Secret Oath captures last year’s Kentucky Oaks under Luis Saez (Coady Photography)
By Ashley Tamulonis
In a previous article, I examined the importance of winning the final Kentucky Derby prep, as well as which preps were the most successful in turning out winners. In keeping with that theme, I now turn to the fillies and their final tune-ups for the Kentucky Oaks. As with the Derby, we are now in the final stages of the Road to the Kentucky Oaks. Unlike the Derby, there are no foreign preps, however, like the Derby, most of the remaining races are worth a total of 200 points, awarded on a 100-40-30-20-10 scale. Turfway Park’s Bourbonette Oaks (50-20-15-10-5), Sunland Park’s Sunland Park Oaks (50-20-15-10-5), and Keeneland’s Beaumont (10-4-3-2-1) are the exception to this.
With the Kentucky Oaks just seven weeks away, we will be seeing the nation’s top fillies enter the starting gate for the last time in the next few weeks prior to their Run for the Lillies. We will likely only see each one more time between now and the First Friday in May, and there are only nine points races left on tap. With the colts, we found that the Arkansas Derby, Florida Derby, and Santa Anita Derby were the most successful final preps for the Kentucky Derby, but are Oaklawn Park, Gulfstream Park, and Santa Anita Park’s preps as important for the Kentucky Oaks as they are for the Derby?
With no controversies marring the running of the Kentucky Oaks since 2000, we have “just” 23 total winners. Only eleven Kentucky Oaks winners won their final prep. Another five winners were 2nd, and another four were 3rd in their final Oaks tune-up, including last year’s winner Secret Oath. Only two failed to land in the trifecta: Farda Amiga in 2002 and Serengeti Empress in 2019.
Eleven different races have served as the final tune-up for the Kentucky Oaks since 2000, including the Indiana Oaks in topsy-turvy 2020. Far and away the most successful of those races has been Keeneland’s Ashland Stakes, producing seven winners. Runner-up is the Santa Anita Oaks with four winners, and the Fair Grounds Oaks claims three Kentucky Oaks winners.
Post-time favorites have been wildly inconsistent. Since 2000, only eight favorites have won the Run for the Lillies. While the change from the graded stakes earnings system to the points system drastically changed the complexion of the Kentucky Derby, it has not had quite the same impact on the Kentucky Oaks. From 2000 to 2012, five favorites won. Beginning in 2013, three favorites have won. The biggest upset came in 2006 when Lemons Forever upset the Oaks off a 3rd place finish in the Bourbonette Breeders’ Cup Stakes at Turfway Park. Meanwhile, the legendary Rachel Alexandra was the heavy 2-5 favorite when she trounced her Oaks field by a historic 20 ¼-lengths off an open lengths victory in Oaklawn’s Fantasy Stakes.
The takeaway here is that the fillies are a lot harder to predict than the colts. With that said, it pays to take a hard look at the Ashland Stakes runners regardless of whether they won at Keeneland or not. Four of the seven fillies that won the Kentucky Oaks after running in the Ashland Stakes were the post-time favorite. Only one filly each exiting the Santa Anita Oaks and the Fair Grounds Oaks ended up as the Kentucky Oaks favorite.
We’re a few days to a couple of weeks away from the three most successful Kentucky Oaks preps: the $400,000, Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks at Fair Grounds on March 25, the $600,000, Grade 3 Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn on April 1, and the $600,000, Grade 1 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland on April 7. Honeybee winner Wet Paint could have her final prep in either the Fantasy or the Ashland. Her undefeated stablemate Punchbowl is also possible for one of those two races.
Champion 2-Year-Old Filly Wonder Wheel is nominated to the Ashland. Other notable nominees include Julia Shining, Demoiselle winner and full sister to Malathaat; Leave No Trace, runner-up to Wonder Wheel in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies; and Forward Gal winner Red Carpet Ready. Chop Chop, runner-up to Wonder Wheel in the Darley Alcibiades, was nominated but is unlikely to run after going winless in 2023 and most recently finishing 3rd in the Allen LaCombe Memorial on the turf.
While undefeated Santa Ysabel winner Faiza could show up again at Santa Anita in the Santa Anita Oaks, the Girvin filly was never nominated to the Kentucky Oaks and has remained under the care of Bob Baffert, rendering her ineligible for Churchill Downs’s premier race for 3-year-old fillies. It’s a shame that Faiza will not be in the Kentucky Oaks as she is far and away the best filly in the crop; however, it does make the Oaks more competitive.
This weekend’s Fair Grounds Oaks attracted Golden Rod winner Hoosier Philly, Silverbulletday winner The Alys Look, and Rachel Alexandra winner Pretty Mischievous, who upset Hoosier Philly last month in the prep for this race. Pretty Mischievous was let go at 8-1 odds in the Rachel Alexandra, but don’t look to get those same odds Saturday. The Into Mischief filly earned a career-best 90 Brisnet speed rating when beating the odds-on favorite, who received just an 80-speed rating for her 8 ½-length defeat. The Alys Look and Hoosier Philly have the best speed ratings in the field with each having earned a 93: The Alys Look in the Silverbulletday and Hoosier Philly in the Rags to Riches at Churchill Downs.
Only two other fillies will contest the Fair Grounds Oaks: Southlawn and Christian d’Oro. Southlawn ran a career-best race last out, taking an optional claiming field 1 1/16-mile in gate-to-wire fashion, spurting away to win by 8 lengths with a 91-speed rating. Christian d’Oro exits a well-beaten 4th place finish in Sunland Park’s Island Fashion Stakes. Prior to that, she took Sunland Park’s Borderplex Stakes all the way.
Hoosier Philly looks to get a good set-up, drawn outside all the speed. All four fillies she will be facing have shown plenty of early speed, so I expect to see Hoosier Philly in last early but not far off the leader. She and Pretty Mischievous also have the advantage of recent races under their girths since The Alys Look skipped the Rachel Alexandra.
Let there be no doubt, whichever of the big three fillies in the Fair Grounds Oaks wins will be one of the favorites heading into May.