream Oaks, has been sidelined with a knee injury. In her place, 13 fillies will contest the Oaks, led by morning line favorite Joyful Victory.
While fillies are allowed to run in the Kentucky Derby (only three have ever won the Derby: Winning Colors-1988, Genuine Risk-1980 and Regret-1915), most choose to run in the Oaks instead. Recently, two winners of the Oaks have gone on to defeat the colts in later legs of the Triple Crown: Rachel Alexandra in 2009 (Preakness) and Rags to Riches in 2007 (Belmont Stakes).
The largest margin of victory in a Kentucky Oaks is 20 1/4 lengths, a record set by Rachel Alexandra in 2009, two weeks before she would defeat the boys in the Preakness.
Below is a filly-by-filly look at the field for the 137th Kentucky Oaks.
1-Joyful Victory (5/2): Trained by Larry Jones and ridden by Mike Smith, Joyful Victory comes into the Oaks in fine form after a couple of fantastic efforts in the Grade 3-Honeybee and the Grade 2-Fantasy at Oaklawn Park. In prior races, Joyful Victory made winning moves from off-the-pace yet she's shown enough early speed to keep touch in the early going.
The only question marks with Joyful Victory are: 1) the strength of those races at Oaklawn, and 2) fact that she didn't run very well in her previous race at Churchill Downs last November, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. On the other hand, her versatility is a big asset in this spot and part of the reason that she's the 5/2 morning line favorite.
2-Lilacs and Lace (12/1): This John Terranova trainee has won two of her last three races, including a gate-to-wire score in the Grade 1 Ashland last time out. While her current form is very good, she has a huge question mark beside her name due to her less than stellar career on dirt surfaces. Her Ashland win came over the Polytrack at Keeneland, and her other two lifetime wins also came over synthetic surfaces (Cal Oaks and a maiden special weight at Golden Gate Fields). The only dirt race of her career was her debut effort at Santa Rosa where she finished almost 12 lengths behind the winner. If she can transfer her Ashland form to Churchill's main track she might have a chance in this one. But that's a big "if".
3-Summer Soiree (5/1): This daughter of War Front has absolutely obliterated her competition in her last two races leading up to the Oaks. She made every yard a winning one In the Grade 3 Bourbonette Oaks at Keeneland to win by 10 3/4 lengths at the wire. But while the Bourbonette was on the Polytrack, this filly has also proven herself over dirt in the past; two races back she won by 9 3/4 lengths in an N2L Allowance at Oaklawn Park. That Oaklawn Allowance race has turned out to be pretty strong with the second place filly, Hearts On Fire, coming back to win a similar race just a month later and then finishing only 3/4 of a length behind May Day Rose in the Instant Racing Stakes on April 16. The downside to this filly is her "need-to-lead" running style - she's got some fast fillies to her outside (namely 12-Plum Pretty) and securing a soft lead is unlikely.
4-Kathmanblu (4/1): A lot of players were pretty high on this filly heading into last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Filly Turf, but that optimism has been tempered a bit after a disappointing third place finish in the Ashland on April 9. On the positive side, this filly already owns a win over the Churchill Downs main track (11/27/10 - Grade 2 Golden Rod Stakes) and she has shown the ability to run a good race over dirt. If you toss out that lone effort over the Polytrack, she's won five of her last six, including two on dirt. Her recent form notwithstanding, Kathmanblu still can be a major player in the three-year-old filly division.
5-Suave Voir Faire (50/1): One of the longest shots in the field due to the fact she owns just a single victory to her name in seven career starts. Suave Voir Faire finished a well-beaten third to Summer Soire in the Burbonette Oaks and she struggled against allowance and optional claiming company at the Fair Grounds over the winter. She was nowhere near Kathmanblu in the Golden Rod at Churchill last fall and it appears that she'll need big improvement in this spot to come out on top.
6-Zazu (4/1): This filly has done nothing but run strong races since she began her three-year-old campaign with a neck defeat in the Grade 2 Santa Ynez Stakes at Santa Anita. Additionally, she just missed a big win in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks when Turbulent Descent was able to hold her off in the final furlong stretch drive. Zazu ran the final 1/8th of a mile the fastest of the five fillies in the Santa Anita Oaks that day - a solid 29.90 seconds. Additionally, Zazu looks like a filly that should enjoy a bit more ground, and if her pattern of improvement continues, she will have a big chance at her second Grade 1 score.
