An Unconventional Road to the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby

August 31, 2020

Interestingly enough, the Covid-19 pandemic impacted most sports more than it did horse racing, at least in the United States. Sure we felt it, and it changed quite a bit, but for the most part horse racing soldiered on and adapted to the situation better than most of the mainstream sports who have swallowed up our game as low hanging fruit. It was not all that long ago horse racing was the number one spectator sport in the country. That sounds like a bizarre statement today. With all our problems and issues, we managed to keep on keeping on through 2020 and all it has brought. I think all our participants deserve a High Five and shout out for that.

With the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby being run on the first weekend in September as opposed to May, there are things that are going to be different. That goes without saying. A lot of powerhouse outfits point for these two classic races, and they start on their horses early. Pushing the races back four months negates any early foundation edges some horses would have had. Had we Run for the Roses on the first Saturday in May, Tiz the Law probably would not have been as heavy a favorite, if favored at all like he will be come Derby Day. He’d likely had to face Charlatan, and Nadal, two very promising Kentucky Derby prospects from Bob Baffert. Bob knows a thing or two about winning the Derby and both those horses looked like legit threats to get him the Kentucky Derby record he is closing in on. It was not to be. Schedules changed, injuries occurred, and the complexion of the race is totally different. Timing is everything.

Covid-19 changed a lot about these two races, and some of that will probably have an impact on the outcomes. With all that Covid-19 changed, there are a few approaches to the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby this year that on the surface don’t appear to be related to Covid-19. There are horses which have been brought to the two big three-year old dances in ways we don’t see all that often. “Very interesting.”

Ladies first, let’s talk Kentucky Oaks.

Swiss Skydiver who will be one of the favorites for the Oaks ran against the colts in July at Keeneland in the Blue Grass. She was the 2-1 favorite and ran a game second. One could argue she showed she belonged. The Blue Grass is traditionally a prep for the Kentucky Derby. In 2020 it is a prep for the Kentucky Oaks. Swiss Skydiver opted to return to racing against her own sex and won the Alabama and heads into the Oaks with a second place finish against the boys in the Grade 2 Bluegrass on her resume. You don’t see that every year.

Donna Veloce appears to be heading to the Oaks off one race this year, an easy win in the Santa Ysabel back on March 8th. I have always thought she was an extremely talented filly, the best of the two-year old fillies last year in my opinion, but six months is six months. That is a pretty long layoff to try and win the Kentucky Oaks. Simon Callaghan is sharp, and he must really like what he sees if he is taking this shot, especially in a year that has such a strong looking field.

Nobody is better than Bob Baffert bringing a horse to a peak race for the big dance. Gamine comes to the Kentucky Oaks lightly raced. She has just four starts, and three have been around one turn. Last out she ran in and won the Grade 1 Test at Saratoga at 7 furlongs. Although she had Kentucky Oaks type filly written on her forehead since her debut in March, as a three -year old, Bob took an unconventional path here. She went a mile and a sixteenth at Oaklawn and fought out a gritty victory over Speech who she’ll see again on Saturday, but then Bob made it interesting. He cut her back to a one turn mile and she romped in the Acorn and then cut her back again to 7 furlongs for her Test win. Obviously Bob wanted her super sharp, but he has worked her off another horse and allowed her to roll past in the stretch recently.

If Antoinette runs she will have been prepped by Bill Mott in the Saratoga Oaks, which is on the grass. She’s probably not a likely starter.

Venetian Harbor also ran in the Test at Saratoga and she may be back for the Oaks on Saturday. Her connections were quite vocal in their belief she was compromised by not making the lead in the Test. If she shows up on Saturday you’d have to expect her to gun for the lead. I also don’t expect her in the gate for the Oaks.

This looks like a field with a lot of talent and some unique approaches to the race. I’m intrigued and looking forward to a great and possibly epic renewal of the Kentucky Oaks. It is also quite likely we will see a training masterpiece.

On to the Kentucky Derby.

First things first, no points required. You wanna run just pony up. No lines no waiting.

Most people this year see the Kentucky Derby as a foregone conclusion for Tiz the Law with the only one with a chance to beat him being Art Collector. I see things differently. I usually do.

One big thing Covid-19 changed for this year is that we already know Kentucky Derby favorite Tiz the Law can get a mile and a quarter. We usually have to ponder who will and who won’t get the Derby distance. Not in 2020 as Tiz the Law prepped in the Travers for the Derby and handled the mile and a quarter with no problem. Oh yeah, he also won the Belmont Stakes in June, but not a a mile and a half, it was abbreviated to a one turn mile and an eighth. Tiz the Law will likely be the shortest priced favorite to start in the Kentucky Derby in a while, maybe since Arazi. Last I checked to roses are awarded to the horse that wins, not goes off favored. Tiz the Law still has to show up Saturday and get it done.

Art Collector the probable second choice prepped at Ellis Park in the Ellis Park Derby which he won easily. Before that he beat the Kentucky Oaks favorite in the Bluegrass.

Speed is always dangerous. Bob Baffert shows up with two colts who have speed. Thousand Words won the Shared Belief at Del mar after running second in the Los Alamitos Derby at none other than Los Alamitos. Promising early on in his career the pricey colt at a cool million looks to be coming back to his best at the right time for Bob. Authentic is the horse nobody thinks can get the mile and a quarter. he comes in off a win by a nose in the Haskell at a mile and an eighth around two turns, but Bob thinks he can get the added ground under the right circumstances.

King Guillermo is sort of the wise-guy horse for the Derby this year. he is working well, very well actually and that has created a buzz around him. With only five starts, two of which were on the grass, he hasn’t run since second to Nadal back on May 2nd at Oaklawn Park. A four month lay-off into the Kentucky Derby is an unconventional approach for sure and leaves this talented colt with an awful lot to do. If he does trainer Juan Carlos Avila goes right into the Derby Hall of Fame and deservedly so. I respect a trainer who says I know my horse and know what I can do. Let’s see how it plays put.

Too bad Shirl’s Speight defected. He would have fit perfectly into the 2020 146th Kentucky Derby with just two starts, no points, and first time on the dirt off both turf and synthetic.

Sole Volante brings Patrick Biancone and jockey Luca Panici to the Kentucky Derby. Sole Volante is probably one of the better turf three-year olds in the country. He is pretty good on the dirt also. Biancone last run him in Tiz the Law’s Belmont and comes back fresher in the Derby. He has been working on the turf for a start in the big dance on the dirt. Hmmmm.

Jesus’ Team is pointing to the Kentucky Derby and he broke his maiden in a maiden claimer for $32,000 and ran back for $25,000. Considering the horse who finished first last year ran for maiden claiming $16,000, Jesus’ Team fits.

Storm the Court, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner who has not won since comes in off a second place finish on the grass at Del Mar in the Grade 3 La Jolla.

It is going to be an interesting weekend at the races and an interesting Oaks and Derby. No matter when you run it, once the gate opens it will be the most exciting two minutes in sports. It doesn’t have to be the first Saturday in May for that.

For a detailed deep dive look at the action this weekend at Churchill Downs join us for our live interactive Oaks-Derby webinar. get all the info and register here:

Photo Credit: Churchill Downs/Coady Photography

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

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