(Updated April 25, 2017, 10:51 a.m.)
While it is quite strange to see that Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert does not have a Kentucky Derby horse this year, he does have a live contender in the $1 million Kentucky Oaks, Abel Tasman.
That filly has a career record of three wins and two seconds from six starts dating back to last summer when she was trained by Simon Callaghan. More recently, after finishing second to the highly rated Paradise Woods after a slow start in the Santa Anita Oaks, Abel Tasman showed an impressive burst of improved early zip for Baffert while working a sharp 4 furlongs in 46-3/5 on April 16. But, more about that after we place the Oaks in its proper historical perspective.
It is simple fact that the 1-1/8 mile Oaks tends to get lost in the enormous publicity that hypes America’s most famous race. But, the Oaks actually is one of America’s most important tests for 3-year-old fillies and will be run for the 143rd time on May 5, the day before the Kentucky Derby also celebrates its 143rd birthday.
Moreover, this year’s Oaks will feature a filly that has run faster than any of the 20 colts who will run in the 1-1/4 mile Kentucky Derby.
That filly is the aforementioned Paradise Woods who earned a 107 Beyer Speed Figure winning the 1-1/16 mile Santa Anita Oaks on April 8. That was two points above what the colt Mastery earned winning the San Felipe stakes at Santa Anita on March 11. Mastery, of course, was the talented colt that was going to be Baffert’s Derby horse this year. Unfortunately, he was knocked out of the Derby when an ankle injury was discovered a few minutes after his San Felipe victory.
For sure, Paradise Woods is an interesting Oaks contender. The big Figure she earned in the SA Oaks was in her first stakes try after a second place finish and a win in a pair of maiden races. She is trained by Dick Mandella, a genuine Hall of Famer, whose career surprisingly does not include a Derby or an Oaks victory.
In addition to Baffert, who has scored a pair of Oaks victories, there is another other trainer with a horse in this year’s Oaks with more than one win in the Oaks -- Steve Asmussen who has longshot Ever So Clever in the field of 14.
Frankly, I believe 14 is the maximum number of horses who should be allowed to compete in either the Derby or the Oaks. Yet, no matter how Churchill Downs’ officials justify a field of 20 for the Derby, only the Oaks’ field is kept to a manageable number. While I sincerely hope I am wrong about this, a 20 horse field on Churchill’s one mile racetrack poses the potential of an accident waiting to happen.
With respect to the credentials and chances for success in this year’s intriguing Oaks, here are my current top four, listed in reverse order of preference, a week before next Tuesday’s post position draw and the weather forecast.
4. Paradise Woods: Did win the SA Oaks cited earlier with an explosive performance that included a good middle move. Nevertheless, her breeding is strongly titled toward shorter distances than the 9-furlong Oaks. She is, of course, trained by Dick Mandella and will be ridden once again by Flavien Pratt.
3. Miss Sky Warrior: Won a maiden race in her second career start last October and since has won four straight Graded stakes, including two at the 1-1/8 mile Oaks distance. She’s trained by Kelly Breen and her jockey is Paco Lopez.
2. Farrell: Won her last four starts – all stakes – all beyond one mile, including three this year at the Fair Grounds and one last fall over the Churchill racing strip. She has respectable Figures, yet of potential equal import is that she is living up to her breeding to excel at route distances. Trained by former jockey Wayne Catalano, she will be ridden by Channing Hill.
1. Abel Tasman: Has a Grade-1 win at 1-1/16 miles last fall. Her chances in the SA Oaks were compromised by a slow start when a distant 2nd to Paradise Woods. Seems superbly bred for this distance and her recent workouts suggest she will be ready for her best yet. Will be ridden by Mike Smith, who is the best money rider in the game today.