Nine Canadian-bred fillies are in the starting line-up for Sunday’s $500,000 Woodbine Oaks, presented by Budweiser. The stakes slugger of the field is three-time added-money winner Inglorious.
Fittingly – as far as the baseball theme of this post is concerned – the daughter of Hennessy drew post three, the same spot in the batting order occupied by none other than Toronto Blue Jays star Jose Bautista.
A home run by Inglorious on Sunday would almost certainly land her a Plate appearance in three weeks: a shot at the Gallop for the Guineas, the most coveted prize in Canadian horse racing.
The Donver Stable charge, who is ridden by Luis Contreras, enters off a strong, confidence-building score over open company in the 1 1/16-mile La Lorgnette Stakes, named for the Val de l’Orne filly that swept the Oaks and Queen’s Plate in 1985.
The victory snapped a mini two-race losing streak for Inglorious, who had been campaigned towards the prestigious, Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, before her connections decided to regroup and reload for a Spring/Summer run at the classic Canadian-bred races at Woodbine.
In her three-year-old bow, Inglorious ran a strong second to Kathmanblu in the Grade 3 Rachel Alexandra at the Fair Grounds. At the time, Kathmanblu was among the top Kentucky Oaks contenders. Even though the runner-up finish was her first ever loss, it was the first indication of where she might fit within the three-year-old filly division.
Even more importantly, from a Canadian perspective, she showed enough quality to move to the head of the Canadian-bred three-year-old class and take on the important title of Queen’s Plate Winterbook favourite.
Inglorious followed up with a fourth-place finish in the Fair Grounds Oaks. She was away tardily, than was rushed into the fray which made her wide on the first turn. From there, she made a couple of moves but wound up on heels in the slow-paced event. This performance, on March 26, is better than it looks on paper but wasn’t enough to proceed to Louisville.
“We put her a little closer than normal, took her out of her game a little bit and didn’t get the finish that she usually has,” said Carroll.“She did bruise her feet in the race and although she never missed training, we had to go a little light with her. At that point we were debating - do we head to the Kentucky Oaks or do we head here (to Woodbine)? To head to the Kentucky Oaks, we would have had to lean on her quite a bit and it might have cost us the opportunity to run her here as well. So we decided to head in this direction.”
This week, Carroll told a Canadian Press reporter that pace, or a lack thereof, was a concern on Sunday. That’s somewhat surprising for three reasons:
First, this filly exits a score in which she overcame a slow pace to win emphatically. She did what she had to do in the final stages – requiring only a :30-flat final five-sixteenths to win by an open-length margin. That’s fairly strong, but not exactly the brand of late-speed deployed by Biofuel when she took last year’s La Lorgnette, but once again she didn’t need to be Biofuel to get the ‘W’.
Secondly, pace makes the race, but not usually in a Polytrack event around two turns at Woodbine. if the Oaks was being run on a conventional dirt track, a lack of pace would be the major issue for all of the reasons explained in the Canadian Press report titled “Pace in Woodbine Oaks horse race a concern for trainer Josie Carroll”. But Woodbine’s Polytrack doesn’t generate many front-running victories in route races. Unless conditions are extreme (like say 2010 Plate Day – golden rail), front-runners that get out and set lazy fractions don’t stick around, even if Pace Handicapping 101 dictates that they should.
Thirdly, there’s enough uncertainty in this field to stir things up early. Consider, three of the key upset possibilities, Bear It’s Time, Marketing Miss and Roxy Gap, have never been two turns in their young careers and all break from the outer half of the starting gate.
Of the three, Bear It’s Time, appears fastest. While the Reade Baker trainee closed from third to win the seven-furlong Lady Angela in her only three-year-old start, that had a lot to do with the quick tempo of the race. In most other races, especially routes, a :21 4/5 second quarter would have put her on the lead, which is how she broke her maiden last fall by 6 ¼ lengths.
Through five career starts, Roxy Gap also exhibits form that indicates a preference for being right up or just off the pace. Her only poor result, a distant third, came in the Old Hat at Gulfstream when she was well back early.
“Her race down in Miami wasn’t really that bad,” said trainer Mark Casse in a Woodbine press note this week. “She broke a little bit flat-footed and another horse came out and just clobbered her. And when that happened, I think it kind of knocked her off of her game. She was just spinning her wheels down the backside.”
In a one-turn race at a mile, over the E.P. Taylor Turf Course, Roxy Gap’s natural brilliance translated into an open-length advantage from gate to wire. Roxy Gap enters the Oaks off a victory in the seven-furlong Fury Stakes on April 30, when she held off the lightly-raced Tom Proctor trainee Marketing Miss.
The prediction here is not a rock’em, sock’em battle for the lead from the opening bell between Roxy Gap and Bear It’s Time. These two fillies have shown attributes that tilt more towards brilliance than stamina. Eventually, they’ll hook up on the engine because they have the same game plan: Steal as many soft fractions as possible, throw down the gauntlet and get the jump on the legitimate staying types.
Marketing Miss, on the other hand, isn’t as likely to be an early pace factor. Until a runner has tried a longer race, you never know. Every indication is that she is more of a staying type and will relax during the early stages as well as she has in her sprint tries. She’s a live late threat on Sunday if she has continued to develop since her near miss in the four-horse Fury. Proctor reports that she was in season in the Fury, which could be enough reason as any to expect a move forward in the Oaks. The challenge is outsprinting the more accomplished Inglorious from the quarter-pole to the wire.
If there is a wildcard in this year’s Oaks, it’s Grand Style. She captured last year’s Princess Elizabeth Stakes at 1 1/16 miles before closing out the season with a loss. She enters the Oaks with just one start under her. Sound familiar? It should. Exactly same pattern shown by Roan Inish before she conquered last year’s Oaks! Grand Style finished a modest fifth in the Grade 1 Ashland. The effort produced a lifetime best Beyer speed figure (77) and she’s had time since then – another peak effort isn’t out of the realm of possibility. It would be necessary to contend Sunday. All of her workouts have been at Keeneland in front of the watchful eye of trainer George Arnold, who trained the G. Humphrey Jr. charge while she was in the United States.
With a potential superstar, two tactical types and a pair of developing off-the-pace runners all set to compete, this year’s Oaks could very well come down to one last swing for the fences in the bottom of the ninth furlong.