Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Guest Post: First, there is the matter of these nine furlongs on Friday

--Brian Ludwick, WinStar Farm Bloodstock Analyst

   The Louisville airport over the next ten days will accommodate a multitude of reporters from all over the world, each looking for that titanic Derby scoop. It's a safe bet that better than 90% of them could not name a single runner in the Grade I fixture contested just 24 hours earlier, the Kentucky Oaks. This blog will show the ladies no such disrespect! Though the filly division at this stage lacks any superstars, it certainly isn't lacking in the speed department. Even with the recent defection of the speedy Princess Arabella (strained suspensory ligament) and whispers out of the Pletcher camp that the supersonic Broadway's Alibi show may play next in New York (GI Acorn S.) rather than Kentucky, this should still be a race loaded with speed. Most years, the Oaks tends to unravel at a slightly less mad pace than the Derby. This year will not be one of those. In fact, one has to thumb through quite a few past performances before stumbling across a filly that is willing to pass runners in the final three furlongs at a two-turn distance. Let's have a look.

On Fire Baby (Smoke Glacken--Ornate) Trainer: Gary Hartlage
   A quick glance at this one's pedigree might not inspire confidence going nine furlongs as she is by sprint sire Smoke Glacken. However, if you peel back a few layers on her dam's side, you'll find there is plenty of route ability there. Her dam, Ornate, won four times at a route distance. Ornate's first foal, High Heels(E Dubai), won the 1 1/16-mile Fantasy S., taking the same Arkansas-Kentucky route that her younger sister will follow.
   Reading between the lines here, I'm guessing she showed evidence of bleeding when a very respectable third against males in the Smarty Jones S., as she ran back first time Lasix in her next start. That next start was a very good winning effort in the GIII Honeybee S. at Oaklawn. The genuine older male Alternation won the GIII Razorback H. that day in almost identical time with amazingly similar fractions, further flattering her effort.
   She is also unbeaten in her two starts at the Downs and has shown the ability on a couple of occasions to lay a few lengths off the leaders and still produce her best effort. Her connections got such a positive result from the filly off her eight-week gap between the Smarty Jones and the Honeybee that they have decided to trace those steps with another eight-week gap into the Oaks. That timing is not ideal from a fitness standpoint, however, and though obviously talented, she may be a vulnerable favorite.

Believe You Can (Proud Citizen-El Fasto) Trainer: Larry Jones
   The Oaks just wouldn't seem like the Oaks without a Larry Jones runner in the field. This year's version is another talented daughter of Proud Citizen. Team Jones (Larry and owner Brereton) in 2008 won this very race with another daughter of the Gov's own stallion. Her name was Proud Spell.
   Both of Believe You Can's two-turn successes in New Orleans came when she was allowed to control things on the front end. The baloney in this Fair Grounds sandwich was a failed experiment when attempting to rate in the GIII Rachel Alexandra S. Make no mistake; this filly needs the lead in order to win next Friday and she is being trained like a filly that will be let loose out of the gate. Her most recent breeze was a bullet five furlongs in :59.3 on Apr. 23 at Churchill. She finished unplaced in her lone start here when chasing a very fast pace in the GII Pocahontas S. as a juvenile. It's quite possible a similar scenario could play out on Oaks day.

Eden's Moon (Malibu Moon-Eden's Causeway) Trainer: Bob Baffert
   Here is yet another (I warned you) speedball, this one from the west coast. The daughter of Malibu Moon was all but proclaimed champion 3-year-old filly in many circles after an impressive front-running win in Santa Anita's GI Las Virgenes S. Then in the GI Santa Anita Oaks, arch rival Reneesgotzip was conceded a slender one-length lead in the early stages. Eden's Moon never could get by her, despite a blistering :23 flat third quarter and a stalking Willa B Awesome was the direct beneficiary of the all-out pace war. I honestly don't know which of the two speedsters would prove to be the faster, should they go flat to the boards from the break, but at Churchill it would be a moot point as both would get swallowed in the final furlong or so.

