East vs. West in the American Oaks

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

When handicapping major turf races in California, I am usually of the opinion that shippers from the East Coast have an advantage. With the powerful stable of trainer Chad Brown based out east, and with the majority of the richest turf races taking place across the region's numerous turf courses, it's understandable why the best turf horses on the East Coast are generally superior to their western counterparts.

But there are exceptions, and I believe we could see such an exception in Saturday's $300,000 American Oaks (gr. I) at Santa Anita, the final Grade 1 race of the year. Eight three-year-old fillies have turned out to contest the 1 ¼-mile race, including a trio from the East Coast or Midwest: #2 Colonia, #5 Princess Warrior, and #8 Competitionofideas.

I think all three warrant respect, particularly Competitionofideas, who has won her last two turf starts for trainer Chad Brown. Brown, of course, has been deadly when shipping horses west for Grade 1 races in recent years, and Competitionofideas will be ridden by hot jockey Joel Rosario, who teamed up with Brown to win the Matriarch Stakes (gr. I) and the Hollywood Derby (gr. I) at Del Mar earlier this month.

But Competitionofideas is taking a pretty big step up in class and distance, and the other two shippers have questions to answer as well. Colonia could only finish fifth when shipping west for the Del Mar Oaks (gr. I) this summer, and Princess Warrior—although a graded stakes winner—doesn't yet rank among the best of the division and might prefer softer turf than she'll encounter on Saturday.

That's why I'm going to throw my support behind the tried-and-true Californian #6 Paved. This capable daughter of Quality Road has never finished out of the exacta in five starts at Santa Anita, including a clear-cut score in the nine-furlong Honeymoon Stakes (gr. II) in June.

Paved might not be the most consistent filly in training, but she's had excuses in some of her poorer efforts, and when she brings her A-game, she's a serious runner. Just look at her performance two starts back in the 1 ¼-mile Rodeo Drive Stakes (gr. I) at Santa Anita—facing older rivals, she produced a strong challenge from mid-pack to fall just a half-length short of catching Vasilika, who was in the midst of an eight-race win streak at the time. Finishing behind Paved in third place was the four-time graded stakes winner Cambodia, the Grade 1 winner Sophie P, and the recent Blushing K. D. Stakes winner Beau Recall.

Paved followed that effort with a twelfth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. I), but she was facing dramatically tougher competition that day while racing over a rain-soaked course that was probably closer to yielding or soft than its official "good" designation. I see no reason not to just draw a line through that effort and judge Paved off her previous form.

The fact that Paved has already run well going 1 ¼ miles at Santa Anita (at the Grade 1 level no less) is very appealing, as is the fact that she'll have top jockey Drayden Van Dyke in the saddle. Van Dyke is among California's best riders, especially on turf, and previously guided Paved to her maiden win and a victory against colts in the El Camino Real Derby. For all these reasons, I view Paved as the horse to beat, and the best part is she might even start at a bit of a price.

I would also like to mention the lightly-raced #9 Californiagoldrush, who has won three of her four starts for trainer Neil Drysdale. The daughter of Cape Blanco is 2-for-2 at Santa Anita, finished a solid third in the Del Mar Oaks (gr. I), and shipped east to defeat Colonia (among others) in the nine-furlong Sands Point Stakes (gr. II) at Belmont Park. You can argue that Californiagoldrush might have gotten a better trip than Colonia that day, making a perfect early move into a very slow pace, but in the end Californiagoldrush topped Colonia by two lengths, roughly the same margin by which she beat Colonia in the Del Mar Oaks.

In other words, it looks to me like the Californians have a strong chance to defend their home turf in the American Oaks, and that's the way I'll play the race, with Paved being my choice to emerge victorious.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the American Oaks?


Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week!


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.

Recent Posts

More Blogs