<
>

The road to the Kentucky Oaks

Quick quiz: What do these horses all have in common, or, to put it another way, what victory do they all share: Believe You Can, Rachel Alexandra, Proud Spell, Summerly, Ashado, Silverbulletday, and Blushing K.D.?

If you said they all won the Kentucky Oaks, the premier race in the country for 3-year-old fillies, you'd be right, of course. Very good. But that was the easy part. The chronological sequence, after all, provided a useful hint. So here's the bonus question: What else do they all have in common?

That might require a momentary plunge into deep thought followed perhaps by a scratch of the noggin. They also won the Fair Grounds Oaks -- yes, all of them. And that's the point: Until the first week of May, when the sport's attention turns to Churchill Downs and the fan's fancy to roses and the horseplayer's thoughts to a superfecta payoff with a rumba line of zeroes, the Fair Grounds Oaks is the most predictive and significant race in the country for 3-year-old fillies. If you're looking for the next winner of the Kentucky Oaks and for championship candidates, look south, to New Orleans, starting with Saturday's Silverbulletday Stakes.

Five of the last 10 winners of the Kentucky Oaks also won the Fair Grounds Oaks. And seven of the last 17 Kentucky Oaks winners also won in New Orleans.


Much is made annually about the lack of success Breeders' Cup Juvenile winners have had in the Kentucky Derby, Street Sense being the only horse to win both races. Winners of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies have fared better in the Oaks, but just slightly, with only Silverbulletday and Open Mind taking both races.

Winners of the Fair Grounds Oaks are another story. Five of the last 10 winners of the Kentucky Oaks also won the Fair Grounds Oaks. And seven of the last 17 Kentucky Oaks winners also won in New Orleans, some of them multiple races. During the same period, by the way, only one winner of the Santa Anita Oaks and only one winner of the Ashland also won the Kentucky Oaks, and yet both those races, unlike the Oaks in New Orleans, have been conferred the foremost, honorific Roman numeral by a certain fawning committee. (Just couldn't resist the opportunity to point out how illogical, inherently biased, and, in the end, virtually irrelevant the grading of the country's stakes races has become.)

It's obvious to any observer not on the American Graded Stakes Committee that during the first four months of the year the Fair Grounds Oaks has become the country's most important and predictive race for 3-year-old fillies. Yes, New Orleans is the place to look for the next Kentucky Oaks winner, and she could be running Saturday.

But why has New Orleans been so fertile, the series of Fair Grounds stakes so productive?

"You don't lose a lot of training here because of the weather," trainer Larry Jones explained from New Orleans, where he was preparing Divine Beauty for the Silverbulletday Stakes, "and horses take to the track here. It's kind to horses. They come out of here in good shape. It's a great place to prepare a horse."

Divine Beauty won her debut at Churchill, and then, in her second start, took the Letellier Memorial Stakes by more than six lengths, running the final quarter-mile in 24.65 seconds after racing three-to-four wide around the turn.

"For that first race, I thought I might be sending out a short horse," said Jones, explaining that he hadn't pressed the filly in her training and so worried that she might be light on conditioning. "And after talking with some other trainers, I knew there were some nice fillies in there, but when she won the way she did -- well, that was when I started asking myself just how good she might be."

Divine Beauty led throughout in her debut, but in the Letellier she rated kindly and charged from last to first around the turn before drawing clear in the stretch. "She'll do whatever you ask her to do," said Jones, who has won the Kentucky Oaks twice with fillies who also won in New Orleans, Believe You Can and Proud Spell. The trainer explained that Divine Beauty's tractability gives him reason to think she'll be able to stretch out effectively Saturday, when she races around two turns for the first time. Also for the first time, she's likely to be tested.

Unbridled Forever is the 7-5 favorite in the morning line for the Silverbulletday based on her stunning maiden victory at Churchill Downs. A big, long-striding filly, she rallied four-wide in the turn on her way to winning by more than five lengths, stopping the teletimer after seven-eighths of a mile at 1:21.91. The other three races run that day at the distance were won in 1:23.92, 1:23.22, and 1:23.76. And one of those winners, Gold Hawk, is the 3-1 favorite for Saturday's LeComte Stakes in New Orleans.

"We think a lot of her," said her trainer, Dallas Stewart, who won the Kentucky Oaks with the filly's dam, Lemons Forever. "She's bigger than her mother, and we're hoping she can run as fast and as far as her mother … Unbridled Forever has had three really good works here. She could be a pretty good one."

Ria Antonia, who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies via disqualification, has arrived at the historic racetrack. She's aimed at a meeting with colts but could jump onto a more traditional path to Kentucky in time for the Fair Grounds Oaks. Vexed, the winner of the Golden Rod Stakes at Churchill, is with trainer Al Stall Jr. And Jones has another potential Oaks filly in his barn named Cassatt, a gray daughter of Tapit who overcame a troubled trip to power her way between horses and win impressively last week, with a final quarter-mile in 24.37 seconds. Yes, for the next Oaks winner begin looking Saturday towards New Orleans, but don't stop gazing in that direction until the end of March.