Derby is big day, Oaks the big race

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- "She's a beast," trainer Bob Baffert said, half-joking, but only half, as he watched a long, powerful gray filly named Midnight Lucky walk the shedrow of his barn in the Churchill Downs stable area. "We should have worked her with Orb," he said, ratcheting the joke up a notch and referring to the favorite for Saturday's Kentucky Derby.

But the point was clear: The fillies running in Friday's Kentucky Oaks are every bit as good as the colts in the Derby -- maybe even better. Early this week, Midnight Lucky easily and resoundingly outworked stablemate Code West, who was once considered a Derby candidate. She started behind him, finished in front of him (after five furlongs in 59.60 seconds) and galloped out more strongly, as if to insult him.

Many observers would even go so far as to suggest the best 3-year-old running this week in America won't be racing in the Kentucky Derby, but rather in the Oaks. And certainly the best story here this week, the tale that's the odds-on favorite to grab people by their shirt-collars and demand their attention, if not also their fascination, involves a diminutive Oaks filly named Rose To Gold.

Yes, the Kentucky Derby will bring 160,000 or so people to their feet; when the horses prance onto the track, the camera shutters will click like a plague of cicadas; televisions around the world will tune in for the occasion; bankrolls will bleed for the short-term futures market; and then in an instant some horse will become a star. But the Oaks is the race.

"This is the best Oaks I've ever seen," Baffert said, "the most competitive one that I've ever been in. There are some really fast fillies in here."

And he'll saddle one of them. Midnight Lucky, the gray beast of a filly, has raced only twice, winning both races in a risible romp. She won the Sunland Park Oaks by eight lengths in hand, without much encouragement, and in doing so she set a track record, 1:41.06 for the 1 1/16 miles. And she's the 9-2 fourth choice in the morning line.

Beholder, the champion 2-year-old filly of 2012, has galloped strongly and eagerly all week, suggesting she's ready for a big effort. She's 7-2 in the morning line, along with unbeaten Unlimited Budget, another who has stood out in the mornings. And Close Hatches, the undefeated winner of the Gazelle Stakes who turns heads whenever she goes to the track, is 6-1. But it's that kind of group, overflowing with talent and accomplishment.

"Four or five of these fillies," said Bill Mott, the Hall of Fame trainer of Close Hatches, "would be favored in almost any other year. It's a great Oaks."

None of these fillies got the opportunity to run in the Kentucky Derby, where the field is limited to 20 starters based on points accumulated in designated major stakes. None of those major stakes are restricted to fillies. But maybe that's a good thing -- certainly it has contributed to an outstanding Oaks field. And although many have suggested that fillies should have the option of running in the Kentucky Derby without having already run in one of the points races against "the boys," history argues otherwise. The three fillies that won the Kentucky Derby -- Regret (1915), Genuine Risk (1980) and Winning Colors (1988) -- all raced against males before seizing the roses.

While several of these Oaks fillies might be talented enough to take on colts, Dreaming of Julia is the one who has, up to this point, run the race of the year. In her most recent outing, she won the Gulfstream Park Oaks by nearly 22 lengths. She's the 3-1 favorite for the Oaks, and she would be among the favorites for the Derby, had she been targeted to run there.

But her trainer, Todd Pletcher, said that was never in the plans. And even if the Derby had been an option, she'd probably still be in the Oaks.

As for the immediate prospects, could Dreaming of Julia possibly duplicate her Gulfstream performance? Probably not. But she doesn't have to, and Pletcher said she appears to be training as well at Churchill as she trained in Florida prior her otherworldly victory.

Yes, Dreaming of Julia could be a very special filly, for she's already inviting comparisons and recalling the accomplishments of the great Rachel Alexandra, who won the Oaks by 20 lengths before taking the Preakness.

"The Beast" is indeed formidable. Beholder, even with the feminine touch of earmuffs, has looked eager and strong and powerful in her gallops. Among astute observers, Close Hatches and Unlimited Budget would get many votes for the filly who has trained most impressively this week.

And then there's Rose To Gold. She was purchased for $1,400 to be pinhooked -- that is for the purpose of turning a quick profit in resale. But nobody would buy her, explained Raffaele Centofanti, one of her owners. Nobody wanted her, not even an exercise rider who turned her down in lieu of payment.

She turns no heads in the mornings when she goes to the racetrack. She's light, smallish, unprepossessing. But she's pure racehorse and loves to run. This $1,400 purchase that nobody wanted has earned $717,889 while winning five of her six races. Her only poor performance came on the synthetic surface at Keeneland.

"We're just going to see what the big three do," said her trainer, Sal Santoro, referring to Dreaming of Julia, Beholder and Unlimited Budget. "If any of them get free rein and are left alone, the party is over. So hopefully we'll get a good position."

Among all these beasts and monsters and superstars, even little Rose To Gold makes this a very special Kentucky Oaks.