Grade I Kentucky Oaks, Churchill Downs – 5/2/2014

Matt Bernier, one of the stars of Horseplayers

Matt Bernier, one of the stars of Horseplayers

by Matt Bernier of Esquire’s Horseplayers

The Grade I Kentucky Oaks will be run at Churchill Downs on Friday with post time scheduled for 5:49 ET. A field of thirteen three year old fillies are set to load into the starting gate, all vying for the garland of lilies that await the winner. The KY Oaks is contested over 9 furlongs, a distance which many of these fillies have never gone in their early careers. Friday’s weather forecast looks good (as of Tuesday night), and we should have a fast track for the 140th “Run for the Lilies.” Let’s take a look at the fillies that are scheduled to run in the Kentucky Oaks. (My personal win-odds line is listed next to each runner)

Please Explain (100-1) will be making the eighth start of her career in the Oaks, with two of those already having come over the surface at Churchill Downs. She was most recently a disappointing seventh in the Grade III Fantasy at Oaklawn Park as the 2.90-1 betting favorite, but there could be a built in excuse for her poor performance. For the most part, the track at Oaklawn was decidedly speed favoring on April 5 – which didn’t lend itself to Please Explain’s come from behind running style. Regardless of the fact that she seemed to be running against a bias that day, her Beyer Speed Figures put her nowhere near the top fillies in this race. I’d be very surprised if she took a big enough step forward to be competitive in the Kentucky Oaks. The bottom of a superfecta/possibly the bottom of a trifecta would seem to be her ceiling; if you like her, you’re going to get a huge price.

Ria Antonia (20-1) is the reigning Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies champion, but her credentials can easily be questioned. If it wasn’t for a disqualification in the Breeders’ Cup (She’s A Tiger), Ria Antonia would still be eligible for a N2L race. I like the idea of trainer Bob Baffert putting the blinkers back on this daughter of Rockport Harbor, and she has been training nicely since arriving at Churchill Downs. That being said, I have a nagging suspicion that we’re already approaching the ceiling of Ria Antonia’s ability – and if that’s the case, she isn’t a contender in this race. On her best day she figures to be within shouting distance of the leader, but I think that’s as close as she can get against fillies of this caliber – within shouting distance.

Sugar Shock (12-1) comes into the Kentucky Oaks after putting forth a sparkling campaign over the winter at Oaklawn Park – a campaign which included three wins from four starts (she actually won all four of her starts but was disqualified for interference in the GIII Honeybee). I think trainer Doug Anderson has a nice filly on his hands, but I do have some questions about the surface at Oaklawn. It was plain as day that Sugar Shock was tiring in the Honeybee, which would explain why she was making more lane changes during the stretch-drive than drivers on the Massachusetts Turnpike at rush-hour normally do. In her subsequent start in the Fantasy, both she and Kiss Moon ran 1-2 the entire 8.5 furlongs, each finishing well clear of the third place runner. My big concern is that Oaklawn had a fairly significant speed bias that day, which would have enabled Sugar Shock to carry her speed the entire way. There is little doubt that she has talent and her tactical speed is undoubtedly an asset…I’m just not sure she really wants to go 9 furlongs.

Rosalind (20-1) is coming off a thrilling victory in the Grade I Ashland at Keeneland, a race in which she dead-heated for the win along with Room Service. All indications are that she’s thriving at Churchill Downs, but the fact of the matter is she’s never won on dirt before, and I think this filly’s future is on the grass or synthetic. My biggest concern with Rosalind is the potential “bounce” factor off her race at Keeneland. Both she and Room Service were seven lengths clear of the show runner, Thank You Marylou, and the 14 point improvement on the Beyer Speed Figure scale is a rather significant jump. Maybe she’s just getting good at the right time…or maybe she’s set to regress in a major way.

Thank You Marylou (30-1) has the pedigree to stay the 9 furlong distance of the Oaks, but her lackluster effort in the Ashland last month at Keeneland has left a sour taste in my mouth. Another concern is that her only truly fast race came at Gulfstream Park – a surface that certain horses have been known to have an affinity for. If she had shown me ANYTHING in the Ashland, I’d likely have her less than 30-1…but she didn’t. On the bright side – she’s hit the board in all four of her lifetime starts, so she could round out the exotics nicely.

Perhaps I have Kiss Moon (15-1) valued too high – as I stated earlier, the surface at Oaklawn on Fantasy Day favored speed, and she was no doubt one of the beneficiaries. Having said that, one of the handicapping angles I favor most is a horse that will be running in blinkers for the second time. Her first try with the shades on was very encouraging (bias or no bias), and if she takes a step forward off that effort second time blinks? She could have a say in the outcome at a big price. I think it’s also worth noting that jockey Victor Espinoza picks up the mount on this daughter of Malibu Moon for the Oaks.

