By TimeformUS Analyst Mike Beer
The first Saturday in May has long been an important date on the racing calendar. Whether hard-core racing insider, casual racing fan on the periphery, or somewhere in between, one’s attention is almost invariably drawn to the Kentucky Derby. But in recent years, the Derby’s female counterpart, the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, has become a major event in its own right. The Oaks will once again draw a huge crowd to Churchill Downs this Friday, and it will kick off this biggest of racing weekends in fine style, with an overflow field of well-matched 3yo fillies.
Contested over a mile and 1/8 for a purse of $1 million, this year’s Kentucky Oaks has a little bit of everything. There are three legitimate fillies leading the way in: Condo Commando from the right, Stellar Wind from the left, and I’m a Chatterbox from the middle, all of them entering on the strength of clear-cut victories in their final prep races. Their 11 rivals in the main body of the race have all, save one, finished in the money in their final preps. Condo Commando has three times topped the 100 mark on our speed figures. Stellar Wind managed to reach those heights for the first time in her final prep. Otherwise, we are looking at a big field of horses, most of whom have a typical race that will find them running a figure in the low-to-mid 90s.
According to Pace Projector, #5 Condo Commando will be taking up her usual position on the front end. #4 Eskenformoney and #11 Sarah Sis will be tracking in closest order, with the trio of #6 Angela Renee, #7 Lovely Maria, and #9 Money’soncharlotte just behind them. Among the closers are #12 Stellar Wind, who is the slight ML favorite for the Oaks, and #13 Birdatthewire.
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We find something to like about most of the fillies in this race, so let’s go through all of them, one at a time, in post position order (ML odds will be in parentheses):
#1 is Forever Unbridled (15/1). She seems to have been born to run in this race. Her dam, Lemons Forever, won the Oaks in 2006. Her full sister, Unbridled Forever, finished 3rd in this race last year, well behind the mighty Untapable. Forever Unbridled is just 1 for 5 as she enters the biggest race of her life, and she has been defeated by I’m a Chatterbox three straight times, without apparent excuse. But she has been improving from start to start (TFUS Speed Figures from her November debut through the Fair Grounds Oaks: 72-73-81-88-94). She has drawn an excellent post on the inside. And she gets a rider change to Mike Smith, a big money rider if ever there was one.
#2 is Shook Up (30/1). Like Forever Unbridled, with whom she has traded decisions while finishing behind I’m a Chatterbox during the prep season, she enters this race on an improving pattern while eligible for an entry-level allowance race, and will begin from an inside post. She has flashed plenty of ability to this point, while giving the impression that she may still need a bit more time to put everything together. After easily blowing away maidens in her first route attempt, she chased a front-running Lovely Maria on a slow pace (in TimeformUS PPs, the slow pace is denoted with Pace Figures/fractions shaded blue) in an allowance race. She appeared to compromise her chances while trying to lug in all the way through the stretch in that race, and that is a habit that has followed her throughout her career. If she can figure things out enough to hold a straight line through the stretch of this race, she may prove to have sufficient talent to spring the upset. But that seems to be asking quite a bit in a race like the Oaks.
#3 is Include Betty (20/1). Deep closer (she’s expected to be so far away early that she doesn’t even make our Pace Projector picture) will be looking for a pace collapse as she seeks her fourth straight win on dirt. She has made visually impressive runs from far back in each of her two stakes wins, though she did have some things go her way in those races: a fast pace in Tampa’s Suncoast (in TimeformUS PPs, note Pace Figures/fractions shaded red) and a solid set-up over closer-friendly track (note Race Rating Box shaded blue) in the Grade 3 Fantasy. She owns the top Late Pace Rating in the Oaks field by a clear margin (104, next best is 86), and we have little doubt that we will see her rallying through the stretch on Friday.
