An oversubscribed, but well-matched, group of 15 runners has been assembled to go 1 1/8 miles in Friday's Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, and many in the field have already faced off against each other. The showdown is finally at hand and projected favorites Grace Hall and On Fire Baby drew advantageous inside posts. There is an abundance of speed in the race, with Eden's Moon, Broadway's Alibi and Yara likely to be battling it out throughout the early stages, and that could play right into the hands of a late runner.
With all that in mind, Believe You Can may be overlooked a bit but has both the talent and running style to give her connections a second Oaks trophy. In 2008, trainer Larry Jones and former Kentucky governor Brereton Jones teamed up with a homebred filly named Proud Spell. The daughter of Proud Citizen would go on to be the favorite in that year's Kentucky Oaks, capture the race by five lengths and eventually earn an Eclipse Award as champion three-year-old filly.
Believe You Can has already scored in a pair of stakes this season, with her only loss coming when she ran fourth as the favorite in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes. Owner Brereton Jones has since revealed the filly had an adverse reaction to a shot that all the horses in the field were given and returned from the Rachel Alexandra with a big swelling on her neck. She apparently had recovered by the time she won the Fair Grounds Oaks a month later, and will enter the Kentucky Oaks in top form. Believe You Can is listed at 10-1 on the morning-line, and could offer up a very nice price on Oaks Day.
Of the two favorites, On Fire Baby has a slight edge following a pair of graded wins under the Twin Spires as a juvenile. The Gary Hartlage trainee captured the Pocahontas and Golden Rod Stakes at Churchill to close out 2011, and opened her sophomore campaign with a third-place run against the boys in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park in January. For a brief time her connections were considering a run in the Kentucky Derby with On Fire Baby, but eventually decided to keep her with the fillies and point for the Oaks. The gray daughter of Smoke Glacken has made just two starts this season, though, with her other coming as a two-length victory in the Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn on March 10, and will enter the Kentucky Oaks following a 55-day layoff. On Fire Baby earned a stellar 103 BRIS Speed rating for her Honeybee score, and will try to utilize her prior experience to remain perfect at Churchill while breaking from the rail.
Grace Hall will be just to the inside of On Fire Baby in post position 2, and the Tony Dutrow charge also has racing knowledge of Churchill's main track. The bay lass broke her maiden, won the Spinaway and Blue Hen Stakes, then suffered her first career loss when running second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, which was held last November at Churchill Downs. Grace Hall returned from a 3 1/2-month break to be a neck second in the Davona Dale Stakes at Gulfstream Park in her 2012 debut, but quickly got back to her winning ways on March 31 with a 6 1/2-length victory in the Gulfstream Park Oaks. The Empire Maker filly is one of only four in the field with prior experience at the Kentucky Oaks distance and the only one with an actual win while going nine furlongs.
Summer Applause could turn the tables on Believe You Can Friday considering she is one of the few late runners in the field. The daughter of Harlan's Holiday settled in fourth in her last two races before putting in rallies that saw her win the Rachel Alexandra and just miss by a neck in the Fair Grounds Oaks. Trained by Bret Calhoun, Summer Applause also ran second to Believe You Can in the Silverbulletday earlier in the year, but has consistently racked up competitive BRIS figures.
While Amie's Dini may not be in front on the wire, the dark bay lass should be somewhere in the Oaks top three. The Bandini filly has yet to finish worse than third in her seven career starts while facing some of these. She tried to lead all the way home in the Honeybee before being passed by On Fire Baby and refused to back down from former Oaks hopeful Mamma Kimbo in the Fantasy Stakes, keeping her company all the way to the line to be second in that contest. The biggest knock against the Ron Moquett trainee is she likes to be on or near the front, and that could get her in trouble in Friday's speed-laden contest. If regular rider Jon Court can settle her just off the pace, Amie's Dini has a good shot in adding value to the exotics.
Irish import Jemima's Pearl surprised with an optional claiming win in her U.S. and dirt debut, but couldn't seem to make up any ground in the Fantasy to eventually finish third last out. However, the Distorted Humor filly has shown a preference for main track races over turf contests thus far and might get a piece of the Oaks purse. Stablemate and fellow Bob Baffert pupil Eden's Moon has a shot in the Oaks based on talent, but the daughter of Malibu Moon faltered as the 1-2 favorite in the Santa Anita Oaks last out on March 31. The lightly raced miss could prove vulnerable at this early stage of her career.
Broadway's Alibi is currently riding a four-race win streak, including a 3 1/2-length victory going a mile in the Comely last out, and posted a sharp half-mile move in :48 2/5 to ready for Friday's race. The Vindication daughter could make it five straight in the Oaks if she doesn't get cooked in a speed duel on the front end. Sacristy will be stretching out past seven furlongs for the first time in the Oaks and the Pulpit filly probably needs an easier spot to test her wings at a distance of ground. Hard Not to Like could be any kind while making her dirt debut in the Kentucky Oaks as she ran exclusively on turf before finishing second in the Ashland last out over Keeneland's synthetic Polytrack.
Karlovy Vary actually wired the Ashland by three parts of a length but her worse finish to date came on Churchill's dirt in the Golden Rod. Yara shocked at 64-1 when beating Grace Hall by a neck in the Davona Dale, but the chestnut was well-beaten when facing that rival again in the Gulfstream Park Oaks. And Why Not owns just a maiden win from her career bow and her best finish since was a second in the Pocahontas. Colonial Empress comes from the barn of four-time Oaks-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas, but the filly has been well-beaten in her three starts to date. All of these will need a career-best run to offer any kind of challenge in the Oaks.
Oaks Lily is currently on the outside looking in as the only also-eligible in the field. The Badge of Silver daughter was born on May 4, 2009, and co-owner Dante Zanelli Jr. dubbed her Oaks Lily when he realized the Kentucky Oaks would be run on the same day three years later. Unfortunately, the sophomore miss may not get the chance to live up to her moniker if there isn't a defection from the current field by scratch time, 9 a.m. (EST), on Friday. Even if she does make the field, Oaks Lily will have a tough time besting this group with just a maiden win under her girth. Also, her only conventional dirt track experience from eight starts came at Churchill last November when she finished 11th in a one-mile maiden contest.
Horses in the Belmont Stakes on June 8 will face tighter security for the second straight year.