Alabama no stretch for a Princess

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- In anticipation of a blockbuster Kentucky Oaks, everyone agreed that the talent was deeper than it had been in recent memory. Trainer Bob Baffert said it was the best Kentucky Oaks he ever had seen and the most competitive he ever had been involved in. Trainer Bill Mott said four or five of the fillies were so talented and so accomplished that any one of them could have been the betting favorite in just about any other year.

When the long shot won, brandishing superiority, many observers had to readjust their thinking to reduce their cognitive dissonance.

And then Princess of Sylmar won, overcoming a troubled trip, at 38-1. Princess who? Surely the Oaks winner couldn't be the erstwhile Princess of Aqueduct who remained in the wonderland of New York all winter while the more celebrated fillies performed so successfully beneath a Florida or California sun that beamed down upon them like a fawning aunt, surely not the Princess who capitulated at the first sight of a real challenge in the Gazelle, and surely not the Princess who most observers took to be the third string in her own barn, but, then again, after a closer look, she most assuredly was the very same Princess.

When observers had spoken about the depth of talent in the Oaks, it wasn't the Princess' they were gauging. When they said it was one of the strongest Oaks fields they ever had seen, they weren't looking at the bred-in-Pennsylvania Princess. And so when the long shot won, brandishing superiority, many observers had to readjust their thinking to reduce their cognitive dissonance.

People believe what's comfortable, and if the Princess won, they "reasoned," then either the Oaks field must not have been very strong after all, or the outcome was just a bizarre fluke, something to do with sunspots or "fracking," or the earth's magnetic field. Of course, there was another possible explanation, too, one that went largely ignored for more than two months: The Kentucky Oaks field was indeed outstanding, but Princess of Sylmar was on the threshold of bursting into a new and rarely visited zone of performance.

When Princess of Sylmar returned to competition in the Coaching Club American Oaks, she wasn't even the favorite. She won again, though, and by six lengths this time, in dominating fashion, and that was when the third possible explanation jumped up and sang "Chattanooga Choo Choo."

Now it's clear. The Kentucky Oaks field was indeed that good, but Princess of Sylmar was even better. And so she's the 3-5 favorite in the morning line for Saturday's Alabama Stakes here at Saratoga, where she could threaten to turn one of the country's most prestigious races into a display case for her superiority.

Make no mistake: This is an outstanding group of 3-year-old fillies, and the original assessment of the Kentucky Oaks field was correct. Since then, the 10 fillies from the Oaks have made 11 starts, with five stakes wins and four seconds. Silsita, who finished last in the Kentucky Oaks, won a recent turf stakes here. Seaneen Girl, who ran ninth at Churchill Downs, won the recent Monmouth Oaks. Midnight Lucky, fifth in the Oaks, won the Acorn; and Close Hatches, 7th in the Oaks, won the Mother Goose. And Princess of Sylmar dominated the Coaching Club American Oaks.

She finished both the Kentucky Oaks and the Coaching Club very well, indicating to me she wants more distance.

-- Trainer Todd Pletcher

Only five fillies have been entered against her in the Alabama, and only one of those, Fiftyshadesofhay, seems to possess even a remote chance to upset. And so how good is Princess of Sylmar, the erstwhile Princess of Aqueduct? She has lost only twice in her eight-race career and has won four stakes. She has improved steadily, even mightily, while evincing admirable determination.

Her trainer, Todd Pletcher, said Princess of Sylmar has continued to develop and mature since her Oaks victory. In her most recent workout here, last Sunday, she ran the final three-eighths of a mile in about 35 seconds, which is outstanding, while not being encouraged. And she could be even better as she stretches out for the first time Saturday to the classic 1 ¼-miles.

"She should excel with the added distance," Pletcher said. "She finished both the Kentucky Oaks and the Coaching Club very well (at 1 ⅛ miles), indicating to me she wants more distance. She's easy to turn off in the early part of the race and relaxes nicely."

In Princess of Sylmar, what we're witnessing is the development of a superlative talent, and at this point it's impossible to say how high she might soar.