#4 is Eskenformoney (20/1). After beginning her career with several races on grass for Todd Pletcher (not something we are taking as a great sign), she was switched to dirt at Keeneland last October, where she was defeated without excuse after holding a clear late advantage. She then stayed on dirt all winter long at Gulfstream Park. She defeated maidens and first-level allowance horses over a one-turn mile, and has since fallen just short in a pair of graded stakes races. Her TFUS Speed Figures top out at 88 and 89 for those stakes tries, and she has never been this 9-furlong trip. We aren’t going to talk anyone off of longshots from this barn, but this horse has to improve quite a bit on Friday, and we want to see her run a good race outside of Florida.
#5 is Condo Commando (4/1).
The fastest horse in the race and yet a very tough call. We have no doubt that Condo Commando is a real talent. We have no doubt about her ability at this distance, over which she has already won twice. We have no doubt that she is capable of a performance that would be very hard on this field, having earned TFUS Speed Figures of 101, 105 and 104 already in her career. And we have no doubt that she is fast enough to make the early lead in the Oaks, assuming that she is ridden with those tactics in mind (and, really, why wouldn’t she be?). Her final prep for this was a comprehensive win on a fast early pace (in our PPs, note early Pace Figures/fractions shaded red) in the Grade 2 Gazelle, but, in the event that you have followed NY racing over the past 9 months or so, you are likely aware of the questions surrounding some of Condo Commando’s better performances. In the event that you haven’t followed that circuit so closely, TimeformUS past performances will easily make those questions clear for you. After romping in her Saratoga debut, Condo Commando went directly to the Grade 1 Spinaway, where she would post another blowout win on the front end, this one over a track that was favoring speed (in our PPs, note Race Rating Box shaded red). Two starts later, Condo Commando closed out her 2yo campaign in a jog while racing with the grain of another speed-favoring track in the Grade 2 Demoiselle (Race Rating Box again in red). She won the Busher in her 3yo debut while loose on the lead vs. inferior rivals (Race Rating 88). Despite her obvious talent, we feel that we may be on solid-enough ground in standing against her at a short price.
#6 is Angela Renee (15/1). Second of Pletcher’s pair, she is one of the four prior Grade 1 winners in the main body of the field (#15 Peace and War makes five, should she draw in). She won the Grade 1 Chandelier at Santa Anita as a 2yo, and did so with the benefit of a perfect trip, earning a TFUS Speed Figure of 91. She has run four times since and has yet to get beyond that 91, which is the real concern. In fact, as we approach the one-year anniversary of her career debut last June at Belmont, she still has yet to surpass the figure of 92 she earned that day. She was no match for Lovely Maria after tracking along with the pace in the Grade 1 Ashland last time, but we wonder if she wouldn’t be better served by the more conservative tactics employed two starts back in the Rachel Alexandra. Allowed to fall out to the back of the field early in that spot, Angela Renee closed gamely late to just miss a photo for 2nd in what we thought was one of her best performances. She is clearly tactical enough to race up close, but if we were assured that she was going to try one run from off the pace in this race, we would be using her.
#7 is Lovely Maria (5/1). Improving filly earned new career top figure of 94 in Grade 1 Ashland win on the way to the Oaks for trainer Larry Jones, who has won this race twice. She projects to be one of the runners racing closest to Condo Commando on the lead, so she may be put to the test early on as she attempts this 9-furlong distance for the first time. Nothing wrong with entering the biggest race of your career while in top form, as is the case with this horse, but she is likely to have to go forward again, and she may not have the easiest time of it if racing Condo Commando early and then having to take on the closers late.
#8 is I’m a Chatterbox (4/1). Versatility has been her calling card since entering the Jones barn early this year. She dominated the Silverbulletday on the front end with a TFUS Speed Figure of 91. She came from last to close down the Rachel Alexandra with a TFUS Speed Figure of 93. She stalked the pace from close range en route to completing the sweep of the Fair Grounds prep races in the FG Oaks with a TFUS Speed Figure of 99. She is clearly an improved horse from the one who went 0-for-2 over this Churchill surface as a 2yo, and we think a convincing case could be made for her being the favorite in this race come post time.
#9 is Money’soncharlotte (50/1). Longest shot on the track’s ML is taking on a tough assignment here while looking for her first stakes win. She was most recently 3rd in Condo Commando’s Gazelle, but she did very little running in that spot, and just sucked up for 3rd late while never factoring in the outcome. She has posted both career wins in front-running fashion, and she will switch to an aggressive rider for this race, so don’t be surprised to see her trying to be a forward factor early.
