On the evening of April 17, Rusty Arnold’s mindset began to shift. So too did that of fellow trainer John Servis. Simultaneously, the barns of Todd Pletcher, Doug O’Neill and Steve Asmussen were feeling a lot more emboldened as well.
No horseman wants to benefit from another’s misfortune. But when unbeaten champion Songbird, the filly regarded as arguably the best 3-year-old of either gender, was declared out of the Kentucky Oaks last month due to a low-grade fever, a door of opportunity previously thought to be all but sealed was busted open in the sophomore filly division.
“The Oaks with Songbird out has just opened it up in a way,” said Asmussen, who is set to saddle three Oaks starters Friday in Terra Promessa, Royal Obsession and Taxable. “I think her missing the race has got everyone thinking things that we weren’t thinking a month ago. This was a dominant filly in the division. And here we are with some nice, talented, but well-matched fillies.”
Instead of being a one-horse coronation, the 1 1/8 -mile Oaks could end up in the lap of any of the 14 entrants in the $1 million test for 3-year-old fillies. Because hidden in the long shadow that Songbird has cast is a depth-laden group, including a few who could easily reign over their class had they not had the misfortune of all being foaled in 2013.
The Oaks with Songbird out has just opened it up in a way. I think her missing the race has got everyone thinking things that we weren’t thinking a month ago. This was a dominant filly in the division. And here we are with some nice, talented, but well-matched fillies.
Grade I winner Rachel’s Valentina was installed as the tepid 7-2 favorite out of post No. 11, and a triumph in Friday’s test would certainly be a birthright. As the daughter of 2009 Kentucky Oaks winner and Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, the bay filly is vying to make her Hall of Fame dam the first Oaks winner to produce an Oaks winner.
In her first start since running second to Songbird in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, Rachel’s Valentina was beaten just a neck by fellow Oaks entrant Weep No More in the Grade I Ashland Stakes at Keeneland on April 9. Though she won the Grade I Spinaway Stakes going 7 furlongs last September, Pletcher has always believed that two turns and more distance is where his charge would fully shine.
“I thought she’s bounced out of the Ashland really well, that was a terrific effort on her part first time out on the year,” Pletcher said. “She fought off several challenges and was just unlucky to get nailed late. But I think the race has brought her forward.
“She came (to our barn) as advertised. And right from the start, she did everything right. She learned quickly. She was a pleasure, the kind that makes my job easier.”
Entering a starting gate without Songbird has already made life easier for Land Over Sea. The lightly built daughter of Bellamy Road had lost five straight races to the reigning juvenile filly champion — finishing second three times during that span — but was finally able to show her class when she shipped out of California to win the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks by 4½ lengths on March 26.
That Land Over Sea prevailed by such an authoritative margin was a relief to her camp as it proved she hadn’t lost her heart even after repeatedly getting her heart broken.
“I don’t know if it’s a maturity thing or she’s finally put a head in front and run well but … she couldn’t be doing any better,” said Jack Sisterson, assistant trainer to O’Neill. “When she’s finished training, she always thinks she hasn’t done enough. She gets worked up coming off the track and she wants to go back out there and it’s like ‘I can do it again!’ It obviously helps winning, and she gets her confidence up especially before a big race.”
By sheer margin, multiple graded stakes winner Cathryn Sophia had been even more dominant than Songbird, winning her first four starts by a combined 41½ lengths. The fiery daughter of Street Boss was initially ruled out of Oaks contention after she ran third in the Ashland, leading Servis to speculate that maybe the distance was beyond her scope.
With the queen bee out and little other early speed in the Oaks field, Servis reconsidered his initial line of thinking.
“I’m a little concerned about the 1 1/8 miles with her,” Servis said. “But as good as she ran in the Ashland, especially with Songbird being out, I think she definitely deserved a chance. With Songbird’s running style, if you’re going to beat her I think you’re going to try and hook her early. And with the 1 1/8 miles being a little bit of a concern, I probably wouldn’t (have run if Songbird was still in).”
The distance is of no concern to the camp of Ashland winner Weep No More, who came from the clouds that day with a tremendous kick to earn her first graded stakes win and a spot in the Oaks field. The venerable Arnold said after that race he would have been thrilled had his late-running filly taken third that day. With her form at its peak and the complexion of the Oaks drastically altered, Arnold is feeling free to dream big.
“I don’t know about confidence level but I think you’re probably a little more greedy than you were before going into this race,” Arnold said. “It’s a cliché to say a race is wide open but this race is wide open. Somebody who fires their best race on this day and gets the best trip is going to win it and you just hope it’s you. You’re not confident you can win it but it’s a winnable race, and that goes for about eight fillies or so.”
Kentucky Oaks field
1. Terra Promessa, 10-1
2. Weep No More, 9-2
3. Lewis Bay, 8-1
4. Go Maggie Go, 12-1
5. Dream Dance, 30-1
6. Mokat, 20-1
7. Mo d’ Amour, 30-1
8. Royal Obsession, 20-1
9. Paola Queen, 30-1
10. Venus Valentine, 30-1
11. Rachel’s Valentina, 7-2
12. Cathryn Sophia, 9-2
13. Land Over Sea, 5-1
14. Taxable, 20-1
15. Dothraki Queen, 30-1
When: 5:49 p.m.
Where: Churchill Downs
TV: NBC Sports Network
Distance: 1 1/8 miles
Purse: $1 million (Grade I)
For: 3-year-old fillies