By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Races with just five starters are typically the type that
get racing fans stirred up and excited, but from a sporting perspective it will
be hard for any race this weekend to top Sunday's $300,000 Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I) at Saratoga in terms
of high-level intrigue and competition.
The nine-furlong race for three-year-old fillies might
have a small field, but three of the five starters are graded stakes winners
and the other two have placed at the Grade 1 level, so the quality of the
competitors is unquestionable. That said, two fillies—Monomoy Girl and Midnight
Bisou—do stand above the others on paper and figure to turn the Coaching Club
American Oaks into an exciting match race worthy of its status as the feature
race on opening weekend at Saratoga.
Girl is expected to be favored in the wagering, and deservedly
so. The daughter of Tapizar has compiled a near-perfect 7-for-8 record that
includes five graded stakes victories, and this year alone she's 4-for-4 and has
been challenged only once. After winning the Rachel Alexandra Stakes (gr. II)
with a last-to-first rally and the Ashland Stakes (gr. I) in gate-to-wire
fashion, Monomoy Girl stamped herself as the leading three-year-old filly in
training with a hard-fought win in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), in which she
tracked the pace before out-dueling future Queen's Plate Stakes winner Wonder
Gadot by a half-length in an exciting battle down the homestretch.
Five weeks later, Monomoy Girl came right back and
parlayed a similar trip into an easy two-length score in the Acorn Stakes (gr.
I) at Belmont, running her final quarter-mile in about :23 3/5 to defeat future
Indiana Oaks (gr. III) winner Talk Veuve to Me by two lengths.
I have no knocks against Monomoy Girl, who is a rising
star and a neck away from being unbeaten in eight starts. She can flat-out run
and has trained well since the Acorn Stakes, suggesting that she'll have every
chance to win a fourth straight Grade 1 race on Sunday.
Yet despite Monomoy Girl's obvious talent, I'm going to
take a shot against her with Midnight
Bisou, simply because I think Midnight Bisou might ultimately be the faster
filly. Like Monomoy Girl, Midnight Bisou has been remarkably consistent while
competing against top company, and she kicked off 2018 by recording three
straight graded stakes wins at Santa Anita. Arguably her most impressive effort
came in the 8.5-furlong Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I), in which she settled at the
back of the pack before unleashing a powerful, sweeping bid to draw off and win
by 3 ½ length.
Midnight Bisou subsequently started as the slight
favorite in the Kentucky Oaks, and while her trip wasn't exactly an unmitigated
disaster... it wasn't too far off of being one either. At the start, Midnight
Bisou broke well but was quickly bumped from both sides and squeezed back off
the pace, a poor setup over a track that was favoring speed throughout the day.
Worse yet, Midnight Bisou was forced to rally extremely
wide turning for home, and by the time she straightened out for the run down
the homestretch, Monomoy Girl and Wonder Gadot were long gone. But to Midnight
Bisou's credit, she stayed on gamely to finish third, beaten just 4 ¼ lengths
while covering more ground than the top two finishers.
About two months later, Midnight Bisou returned to action
in the 8.5-furlong Mother Goose Stakes (gr. II) at Belmont Park, and with the
benefit of a good trip, she absolutely crushed the field. Showing more speed
than usual, Midnight Bisou settled in second place through fractions of :23.79,
:46.87, and 1:10.87, then seized command with a terrific burst of speed turning
for home, blazing the fourth quarter-mile in :23.79 seconds to pull away under
the lightest of hand rides and win by six lengths in the quick time of 1:41.02
If you are of the opinion, as I am, that Midnight Bisou's
trip in the Kentucky Oaks cost her any chance at challenging for victory, then
it's not hard to make a case that she can challenge Monomoy Girl in their
rematch. For good measure, she'll be ridden by the Hall of Fame jockey Mike
Smith, who has won the last two editions of the Coaching Club American Oaks
aboard Abel Tasman and Songbird.
For third place, Eskimo
Kisses would be the logical choice off her runner-up effort in the Ashland
Stakes and respectable fourth-place effort in the Kentucky Oaks, but Gio Game—third in the Acorn Stakes
behind Monomoy Girl and Talk Veuve to Me—strikes me as an improving filly with
the potential to step up her game a notch on Sunday. Two starts back, she beat
the next-out winner She's a Julie in an 8.5-furlong allowance race at Churchill
Downs, and last year she showed enough promise to warrant a run in the Breeders'
Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I).
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Coaching Club
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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.