#10 is Oceanwave (30/1). She is not yet a stakes winner of any kind, but she is yet another filly entering this race on an improving pattern. She returned to the track for her 3yo debut with an impressive late run over 6 furlongs to defeat allowance rivals. She stepped it up strongly in her next race, the Grade 3 Honeybee, closing gamely late to close the gap on winner Sarah Sis with a figure of 88. She once again closed gamely in the Grade 3 Fantasy, but only after the winner, Include Betty, got the jump on her. She came up just short at the end, but her effort was good for another new top figure of 91. She switches to Rafael Bejarano for this race, and we like her chances to catch a fair set-up, and to make a run into it.
#11 is Sarah Sis (30/1). Underrated filly has made few mistakes through the first seven starts of her career. She put a scare into last year’s 2yo filly champ, Take Charge Brandi, in the Martha Washington at the end of January, and she has continued in good form from there. She was able to land a nice trip away from a run-off leader before going on to win the Honeybee, but she was too close to a pace that would ultimately collapse in the Fantasy last time, and she was also held up in some traffic as the closers were swinging into action in that race. She is a bit of a question mark over these longer distances, but with the right trip, she may be able to overcome her limitations, and she will be a big price in this race.
#12 is Stellar Wind (7/2). Lightly raced filly has come a long way in a short time. She was privately purchased after breaking her maiden impressively at Laurel in December, and she quickly added a pair of graded stakes wins to her resume for her new connections. Her two wins in Southern California were quite similar, in that she was away from the gate a bit slowly both times before moving into range and then sweeping around the field on the outside en route to winning clear. She has put up TFUS Speed Figures that suggest that she is going to be a handful in this race (95, 104) if she can continue down that path, which may not be a given, considering how much developing she has already done in such a short time. Her trainer does a very good job overall (82 Trainer Rating), but he has struggled to get his horses to transfer their form (21 rating at Churchill Downs), and he has also done poorly with his 3yo stakes runners off of this kind of spacing between races (39 rating).
#13 is Birdatthewire (6/1). She is the best of the fillies exiting Gulfstream for this race, though we aren’t so sure what that says about her. Her win on the turn-back in the Forward Gal was impressive, though she had the benefit of a fast pace out in front of her that day (In our PPs, see Pace Figures/fractions shaded red), and she never changed leads in the stretch. She had no excuse when failing to close down the longshot Ekati’s Phaeton in the Davona Dale next time out, and, while taking over late to become a multiple graded stakes winner in the GP Oaks most recently, she failed to break through from a speed figure standpoint, earning a TFUS Speed Figure of 88. We think she can get the right kind of trip in this race, and we like that she is a prior winner over this track (that maiden win last November also came with the benefit of a fast pace that gave way for her), but we would have an awfully difficult time taking anything like 6/1 on her on top.
#14 is Puca (15/1). There is some talent here, and this may be a filly sitting on a big forward move in this race. She will just have to overcome post 14 in order to show it. She was a tough call heading into last year’s BC Juvenile Fillies, with only a blowout win over an overmatched field of maidens to her credit, but she exited that race looking like one of the more unlucky runners to compete in the championship races over the two days, after getting caught in traffic while rallying late. She will be third off the layoff in the Oaks for a Hall of Fame trainer (90 rating for Mott third off the layoff), after she was surprisingly sent to the early lead in the Gazelle last time, even briefly being in front of Condo Commando early in that race. She is likely to revert to her closing ways on Friday, and if she can work out a trip, we think she will be a factor.
We are against Condo Commando and Stellar Wind as the two favorites, though the latter will make our play underneath. Of the bigger prices, we are most interested in #10 Oceanwave and will make her our top pick. We will key Oceanwave with #2 Shook Up, #7 Lovely Maria, #8 I’m a Chatterbox, #11 Sarah Sis, #14 Puca, and a little of #6 Angela Renee (just in case they take her back early).