7-Her Smile (20/1): This filly will make her first start for trainer Todd Pletcher after a series of runs with Leigh Delacour. Over the last five years, Pletcher is 10-for-50 ($1.17 $2 ROI) with horses making their first start for him in graded stakes races, as Her Smile will do in the Oaks. On the downside, Pletcher hasn't had a winner with that angle since 2009 (Quality Road in the G2 Amesterdam) and nine of those ten wins occurred in 2007. Since Quality Road's win in 2009, Pletcher has gone 0-for-14 in similar situations. Her Smile is a nice looking filly that ran well in the Suncoast Stakes and Grade 3-Comely in her last two but seems a clear cut below her rivals in this spot. This filly is owned by Bobby Flay, noted chef and avid horse racing fan.
8-Bouquet Booth (20/1): After scoring back-to-back wins at the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011, it looked as if Bouquet Booth was beginning to develop into one of the better three-year-olds of this crop. However, her last two races, back-to-back fourth place finishes in the Grade 3-Rachel Alexandra and the Grade 1-Ashland, were a bit flat and disappointing. She's finished behind Lilacs and Lace and Kathmanblu in those last two races and will need to show some improvement to take the Oaks. On the positive side, Bouquet Booth appears to be able to win from the lead or by sitting a few lengths off the early pace, which gives her some options as the race unfolds.
9-Daisy Devine (20/1): The morning line odds on this filly don't really seem to fit given her very strong race record since her debut last October. After failing to do much in her first race at Keeneland on the Poly track, Daisy Devine has won three of her last four races on the main track at the Fair Grounds, with only a neck defeat in the Silverbulletday Stakes to Bouquet Booth keeping her from four straight wins. Her win in the Grade 2-Fair Grounds Oaks in her last start was very professional and she possesses enough stamina in her pedigree to suggest that the nine furlongs of the Kentucky Oaks will be no issue for her. It seems doubtful she'll be anywhere near 20/1 at post time (probably more in the 10/1 range, maybe lower), but if she is, she would represent excellent value on the board.
10-Street Storm (50/1): This race appears to be a tough spot for a filly that was all-out to beat an average group fillies in the Mardi Gras Stakes at the Fair Grounds last time out. That kind of effort probably won't cut it against this field and Street Storm needs to significantly step-up in order to have any shot of winning the Oaks. She's had a bit of time to recharge (her last races was on March 8), but trainer Steve Margolis is only 1-for-26 with horses running off of a 31-to-60 day layoff in graded stakes races over the last five years. His only win during that time frame was Bouquet Booth's win in the Ashland on April 9.
11-Holy Heavens (50/1): In her last two races, Holy Heavens has finished over eight lengths behind Joyful Victory and never seriously threatened the winner at any time. She owns a win in the listed Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn back on Feb. 12, but she hasn't done anything at the graded stakes level to suggest she's a major player in this race.
12-Plum Pretty (5/1): If the Churchill Downs main track is wet on Friday afternoon, and recent weather suggests that's a strong possibility, Plum Pretty may be the filly you want to get behind. While this filly has never run over a wet track in her brief career, her off-track pedigree is exceptional. The offspring of both her sire (Medaglia d'Oro) and her damsire (A.P. Indy) have run very well over wet surfaces and she should be expected to handle an off-track. Aside from her pedigree, Plum Pretty comes into this race off of an impressive 25-length win in the Sunland Park Oaks on March 27. The field she faced at Sunland was not very strong taht day, so the margin of defeat probably overstates her true talent level. On the other hand, she raced well against Zazu and Turbulent Descent at Santa Anita in her two prior races and she obviously has a bit of class in her corner.
13-St. John's River (30/1): This filly was running hard late in the Fair Grounds Oaks but came up a half-length short of Daisy Devine at the wire. She's shown improvement in each race she's entered this year and she could certainly find herself in the top 3 if the race unfolds in the right manner. The wide draw isn't the best spot to be in but she's not a speed horse and she should be able to angle over towards the rail after she leaves the gate in order to save ground heading into the turn. She'll need a bit of pace to run at but she's shown she can close well from the back of the pack. Jockey Rosie Napravnik has been on fire lately and will ride St. John's River in the Oaks. St. John's River is a full sister to Panty Raid, a filly that banked over a $1 million dollars in her career and won the Black-Eyed Susan, Spinster Stakes and American Oaks in 2007.
This year's Oaks doesn't appear to be a race where a player will want to take short odds since the field is pretty evenly matched (at least on paper). Joyful Victory's impressive wins at Oaklawn make her a logical favorite, but neither of those races were above and beyond the level of the other fillies in this field.
If her odds stay in the generous range, I'll go with Daisy Devine on top of my tickets with exacta plays to Zazu, Kathmanblu and St. John's River on the bottom and top. If the track is muddy or sloppy, Plum Pretty will be added to the mix, but the top play will still be Daisy Devine.