KENTUCKY OAKS | PURSE: $1,000,000 | GRADE 1 | 3-YEAR-OLD FILLIES | 1 1/8 MILES
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The first time Bob Baffert saw filly Plum Pretty, he turned to owner John Fort and asked him if he got the name right.
"Did you say her name was Plum Pretty or plum ugly?" Baffert said with a laugh.
The way the trainer's blossoming star ran in Friday's $1 million Kentucky Oaks, perhaps Plum Perfect would have been just as appropriate.
The filly and jockey Martin Garcia got Baffert's big weekend off to a rollicking start, taking charge at the top of the stretch then holding off St. John's River by a neck to give the Hall of Famer his second victory in the female version of the Kentucky Derby.
Baffert won the Oaks in 1999 with Silverbulletday but came up short in the Run for the Roses the next day when each of his three entries -- Prime Timber, Excellent Meeting and General Challenge -- failed to hit the board.
No trainer has won both the Oaks and the Derby in the same year since Ben Jones did it in 1952. Baffert will saddle Midnight Interlude in the Run for the Roses on Saturday as he goes for his fourth Derby triumph.
Not that Baffert was focusing on the Derby -- at least for a few moments -- after grabbing the lilies that go to the Oaks winner for the first time in a dozen years.
"It's been a long time between these with Silverbulletday and you have to really enjoy these moments, you never know when you're going to be able to enjoy them," Baffert said.
Though Saturday afternoon wouldn't be a bad time to return to the winner's circle. Yet Midnight Interlude will be hard-pressed to make it look as easy as his stablemate.
Plum Pretty stalked early leader Summer Soiree before Garcia moved her to the front as the 13-horse field turned for home. She surged to the lead and needed every bit of it to turn away a late bid from St. John's River.
Plum Pretty came in off a dominating 25-length victory in the Sunland Park Oaks on March 27, a win so emphatic Baffert joked she was posing for pictures by the time the rest of the field was finishing.
The Kentucky Oaks presented a considerable step up in class, but the bay filly looked right at home in front of a crowd of 110,000, the third-largest in Oaks history.
Plum Pretty paid $14.60, $7 and $4.60 while covering the distance in 1:49.50 for owner John Fort, who got into racing following an amateur polo career. It took him three years before he paid $1,000 for a horse. Plum Pretty cost considerably more -- he purchased her for $130,000 in March 2010 -- but Fort made sure it was money well spent.
When Baffert and Fort walked into the crowded paddock before the race, Fort turned to Baffert and told him they were going to win.
"He was more confident than I was," Baffert said.
St. John's River, however, made Plum Pretty earn it.
Jockey Rosie Napravnik nearly became the first female rider to win the Oaks following an expert ride aboard St. John's River, sending her mount to the rail to save ground after a rocky start before the two roared into contention in the deep stretch.
"Down the lane ... I'm thinking Girl Power in the Oaks," Napravnik said. "It was such a disappointing loss but you can't take anything away from the filly. She ran so well."
Just not quite enough to track down Plum Pretty. St. John's River paid $13.20 and $7.20 to show.
"She ran her eyeballs out like she does every time," said assistant trainer Robert Wright. "She ran a huge race, just ran out of ground."
Zazu, owned by Jerry and Ann Moss -- who also own retired superstar mare Zenyatta -- paid $4 to show.
Joyful Victory came in unbeaten this year for trainer Larry Jones, who won the Oaks three years ago with Proud Spell. Jockey Mike Smith put her in prime position but she never fired.
"I rode her with confidence, had her clear going for home but just didn't have enough horse," Smith said.
Garcia did. He marveled at how quickly the formerly rambunctious filly has developed over the last few months.
"She's been learning a lot," he said. "When I got to the quarter pole I had so much horse when I asked her to go, she just give me everything, she take off."