Trying to rank the top contenders for the 2017 Kentucky Derby is tough, real tough. Thankfully, the fillies have been much more dependable, as they blaze their own trail to Louisville. With only 47 days to go until the first Friday of May, these are the ten fillies I consider the most like to follow in the footsteps of recent stars such as Rags to Riches, Rachel Alexandra, Blind Luck, Princess of Sylmar, and Untapable, in attaining Kentucky Oaks glory.
(Tapit—Unrivaled Belle, by Unbridled’s
Song) – With the Kentucky Derby off the table, it looks like we could be headed for a heavy favorite in this year's run for the lilies. The regally bred gray filly has dominated things in Southern California in three graded stakes tries so far this year. So much so in the first two, that her Hall of Fame rider, Mike Smith looked a little overconfident in the last one, in which she faced a tough filly in her own right, Abel Tasman. That test is now in the books, and it will be only one more prep for the new darling of American racing, when she'll rule an overwhelming favorite for the Santa Anita Oaks on April 8. She may have demonstrated just a touch of overeagerness in the Santa Ysabel, but that issue should be resolved by her excellent connections. By any standard, she rules over the division at this time.
2) Abel Tasman (Quality Road—Vargas Girl, by Deputy Minister) – As good as Unique Bella has been, this Grade 1 winner should not be discounted. She finished her juvenile season off in style, and in her return to the races, she looked like the genuine article while giving Unique Bella her first true test in stakes company. While she was only second best that day, it was an excellent performance first time off the layoff. There is every reason to believe that she will only improve off that tightener. There has been a strange twist to her story since her last race, as co-owner, China Horse Club removed her from the barn of Simon Callaghan due to a reported silks mistake. She now resides in Bob Baffert's barn, which shouldn't hurt her chances moving forward, but you have to feel for Callaghan, who seemingly did little wrong.
3) Farrell (Malibu Moon – Rebridled Dreams, by Unbridled’s Song) – A half-sister to Grade 1 winner Carpe Diem, among others, Farrell has continued her steady ascent towards the top of her division with three consecutive and decisive graded stakes wins in Louisville and New Orleans. The well bred filly seems to still be improving for trainer, Wayne Catalano, and if not for the exploits of the top one, she would be getting a lot more ink as the most accomplished filly of this crop. She will also have one more prep for the Oaks, which will come in the April 1 Fair Grounds Oaks. If for whatever reason you are not as high on the California fillies as I am, this speedy daughter of Malibu Moon is a great alternative as a filly to beat at Churchill Downs.
4) It Tiz
(Arch—It Tiz, by Tiznow) – Absolutely no match for her stablemate in the Santa Ynez, that just goes to show just how talented Unique Bella is. Clearly, Jerry Hollendorfer has his fill of really good fillies, as this one bounced back with two straight wins following the 7 1/2-length defeat. The first came in allowance company, but she then demonstrated her class with a strong win in the Grade 3 Honeybee at Oaklawn Park. For just a second it looked like Benner Island might have her measured, but she responded like good horses do. Her breeding, by Arch, out of
a multiple stakes winning Tiznow mare, says she will only improve with time and distance. Can Hollendorfer sweep the Oaks exacta?
5) Miss Sky Warrior (First Samurai—Sky Minister, by Conquistador Cielo) – It seems this multiple graded stakes winner from the barn of Kelly Breen struggles for respect. Despite stringing together three straight graded stakes wins; the Tempted Stakes, the Demoiselle Stakes, both at Aqueduct, and the Grade 2 Davona Dale Stakes at Gulfstream Park, few have her listed as one of the elite names among sophomore fillies. While it's true she has not dazzled like some, there is a lot to be said for the way she can win on the lead, or off, take her game to multiple tracks, and win at nine furlongs. The Gulfstream Park Oaks should be next on her continued path to respect.
6) Summer Luck (Lookin At Lucky—Seasonal, by Deputy Minister) – If you like Miss Sky Warrior off the Davona Dale, it's hard not to like this Mark Casse-trained filly, as well. Not only was she the only filly to make up a lot of ground in the big field, but she also lost precious ground when carried out in mid-stretch. Still a developing work in progress, the daughter of a two-time champion took the necessary step forward to look like a real contender for the Kentucky Oaks. In her only previous race at Churchill Downs, Summer Luck broke her maiden in impressive, late-running style. She should only improve with that extra furlong of the Oaks.
7) Elate (Medaglia d’Oro—Cheery, by Distorted Humor) – You might ask why the well beaten third-place finisher in the Honeybee rates such a lofty national ranking. My answer is -- potential. The Claiborne and Dilschneider homebred looked like the real thing airing in her only start at two, and while 0-for-2 so far this year, you can still see the talent bubbling up ready to come to the surface. She has not shown an explosive burst yet when second in the Suncoast and third in the Honeybee, but I love the way she was finishing while splitting horses last time. Improvement is needed, but who better than trainer Bill Mott to develop this promising filly into everything that she can be?
8) Valadorna (Curlin—Goldfield, by Yes It’s True) – The daughter of Curlin looked the part when rallying strongly to be second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, but has not yet backed it up in 2017. She needed every bit of the 1 mile and 70 yards to win in lesser company to start the season, and then got a little tired of chasing Farrell in the Rachel Alexandra. A better pace scenario should help her, and improvement is still expected for the talented Mark Casse filly, but like the one just ahead of her, she clearly will need to get better to expect to win a race like the Kentucky Oaks. Perhaps a trip back to Keeneland, where she impressively broke her maiden, for the Grade 1 Ashland will bring out her best.
9) Benner Island (Speightstown—Spacy Tracy, by Awesome Again) – The $200,000 yearling purchase is as of yet 0-for-4 in stakes company, but she showed the talent to break through with a strong second behind It Tiz Well last time at Oaklawn Park. Two races before that, she ran one of the best races by a juvenile filly last year at Churchill Downs, when romping home in a one-mile allowance race in November. The well bred filly looks to be still developing for trainer Brad Cox, and I am willing to bet that the Honeybee result was anything but a fluke. Look for her to continue to her upward ascent in the Fantasy.
10) Tequilita (Union Rags—Sangrita, by Mr. Greeley) – After two straight stakes wins, including the Grade 2 Forward Gal, Kentucky Derby winning trainer Michael Matz decided to skip the Davona Dale, and wait for the Gulfstream Park Oaks on April 1 with this improving daughter of a Belmont Stakes winner. Going as well as she has been, it was a decision that likely shows how much Matz sees in the future of in his filly. Tequilita has already proven the ability to rally, with a determined nose for the wire. Now she will have to prove that she can run with top competition going a route of ground. Considering her pedigree, and her running style, the added distance should be no problem at all.