The best race at Churchill Downs the weekend of the Kentucky Derby won’t be the Run for the Roses. It will be the Kentucky Oaks.
As usual, the Derby is getting all the ink, but the Oaks is the better race, this year, anyway.
Consider this star-studded lineup: Halfbridled, Silent Sighs, Madcap Escapade, A.P. Adventure, Ashado, Hollywood Story, House of Fortune, Last Song, Victory U.S.A. and Class Above.
"I never saw a better field of fillies," says Julio Canani, the trainer of Santa Anita Oaks winner Silent Sighs. "It’s deeper than the Kentucky Derby."
Adds Marty Wygod, the owner of Silent Sighs: "These are the best fillies I’ve seen in one race in 30 years. It’s very deep. It’s one of the most competitive filly races I’ve seen. It’s just as tough as the Derby."
Silent Sighs, a California-bred daughter of Benchmark, worked seven furlongs in company with stablemate Raw Data at Santa Anita last Friday under her regular rider, David Flores. She was clocked in 1:23, sensational time. Raw Data went in a bullet 1:11.20 for six furlongs.
"It was unbelievable," Canani said of Silent Sighs. "She was under a hold."
"She was in a good hold all the way around and she was relaxed," Flores said. "She was doing it easy. I was pretty happy the way she did it."
Still, her connections have no designs on running in the Derby.
"No," Wygod said when asked about it. "We’re happy with our filly. We like it just the way we are. We’re going to find out how good she is."
Meanwhile, back at the Run for the Roses, Mike Smith is still mystified by Holy Bull’s lackluster performance 10 years earlier in the 1994 Derby.
Favored at $2.20-1, Holy Bull, noted for his speed, never got close to the lead and plodded home a weary 12th in a field of 14, beaten more than 17 lengths by victorious Go For Gin.
In 10 Derby mounts, the closest Smith has come was second on Prairie Bayou in 1993.
The likeable 38-year-old Hall of Fame rider hopes to end the drought on May 1 aboard a speedy son of Tale of the Cat named Lion Heart.
Critics question the colt’s ability to win over a distance of ground, especially the Derby distance of a mile and a quarter.
But Smith is quick to point out that Lion Heart is coming off two solid prep races, although both were losses, second by a neck in the one-mile San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita on March 6, and second by a half-length to The Cliff’s Edge in the 11/8-mile Blue Grass Stakes. Trainer Patrick Biancone, the philosophical Frenchman, has Lion Heart right where he wants him and Smith is comfortable with that.
"I was pretty happy with the way he ran," Smith said of the Blue Grass effort. "It would have been ideal had he won but I was happy to see that in defeat he didn’t fold. He held in tough and just got beat a half a length to what I thought was the best-looking horse in the three preps (Blue Grass, Wood Memorial and Arkansas Derby). So you have to be happy with it. The good news is I think there’s room for him to improve."
Smith makes light of naysayers who are quick to state that Lion Heart is not bred to win at a mile and a quarter.
"He hung tough at a mile and an eighth and like I said, there’s room to improve, so hopefully that will get us the extra eighth," Smith said. "Remember, he was coming off a layoff (of 10 weeks before the San Rafael) and Patrick didn’t have him 100 percent for that race. He wants him to peak at the right time so hopefully, it will work out."
THE HOMESTRETCH: Kent Desormeaux, a Hall of Fame candidate this year who has two victories in the Kentucky Derby, picked up the mount on Imperialism when the colt’s regular rider, Victor Espinoza, and his agent, Tony Matos, failed to meet a deadline set by Kristin Mulhall, trainer of Imperialism, the colt Espinoza rode to three straight victories at Santa Anita upon arriving from Florida. "I wanted an answer from Victor’s agent by Sunday but he wanted to wait another week," said the 21-year-old Mulhall, who is the only one who has ever worked Imperialism. "Kent was waiting and available and could make the commitment so we were happy to get him." Espinoza’s mount in the Derby will be Louisiana Derby and Arkansas Derby runner-up Borrego. "Matos wanted Kristin to wait one more day for their decision, but she didn’t want to take a chance on losing her back-up rider," explained Desormeaux’s agent, Brad Pegram. "I had a couple other horses on the line and she wanted to know right then that she had Desormeaux. Matos couldn’t give her an answer until the following day, so that’s how we got the mount." . . . Javier Santiago, Bob Baffert’s "secret weapon," has been bounced by Baffert from Wimbledon and Preachinatthebar for the Derby. Look for Santiago to wind up on Fountain of Youth winner Read The Footnotes in the Run for the Roses . . . Due to clinical depression and the threat of expensive legal action, Patrick Valenzuela can resume riding effective next Sunday. The California Horse Racing Board issued a temporary stay on his current suspension until an appeal of the decision by Santa Anita stewards to ban him through Dec. 31 is completed. Bottom line: a contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on . . . And did you know that the 50th-ranked male golfer in earnings this year (Woody Austin) has earned more money ($483,584) than the No. 1 female (Annika Sorenstam, $468,920). That must warm the cockles of Hootie Johnson’s heart.