Rusty Arnold knows some will look at Karlovy Vary's pedigree, study her past performances, and view her Kentucky Oaks aspirations with a grain of salt.
As much as the veteran trainer understands that skepticism, he is willing to stand behind the compelling argument the bay filly made to the contrary during her 11⁄16-mile tour of the Keeneland main track Saturday.
Dismissed at odds of 15-1 in the seven-horse field, Karlovy Vary stamped herself as a contender for the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs on May 4 when she threw down a gate-to-wire victory in the Grade I, $500,000 Central Bank Ashland Stakes before 24,898 at Keeneland.
Arnold has had his share of good fillies over his career. But if the form Karlovy Vary showcased Saturday is as legitimate as it looked, the daughter of Dynaformer could establish herself as one of her connections' leading ladies.
While her one dirt start was a "disaster," according to Arnold, and her two previous career wins came over turf courses, Karlovy Vary has grown up a ton since taking a 11⁄16-mile allowance race at Gulfstream on Feb. 26.
"Everybody is going to look at this race and say it's a turf horse who ran good on the Polytrack," said Arnold, who has also conditioned such standouts as 1997 Spinster Stakes winner Clear Mandate and 2001 Test Stakes winner Victory Ride. "Maybe they're right, I don't know. But I'm going to try and prove them wrong. I'm going to have some concerns (about her ability to run on dirt) but I also know I've got a good horse."
Owned and bred by longtime Lexingtonian Alex Campbell Jr., Karlovy Vary broke her maiden second time out over the Keeneland turf last October but followed that with a seventh-place run behind On Fire Baby in the Grade II Golden Rod Stakes over the Churchill main track on Nov. 26.
Disappointing as that result looked, Arnold saw signs it was more the result of circumstance than the dirt track.
"She had the (No. 10) hole, and that's as close as she got to the rail around the first turn," Arnold said of that outing. "It was a disaster. They made a huge middle move into the second turn and she was wide again. Nothing went well, but she was into that race until about the eighth pole.
"I don't think it was the dirt surface that got her. Now me thinking it and it being the truth is what we're going to find out."
Though Karlovy Vary had never broken on top before, the lack of speed in the Ashland field — which featured Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Stephanie's Kitten — left the bay filly alone on the front end through comfortable fractions of :24.34 and :48.97.
"If nobody else wanted it (the lead), we were going to be there anyway," said jockey James Graham, who was aboard Karlovy Vary. "We just took her on and let her do her thing."
Clear by 2 lengths at the head of the stretch, Karlovy Vary kept digging in the final furlong, holding off Hard Not to Like by three-quarters of a length in a final time of 1:44.82.
Stephanie's Kitten, who won the Grade I Darley Alcibiades at Keeneland last fall and was making her first start since her Breeders' Cup triumph, held for third as the even-money favorite and is still likely to head to England in June for a start at the Royal Ascot meeting.
"She just didn't have it at the finish," said Ken Ramsey, owner and breeder of Stephanie's Kitten. "I was a little disappointed, I thought she'd run a little better than that. We'll probably put another race into her between now and Ascot, but we won't go if we don't think we can run one, two or three. So she'll have to be a little better next time."
In 1988, Campbell was part of the partnership that campaigned that season's Kentucky Oaks winner, Goodbye Halo.
Unproven on dirt as his latest stable starlet might be, that isn't going to stop Campbell or his longtime trainer from taking a stab at the nation's premier filly test for 3-year-olds.
"I've been doing this unsuccessfully a lot of time for 60 years, but this was a big win for us," Campbell said. "We've won a couple big ones in our lifetime but ... we love this filly."