Fashion Plate (20-1) was a solid winner of the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks last month, beating the aforementioned Ria Antonia in the process. The problem Fashion Plate is going to face in the Kentucky Oaks that she didn’t face in the Santa Anita Oaks is pace pressure. Fashion Plate was allowed to walk on the lead in the SA Oaks, setting fractions of :23 and 3, :47 and 1 and 1:11 flat (all very pedestrian times at Santa Anita Park) en route to a front running score. She isn’t likely to get such a soft trip in Louisville, and at the end of the day I’m not sure how good I think the fillies from California really are.

I wish I could make a case for Aurelia’s Belle (100-1)…but I really can’t. She should sit a nice trip, but she’s light-years behind the majority of the fillies in this race. If she has any say in the outcome, I’ll be shocked.

If there’s one filly that I’m likely to bet in this race (if I get fair value), it’s Unbridled Forever (12-1). A daughter of Unbridled’s Song, Unbridled Forever has already shown that she enjoys the main track at Churchill Downs, having broken her maiden there last fall going 7 panels and receiving a 96 BSF in the process. Her last start was in the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks, a race in which she was soundly defeated by Untapable and Fiftyshadesofgold. While she got trounced in that spot by one of the fillies in this race, I definitely think she needed a race for fitness and should be able to take a major step forward in the Kentucky Oaks. The pedigree is there, the Speed Figures put her reasonably close to the likely favorite in this spot, and she should have a decent pace to close in to. I think Unbridled Forever has an outside shot in the Oaks if she fires her “A+” game.

Empress of Midway (100-1) is another filly that I think is way over-matched in this spot. I think the biggest thing she can do in the Oaks is muddle the pace scenario, which at the end of the day could greatly alter the outcome. She’ll be up close early, but I doubt she’ll be around late. Another shocker if she were to win.

My Miss Sophia (10-1) is one of two fillies entered in the Kentucky Oaks by trainer Todd Pletcher, and she would seem to be the better of the two. In her first start against winners last out, she not only won the Grade II Gazelle at Aqueduct – she won by more than seven lengths. While she did get loose on the lead and was allowed to set very soft splits, I believe this filly has the ability to rate kindly and sit just off the likes of Fashion Plate and Empress of Midway. If she does, she should get first run on the closers and could be tough to run down late. Another thing to like about My Miss Sophia is the fact that she’s already won at the 9 furlong distance – something none of the other fillies have done. If you’re looking to play against the favorite, maybe My Miss Sophia is your horse.

Got Lucky (30-1) is the other Pletcher entrant in the Oaks, and she’s run into some of the best of her generation early on in her career. Out of five career starts, she’s accrued a victory and FOUR placings – something that can be very valuable when it comes to creating exotic wagers. She’s been soundly defeated by both My Miss Sophia and Untapable this year, and I don’t see her turning the tables on either or both of them in this spot. However, she could be a nice horse use underneath in exotics.

One’s handicapping of the 140th Kentucky Oaks really comes down to one question – do you think Untapable (1-1) is the real deal or not? If you think she’s legit, there really isn’t any need to do much handicapping. Her past two graded stakes efforts at Fair Grounds jump off the page, winning one by more than nine lengths and the other by nearly eight lengths – and neither of them were under much urging from rider Rosie Napravnik. Each of those performances were of supreme quality, and if she delivers anything close to either of those, the rest of the field will be running for second. All that being said, if you’re on the fence about Untapable, there are a few things you can hang your hat on. One thing to consider is the fact that each of her triple digit Beyer Speed Figures came at Fair Grounds…horse for course possibly? Another item that could be pointed to is that while she’s 2-2 racing at Churchill Downs, each of those races came back relatively light on the BSF scale and she only won them by a combined length and a half. If you’re not a believer, there are a few things that you can lean on to make your case.

I would love to pick Unbridled Forever on top in the Kentucky Oaks, but I simply can’t deny the talent that Untapable has shown this winter in Louisiana. This may be high praise, but each of her victories at Fair Grounds were Rachel Alexandra-esq performances. The outside post is of little concern to me, as she has done her best running in a stalking or off the pace fashion. At the end of the day, I just think Untapable is head and shoulders above the rest of the three year old fillies at this point (and possibly the colts/geldings, as well). I like Untapable to win the Grade I Kentucky Oaks.

SELECTION: #13 – Untapable, Rosie Napravnik; ML 4-5

Value Play: #9- Unbridled Forever, Robbie Albarado; ML 12-1

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