Medaglia d’Oro has produced magic twice in the last three years in America’s most celebrated race for three year old fillies. In 2009 Rachel Alexandra set the bar at an unreachable height with her 20 ¼ length victory in the Kentucky Oaks when she came within 1/5 of a second of the stakes record. In 2011 Plum Pretty had to fight tooth and nail to emulate her Horse of the Year half sister but still got the job done in a sparkling time of 1:49.50 with more than 110,000 fans in attendance, the third largest in Oaks history.
The 2011 Kentucky Oaks showcased the brightest and best of American racing as one of the strongest fields in history made it to the starting gate after months of anticipation and planning. No less than six graded stakes winners and five additional stakes winners lined up for the 137th running of the Kentucky Oaks. Plum Pretty proved emphatically that her 25 length victory in the Sunland Park Oaks on March 27th that had some people thinking she had peaked too soon, was no fluke at Churchill Downs on May 6th.
At the break Plum Pretty shot straight from the gate while St. John’s River came out awkwardly and darted towards the outside rail, forcing jockey Rosie Napravnik to veer her sharply back to the inside. Crossing swiftly behind the pack St. John’s River took up the rear of the field as Plum Pretty rated comfortably behind Summer Soiree into the first turn. Race favorite Joyful Victory broke well from post one while Lilacs and Lace broke like a shot to her outside and moved over to the rail just ahead of Joyful Victory. Kathmanblu came out of stall four straight as an arrow as Daisy Devine flashed by, gunning for the leaders.
Into the first turn Summer Soiree began to pull away from the pack with Plum Pretty content to rate behind with Lilacs and Lace to her inside on the rail and Daisy Devine another half length back in fourth. Joyful Victory ran less than a length back on the rail in fifth with Bouquet Booth and Kathmanblu close behind. Two lengths farther back Her Smile and Holy Heavens ran side by side as the field entered the backstretch with Suave Voir Faire just after and a length ahead of the late running Zazu. St. John’s River and Rosie Napravnik continued to race at the back of the field with only Street Storm behind. Summer Soiree opened up a three length lead down the backstretch, running the opening quarter in :23.52 and the half in :46.72.
As the turn loomed ahead Plum Pretty began to gradually close in on Summer Soiree, cutting her lead down to just one length as they field entered the turn. From the back of the pack St. John’s River was beginning to pick off horses as Zazu started her move. Joyful Victory and Kathmanblu came alive midway around the turn, running within two lengths of the lead and looking for racing room, but Plum Pretty was moving the best of all. Under a confident hand ride from jockey Martin Garcia the Medaglia d’Oro filly swooped up on the outside of Summer Soiree and took command as the field swept into the stretch. Down on the rail Rosie Napravnik had guided St. Johns’ River through traffic on the turn with a truly masterful ride and set her filly down for the drive in the stretch. Joyful Victory was under the whip but going nowhere as Bouquet Booth and Zazu came flying on the grandstand side. Up front Plum Pretty continued to rocket away from the field, opening up by three lengths as St. John’s River was guided off the rail and switched leads to come on with a vengeance. Joyful Victory finally began to accelerate midway down the stretch but was far too late to impact the top two as Plum Pretty surged for the wire, St. John’s River closing the gap with every stride. With thunderous roars from the crowd rolling across the track Plum Pretty and St. John’s River hit the wire together in a breathtaking finish, separated by just a neck. Zazu came on well for third, 2 ½ lengths behind St. John’s River while Joyful Victory finished half a length behind, just holding off Bouquet Booth by a nose for fourth. Kathmanblu finished more than six length back in sixth, never seeming to find her best stride but still finishing four lengths ahead of the rest.
This was the first win in the Kentucky Oaks for trainer Bob Baffert since Silverbulletday won in 1999 and he was exuberant, “That was awesome,” he said after the race, “We hoped she’d run like that”. Plum Pretty has now won three of her five starts while finishing third twice. She has taken her reputation to a whole new level with the Oaks victory. The fact that St. John’s River was catching her at the end may worry some but in the end it was all Plum Pretty in the Oaks and she ran a race deserving of victory. Future race plans for Plum Pretty have not been made yet but she came out of her Oaks win in fantastic shape according to assistant trainer Jim Barnes.
St. John’s River ran the best race in the Oaks hands down and Rosie Napravnik deserves a ton of credit for her excellent riding skill aboard the talented filly. She broke poorly, hit the gate, veered out and then shot to the inside rail and stayed there all down the backside. Around the turn Rosie took her off the rail to pass just one filly and then steered her back inside, slipping through horses to take a clear shot at the frontrunner. It was a heartbreaking loss for her connections to be sure but still a performance to be proud of. She already has trainer Andy Leggio talking about the Breeders’ Cup and he was amazed at the level of energy and enthusiasm his filly was showing on Saturday morning a day after the race.
Joyful Victory never displayed the stunning turn of foot that made her the Oaks favorite after wins in the Honeybee and Fantasy Stakes, both by more than 7 lengths. She ran a respectable race both nothing special to be sure. She’ll be back to her old self before you know it. Possible goals for the Tapit filly include the Mother Goose (gr.1) or Delaware Oaks (gr.2).
Zazu turned in a nice late run but sadly started her move a little too late to reach the top two. She only had a few days to acquaint herself with the Churchill Downs surface and looked stiff in all her gallops in the days preceding the Oaks. I think her late arrival affected her performance and with more time she probably would have been much sharper in the stretch.
The Kentucky Oaks was a huge success this year for Churchill Downs as numbers were up across the board with on and off track wagering. Fans have come to embrace the Pink Out theme in support of breast cancer awareness at the Oaks since its emergence in 2009 and the 110,122 fans in attendance looked like an explosion of pink on Friday.
Now that the Kentucky Oaks is run and done the focus of my blog will be shifting towards fillies and mares racing throughout the year until the run for the lilies begins again next January.
Photo Courtesy of Anne M. Eberhardt