Today marks the 139th running of the Kentucky Oaks, and one of the most contentious runnings in memory. In a star-studded field of ten fillies (after the defection of Flashy Gray), any number of them would be a heavy favorite in another year.
The tentative morning line favorite is Dreaming of Julia, installed at 3-1 on the morning line after her dominating 20+ length win in the Gulfstream Park Oaks(G2) last time. However, she is not a lock by any means. Also in the field are 2-year-old champion Beholder, coming off of two consecutive G1 wins at Santa Anita; the undefeated Unlimited Budget, Rachel Alexandra Stakes(G3) and Fair Grounds Oaks(G2) victor; Bob Baffert’s brilliant but lightly raced Midnight Lucky, who won her only two starts by a combined 15 1/4 lengths; and Bill Mott’s Gazelle(G2) winner Close Hatches, undefeated in three lifetime starts.
Below is my horse-by-horse analysis of the race.
Silsita draws the rail, and she is one of Todd Pletcher’s four entrants in the race. She gamely won the Bourbonette Oaks(G3) at Turfway Park in her last start, but finished a distant fourth in an allowance race in her only dirt try. Unlimited Budget has been consistently outworking her in the mornings, and her 20-1 morning line odds seem representative of her chances.
Midnight Lucky is Bob Baffert’s only horse in either the Oaks or Derby this year, but she may be all he needs. She has only two lifetime starts, but broke her maiden by 7 1/4 at Santa Anita in her debut before following that effort up with an 8-length score in the Sunland Park Oaks. The daughter of Midnight Lute is a potential pace factor in here, sitting just off a quick pace in both of her starts. She clearly has the most upside, as we may not have seen the best of her yet, but this is a massive class test today.
Two-year-old champion Beholder was the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) in front-running fashion, and while she lost her 3-year-old debut to Renee’s Titan in the Santa Ynez (G2), she returned to win both the Las Virgenes Stakes (G1) and Santa Anita Oaks (G2) by daylight. It is worth noting that her loss in the Santa Ynez came when she did not get the early lead – all of her wins were wire-to-wire. She may be the fastest horse early, but the daughter of multiple G1-winning sprinter Henny Hughes is not bred to go a distance and while she has two wins at 1 1/16 miles, the prospect of her negotiating 9 furlongs with significant pace pressure is a shaky one.
Unlimited Budget is another of Todd Pletcher’s squad and is undefeated in four starts. She has a win at the distance in the Demoiselle Stakes (G2) at two. She has tactical speed but has won from as far as nine lengths back, which should allow jockey Javier Castellano to put her in the best possible position behind the speed horses. She has been posting consistently increasing beyer figures and has reportedly been working well at Churchill.
In a race full of speed – six of the ten horses have been on the lead at first call at least once in their career, it may be worth trying to find a horse who has proven successful rating. One such horse is Seaneen Girl, who won the Golden Rod Stakes (G2) at this track last year. In her only start at three, she was third behind Unlimited Budget in the Fair Grounds Oaks. While she was beaten four lengths by that rival at Fair Grounds, she had a right to need the race and has the potential to improve. However, in such a deep group of fillies it seems unlikely that she will be able to improve to that extent. Jockey Rosie Napravnik is trying to repeat in the Kentucky Oaks after winning on Believe You Can last year.
Todd Pletcher also has Princess of Sylmar breaking from the six post. After breaking her maiden by 19 lengths in her second start, she posted three consecutive wins at Aqueduct, but was defeated by Close Hatches in her first attempt against graded stakes company in the Gazelle (G2). She should be coming from fairly far back under Mike Smith, who rides her for the first time. She would need to show significant improvement to contend here.
Pure Fun will probably be last or second-to-last early, and that could play to her advantage if there is a pace meltdown late in the race. The Ken McPeek trainee is coming off of a dull effort against males in the Lexington Stakes (G3) at Keeneland. She won the Hollywood Starlet (G1) at two, and was third behind Silsita in the Bourbonette Oaks (G3). She is one of two horses in the race with a win over the track, having won a mile allowance race by over nine lengths last November. Aside from her effort last time out, she has been consistent, if not impressive. She adds Lasix for the first time today, and a return to the site of her best career performance could help her wake up. She should have the right setup, it’s just a matter of if she’s good enough.
Dreaming of Julia is the favorite and the last of Todd Pletcher’s entrants. The royally bred daughter of A.P. Indy is coming off of a 21 3/4-length victory in the Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2), where she posted a 114 Beyer figure and the best ThoroughGraph figure in history, a negative eight. Off of such a dominating performance, the only questions is whether she can run her best race today. She was third behind Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup, and lost the Davona Dale (G2) in her 3yo debut, so she is not invincible, but even so it is hard to make a strong case against her. Unlike horses like Midnight Lucky, Unlimited Budget, and Close Hatches, she has been battle-tested, out-gaming the talented My Happy Face in the Frizette Stakes (G1) last year. She has a high cruising speed and should be a pace factor, though she does not need the lead.
Rose to Gold is 15-1 on the morning line and that is simply an indicator of the depth of the field. Her only poor race was on a synthetic surface at Keeneland, and aside from that she has five wins and a second in six starts. She is coming off of two wire-to-wire wins at Oaklawn Park in the Honeybee (G3) and Fantasy Stakes (G3). She broke her maiden by 13 lengths on debut in an ungraded stakes at Calder, and followed that effort up with another ungraded stakes win, this one by 13 1/2 lengths. After a 12th-place effort in the Alcibiades (G1) on polytrack, she returned to win the Delta Princess (G3) in her final start at two. She lost her 3yo debut in Oaklawn’s Martha Washington Stakes, but bounced back to win her next two starts, including the Honeybee by 2 3/4 lengths over Flashy Gray, who would run second to Unlimited Budget in the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2), beaten 1 3/4 lengths.
Close Hatches is the 11 horse but will break from post ten after Flashy Gray’s scratch. The daughter of First Defence is undefeated in three starts. Her Beyer figures have improved with each start, and while she won her last two, including Aqueduct’s Gazelle Stakes (G2) in wire-to-wire fashion, she broke her maiden by seven lengths at Gulfstream after being eight back at first call. She is ridden by the red-hot Joel Rosario, who will have the option to survey the field from the outside post and determine whether to send the Juddmonte filly or rate off the pace.
Almost any of these talented fillies could take home the lilies today, but my top pick is Unlimited Budget. She is steadily improving and I think her versatility will make the difference today. Dreaming of Julia is the horse to beat, but I will go with Pletcher’s other powerhouse filly on top, including Dreaming of Julia and Close Hatches in exactas.
My longshot selection to hit the board is Pure Fun. She should be closing late, and I’ll be placing a show bet on her just in case the pace falls apart.