In Lingerie (Empire Maker-Cat Chat) Trainer: Todd Pletcher
   Purchased privately off an impressive Turfway debut with the Oaks in mind, this filly was test driven in a rather salty first-level allowance race at Gulfstream. In Lingerie found out pretty quickly that this Florida trip was no vacation courtesy of another Oaks candidate in Zo Impressive.
Team Todd promptly shipped her back to the site of her initial success and she responded with a facile six-length win in the GIII Bourbonette Oaks where she faced a field decidedly softer than the one she'll face on Oaks Friday.
   All we know for certain with this filly at this point is she enjoys the synthetic surface and that she has run her best races on the lead. As Pletcher likes to do with his springtime prospects, she will stay at her Palm Meadows base until Oaks/Derby week so as not to lose any crucial training days to the unpredictable weather that is Kentucky in late April.

Mamma Kimbo (Discreet Cat-Bag Lady Jane) Trainer: Bob Baffert
   Wasn't I just talking about a West Coast speedster from the Baffert barn? Well, here's another. If I had to point my finger at the speed of the speed, I would have to choose this daughter of Discreet Cat. She debuted brilliantly going six furlongs in 1:07.4 at Santa Anita (101 Beyer). Baffert was asking quite a bit of her to then fly to Hot Springs and try and stretch out her speed in Oaklawn's 8 1/2-furlong GII Fantasy S.
   The talented filly did just that, reporting home 1 1/2 lengths to the good of the more experienced Ami's Dini. Mamma Kimbo regressed slightly on the Beyer scale with the increased distance, but still posted a very respectable number of 94. A raw talent here, but things may just be coming up a bit quick for her as far as timing goes.

And Why Not (Street Cry-Alchemist) Trainer: Michael Matz
   If not for her connections, I wouldn't be giving this one a second look in here. Matz/Groves are not in the habit of throwing one into the deep end unless she was giving them the right signals. Yes, I know she was beaten 16 1/2 lengths by Grace Hall in the GII Gulfstream Park Oaks, but this filly has a running style that just might land her in the first couple. I'm not even going to begin to guess what went wrong at Gulfstream.
   Her lone Churchill effort was very good, and though her deep-closing style was helped by an extremely fast pace that day in the Pocahontas, she could once again be aided by a fast early pace in the Oaks. If Matz takes a pass on the race, so be it, but if this conservative team decides it's a go, she will be on my exacta tickets at a fat price!

Grace Hall (Empire Maker-Season's Greetings) Trainer: Anthony Dutrow
   She appears at or near the top of almost every Oaks list I've seen, yet has never Beyered better than the 90 she ran when beaten a neck by longshot Yara in the GII Davona Dale S. So what exactly does she bring to the table? In two words: consistency and pedigree.
   'Grace' has been first or second in all six of her starts over four different racetracks. She has paired up almost identical races to start 2012 and has the look of a filly that is ready to move forward now. Her sire Empire Maker has hinted strongly in recent months that he may well be on his way to becoming an important sire of Classic runners.
   The Tony Dutrow trainee also appears to want every bit of nine furlongs and, as she did in last year's GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, she appears capable of laying off the speed. For me personally, there is still that nagging fact that she has yet to run as fast as many others in here.

Summer Applause (Harlan's Holiday-Summer Exhibition) Trainer: Bret Calhoun
   This daughter of Harlan's Holiday comes in with arguably the strongest overall resume of any in this year's Oaks. Though she's been beaten in two of her last three starts, they have been good least in my book.
   Since transferring from the barn of Canadian trainer Josie Carroll, this filly has really blossomed for Calhoun. Because of the terribly short fields in all three of the Kentucky Oaks preps at Fair Grounds this year, Summer Applause was forced to stay closer to the leaders than she probably would prefer. Still, she finished up gallantly in all three and that will serve her well at Churchill.
   With an expected furious pace on Oaks day, jockey Robbie Albarado will have the luxury of letting this filly relax for a half mile before asking her for any run. As Bret Calhoun maintains a string on the Churchill backstretch, Summer Applause will be racing out of her own stall and that never hurts.
Her two most recent works--four furlongs in :47.60 on Apr. 13 and five furlongs in 59.60 on Apr. 20--only reinforce how well she is currently doing.

   I expect a full field of 14 runners in the Kentucky Oaks with at least three or four of them contributing to a sub :47.00 opening half mile. As my lovely wife Jo will be joining me at this year's Oaks, I will be expected to pick at least five winners on the day, including the Oaks exacta, or hear about it on the drive back to Lexington. Have you ever noticed how much shorter that hour seems when you're discussing your winnings?

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