LOUISVILLE -- It's not Derby Day, but it's pretty close. Only 24 hours before America's Race, Churchill Downs stages the first classic of the season for the 3-year-old fillies, the Grade I, $500,000 Kentucky Oaks. Oaks Day is called "Louisville's Day at the Races," when the locals can make the scene at a marquee event without being gouged for the obscene prices charged on the first Saturday in May.
Like the Kentucky Derby, the Oaks was modeled after an English classic, the Epsom Oaks, and like the Derby, will be run for the 132nd time this weekend. It's always been popular, but ever since 1989, when Churchill opened its infield on Oaks Day for the first time, it's really taken off. In six of the past seven years, attendance has cleared 100,000, with last year's crowd of 111,243 setting the record.
Friday's favorite is California-based Balance, who ran by far the worst race of her career last month in the 1 1/16-mile Ashland Stakes at Keeneland. She finished third, beaten more than 10 lengths, to Bushfire, whom she faces again Friday. I wouldn't put too much stock in that result, because Keeneland is a very quirky track that some horses love and others hate. I'm willing to throw the race out, and not surprisingly, so is Balance's trainer, David Hofmans.
"She didn't care for the racetrack," Hofmans said. "She trained over it okay, but she really didn't like it in the running. It rained that morning and it was just sort of weird. It wasn't muddy, but I watched the tapes a bunch of times and she was just all over the place. It wasn't like her at all."
For horseplayers, Oaks Day's stakes-filled card is almost as enticing as Derby Day's, so on Friday I'll suggest four plays at Churchill - on the Oaks and three other stakes. Earlier in the week, the forecast was for a rainy Oaks Day, but prospects have improved. On Thursday afternoon, there was a 30-percent chance of showers late afternoon Friday in the Louisville area.
ESPN will show the Oaks live from 5-6 p.m. ET.
5th race, Edgewood Stakes (1 1/16 miles, turf)
Although Todd Pletcher's chances to win his first Derby aren't good, even with two entries (Keyed Entry, Bluegrass Cat), he's very strong, as usual, in the other divisions. His 3-year-old filly Magnificent Song looks like a coming grass star, and she's the pick here. I'll play her to win and key her in exacta boxes with Kitty Hawk, May Night and Southern Protocol.
1. Magnificent Song 2. Kitty Hawk 3. May Night
7th race, Aegon Turf Sprint (5 furlongs)
Australian-bred Man of Illusion had an incredibly bad trip under jockey Julien Leparoux in the 5 1/2-furlong Shakertown Stakes last month at Keeneland, and he did well to finish third, beaten only two lengths by late-running Atticus Kristy. They'll meet again here, and I'll take Patrick Biancone's Aussie import to turn the tables. If he gets any kind of a decent trip, he should win. Too bad he won't be anywhere near the 5.40-1 odds in his U.S. debut in Lexington. Atticus Kristy is 3-for-3 on Churchill's turf and 7-for-14 at this minimum distance, so he should be right there again. Mighty Beau has been off form (seven straight losses) since winning this race last year. Maybe he'll recapture his old fire by returning to Louisville.
1. Man of Illusion 2. Atticus Kristy 3. Mighty Beau
9th race, Grade III Crown Royal American Turf Stakes (1 1/16 miles)
Go Between, a minor-stakes winner in Florida for Bill Mott, is the likely favorite, but I'm going to take a shot with Stream Cat. He hasn't run since a no-chance eighth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but he's training well for Biancone and was brilliant in his grass debut, an easy win last summer at Saratoga. He's been working steadily on the Polytrack at Turfway and should be ready for a very strong layoff trainer (30 percent wins).
1. Stream Cat 2. Go Between 3. Giant Basil
10th race, Kentucky Oaks (1 1/8 miles)
I'm going to bet on Balance as long as the track is fast, but I'll switch to mud-loving Wait A While if it's sloppy. Since Churchill dries out so quickly, I think an off track is unlikely, but you never can tell. Balance has been particularly impressive because she's come from off the pace to win two Grade I events at speed-favoring Santa Anita. That strategy should work well in a field with a lot of speed.
1. Balance 2. Wait A While 3. Bushfire