A Road to Victory in the Oaklawn Stakes

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

Another day, another stakes race for 3-year-olds at Oaklawn Park, another short-priced favorite from the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shuttered racing at many tracks throughout North America, it's comforting to know some things never change.

When 13 sophomores assemble for Saturday's $200,000 Oaklawn Stakes (G2), you can bet your bottom dollar #4 Thousand Words will start as the favorite, even while stretching out to 1 1/8 miles for the first time. A son of Pioneerof the Nile out of the graded stakes-winning sprinter Pomeroys Pistol, Thousand Words has long been a highly regarded prospect, selling for $1 million as a yearling.

Under Baffert's care, Thousand Words showed plenty of grit and potential in his first three starts. Never a flashy type, Thousand Words instead boasts resilience and determination as his greatest weapons. He won his debut sprinting at Santa Anita by a hard-fought half-length, stretched out around two turns to claim the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) by a neck, and battled through a bit of traffic to claim the Robert B. Lewis (G3) by three-quarters of a length.

But the quality of competition Thousand Words defeated during his initial string of success has come into question. The Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) runner-up Anneau d'Or was a quality 2-year-old, previously finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), but the Juvenile hasn't been the strongest race and Anneau d'Or misfired in his only run since the Los Alamitos Futurity, finishing ninth in the second division of the Risen Star (G2).

Similarly, Robert B. Lewis runner-up Royal Act was nowhere to be found in the Louisiana Derby (G2), finishing a distant ninth. And Thousand Words himself came up short when facing tougher company in the San Felipe (G2) at Santa Anita, weakening on the final turn to finish fourth behind stablemate Authentic, promising maiden winner Honor A. P., and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Storm the Court.

Thousand Words is facing somewhat easier competition in the Oaklawn Stakes, but stretching out to 1 1/8 miles could be a question mark since his female family is more about speed than stamina. From a Beyer speed figure perspective, Thousand Words has the numbers to be competitive, but his career-best 92 from the Robert B. Lewis isn't unbeatable by any means. A few of his rivals have posted similar or better figures, and several others could reach the low-90s with only a little improvement.

Ultimately, what I'm driving at is I'm not overly enthusiastic about playing Thousand Words at a short price. Yes, Baffert has historically been super strong at Oaklawn (he's 2-for-3 this year alone), and Thousand Words is clearly the established class of Saturday's field. But I expect him to drop from his 5-2 morning line odds, and considering how he misfired in the San Felipe, I'd want a bigger price before playing him to win.

But logical alternatives are hard to find. I'll oppose #1 Basin and #2 Coach Bahe, who finished third and fifth in the Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn last month; both received perfect setups from a pace perspective, but couldn't close ground when the real running began. Remington Springboard Mile winner #6 Shoplifted is consistent, but seemingly exposed against this level of competition and more likely to hit the board than reach the winner's circle. #8 Taishan was a dominant allowance winner running 1 1/16 miles at Oaklawn last month, but he benefited from securing an uncontested lead over a sloppy track. #9 Digital boasts solid Beyers, but has weakened from the eighth pole to the wire his two route runs and might be better going shorter than 1 1/8 miles.

Instead, I'll look to the far outside for potential upset candidates. #12 Farmington Road and #13 Gold Street offer contrasting running styles and can vie for victory depending on how the pace unfolds.

Gold Street has already struck once on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, securing a gate-to-wire victory in the 1-mile Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn on Jan. 24. He did benefit from setting a slow pace over a speed-favoring track, a big reason why he was able to score by 2 3/4 lengths with a 95 Beyer. But it was almost certainly a more accurate portrayal of his talent than his last-place effort in the Southwest, where the speedy colt got buried behind runners early on before retreating steadily through the field.

The weather could be the key to Gold Street's chances. The son of Street Boss is 3-for-3 on wet tracks, winning all by at least 2 3/4 lengths, and 0-for-4 on dry footing. There's rain in the forecast for Saturday, but it's unclear whether the wet weather will arrive early enough to trigger a sloppy track for the Oaklawn Stakes. If the track does come up wet, expect to see jockey Tyler Base send Gold Street to the front and play a game of "catch me if you can." Even over 1 1/8 miles, Gold Street could prove difficult to reel in over his preferred footing.

But on a dry track, the advantage could shift to Farmington Road, who will carry just 118 pounds—six fewer than Thousand Words and Gold Street. Conditioned by Todd Pletcher, who has gone 8-for-18 at Oaklawn since 2018, Farmington Road has shown flashes of promise since stretching out around two turns. After breaking his maiden in comfortable fashion at Tampa Bay Downs, the son of Quality Road tackled 1 1/8 miles in the first division of the Risen Star Stakes and closed in gamely down the stretch to finish fourth, beaten just two lengths for the runner-up spot.

The pace of the Risen Star was slow (RacingFlow.com assigned the race a speed-friendly Closer Favorability Ratio of 11 on their 1-to-100 scale), and it's possible Farmington Road will receive a better setup on Saturday. Gold Street figures to gun from the gate while marooned in post 13, and Mine That Bird Derby winner #5 Sir Rick could be aggressive too. Even if the pace turns out to be modest, Farmington Road might be able to adapt and stay more involved early on while wearing blinkers for the first time.

Sealing the deal for me is the presence of jockey Martin Garcia in the saddle. He's been riding strongly at Oaklawn this winter, striking at a 19% rate while winning with all types of horses. Front runners and deep closers with both inside and outside trips—Garcia is seemingly riding all with equal aplomb. I'm optimistic Farmington Road will receive the trip he needs to challenge, and if he steps forward at all off his deceptively good effort in the Risen Star, he can spring a 6-1 upset.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Oaklawn Stakes?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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.

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