Rarely in Thoroughbred racing do plans end up going so wonderfully awry.
Trainer John Servis’s first thought after his charge Cathryn Sophia suffered her first career loss last month was that a start in the 142nd Kentucky Oaks was off the table. He’d always wondered in the back of his mind if the daughter of Street Boss wanted any part of a distance of ground, and when she flattened out just so while running third in the Grade I, 1 1/16-miles Ashland Stakes at Keeneland on April 9, the initial plan was to regroup, shorten her up and move on down a different road.
Eight days later, a curveball got thrown. Another week after that, the ornery bay filly browbeat her connections into letting her be Louisville-bound after all.
With a record Oaks crowd of 124,589 hailing her ever-increasing stride down the Churchill Downs stretch Friday, Cathryn Sophia had Servis ever so grateful for his decision to second guess himself instead of his filly.
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As it turns out, Cathryn Sophia can handle 1 1/8 miles just fine, thank you. Under picture-perfect guidance from jockey Javier Castellano, the smallish filly with the monster attitude smacked everyone who doubted her in the mouth, drawing clear in the stretch to win the $1 million Kentucky Oaks by 2 ¾ lengths over runner-up Land Over Sea.
“This was so exciting. You know ... to have everyone put her on a pedestal and then have her get beat and have everyone bail on her, this was very self satisfying I can tell you that,” beamed Servis, who is now batting .1000 in Churchill’s premier races having saddled Smarty Jones to victory in the 2004 Kentucky Derby in his only starter in that race. “I’ve always been a little concerned, with the way she’s made and her sire and pedigree, how far she’d go. So this opens up a lot of horizons on what she can do, where we can run.”
Were it not for some select circumstances, the onslaught of embraces that flooded the track in the Oaks aftermath might not have materialized. When it was announced on April 17 that unbeaten champion Songbird — considered by many to be the best 3-year-old of either gender — would miss the Oaks due a low-grade fever, Servis and Chuck Zacney, managing partner of owner Cash Is King LLC, began having conversations about putting the Oaks back under consideration for Cathryn Sophia.
Before they fully committed to that spot instead of the 7-furlong Eight Belles Stakes earlier on Friday’s card, Servis needed the filly he describes as “just mean” due to her territorial stall antics to sell him on the fact that she bounced out of the Ashland with fire in her belly.
When she worked 5 furlongs in a bullet 59.60 at Keeneland on April 23, Servis gave the green light to let her run against a field that included Grade I winner Rachel’s Valentina and Fair Grounds Oaks heroine Land Over Sea.
“I remember getting a text saying ‘Did you hear the rumor that Songbird might be out of the Oaks?’” said Zacney, who was part of the ownership group that campaigned 2005 dual classic winner and champion Afleet Alex. “We picked up the discussion and ... said, you know maybe the Ashland wasn’t such a bad race. Our goal was always the Oaks so we said, what the heck, let’s continue with that.
“I was cautiously optimistic. But every time I talked to (Servis) his confidence was bubbling over.”
Brilliance has always been Cathryn Sophia’s hallmark. She captured her first four starts by a combined 41 ½ lengths including wins in the Grade II Forward Gal and Grade II Davona Dale at Gulfstream Park to start her 2016 campaign.
The difference that allowed her to get the extra ground in the Oaks has been her recent ability to relax and settle. Breaking out of post 12 in the 14-horse Oaks field, Cathryn Sophia let Castellano put her in an outside path in fourth just behind Rachel’s Valentina down the backstretch as Terra Promessa took the field through fractions of 23.32 and 47.87.
With both Rachel’s Valentina and Terra Promessa failing to go on around the final turn, Cathryn Sophia advanced three-wide and hit the afterburners to establish a clear lead en route to crossing the wire in 1:50.53 over a track rated fast.
“Turning for home, the quarter pole is where I felt she was still in bridle and she was still pulling, pulling,” Castellano said. “The way she did it turning for home, I think nobody can beat that filly today.”
Land Over Sea made a game charge after being 11th early on to get her neck up over Lewis Bay for place money while race favorite Rachel’s Valentina faded to sixth.
“With her style she needs everything to work out perfectly but I’m very proud of her,” said Doug O’Neill, trainer of Land Over Sea.
The Grade I, 1-mile Acorn Stakes at Belmont Park June 11 has been mentioned as a possible next goal for Cathryn Sophia. Safe to say after her Oaks outing, her connections won’t be afraid to try anything.
“We’ve been very confident in her from the beginning,” Servis said. “The only thing I didn’t want to have to change was her running style to go after Songbird. But if she had won the Ashland, it would have never been a question.”
Kentucky Derby 142
Post time: 6:34 p.m.