LOUISVILLE — The dominant theme on the Churchill Downs backstretch this week concerns an extremely fortunate trainer who has in his barn two of the best competitors in what figures to be a depth-laden showcase for 3-year-olds.
Though one wouldn't know it based on the crowds that surround Bob Baffert's Barn 33 every morning, the Hall of Famer isn't the only trainer who would surprise practically no one if his accomplished duo swept the defining race of their class this weekend.
Larry Jones is one of the most respected horsemen in Thoroughbred racing, and his handling of fillies in particular is something on which he hangs his trademark cowboy hat.
The trainer, who has won the Kentucky Oaks twice, has a two-pronged punch as he tries for triumph No. 3 in the $1 million, 11⁄8-mile test for 3-year-old fillies. Jones is set to saddle Grade I winner Lovely Maria and multiple graded stakes winner I'm a Chatterbox at Churchill Downs on Friday.
He acknowledges that his pair of distaffers don't tower over the 14-horse Oaks field in the fashion that Baffert's duo of champion American Pharoah and unbeaten Dortmund stand as the clear targets in the 141st Kentucky Derby on Saturday. In fact, when the morning-line dust cleared over the Oaks crew, oddsmaker Mike Battaglia ended up making Grade I Santa Anita Oaks winner Stellar Wind the tepid 7-2 choice.
However, few know the path to the Oaks as well as Jones, who trained 2008 winner Proud Spell and 2012 heroine Believe You Can.
"That's what I get mostly, I get more fillies than I do colts," the Hopkinsville native said. "I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I don't know why we've had so much success with fillies, and we have. The fillies just seem to keep acting like they want to dominate.
"These are two really good fillies, and they're both coming in the right way and doing everything good."
Owned by Brereton Jones' Airdrie Stud, Lovely Maria did some time in her stablemate's shadow before bursting out with a 31/4-length win in the Grade I Ashland Stakes at Keeneland on April 4.
Before that run, she finished second to I'm a Chatterbox in the Grade III Rachel Alexandra at Fair Grounds on Feb. 21. They went on to further flatter each other with Grayson Farm's I'm a Chatterbox looking beastlike in her subsequent 21/2-length win in the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks, a victory that came a week before Lovely Maria's third win in seven starts.
Jones says both fillies can place themselves wherever needed to make a run. Where he sees some separation is that both of I'm a Chatterbox's losses in six career starts came over the Churchill Downs surface in November.
"The only thing about Chatterbox is ... the only track she has ever been beat at is Churchill Downs," Jones said. "So me being the paranoid trainer that I am, I just worry. Lovely Maria has not ever appeared to have to carry her track with her. She's been on several different tracks and done well, so that is not any concern with me for her."
What is a concern for Jones and the rest of the Oaks field is if anyone will keep Grade I winner Condo Commando honest in her expected role as the early speed.
Condo Commando has won her last three outings by a combined 183/4 lengths, and trainer Rudy Rodriguez isn't keeping his strategy under wraps.
"I don't want to change anything," he said. "Come and catch me. It's a very good field. Very good horses. I know what they did. Hopefully she breaks good and takes it from there."
Birdathewire has had the most unfortunate luck of late among the Oaks contenders. That she keeps finding ways to prevail could put trainer Dale Romans in line for his first Oaks victory.
The Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks on March 28 should have gone down as a nightmare trip as the filly battled with jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. around the first turn and was about stopped on the backstretch. Instead, she persevered to earn a 11/4-length victory for her second graded stakes win.
"She proved herself in her last race," said Paul Murans, a principal partner in the filly's ownership group, Forum Racing, "The things she had to go through, with the jockey fighting with her on the backside, I thought the race was over for her at that point. I didn't think she was going to be able to recover from that.
"That was the biggest eye-opener we've had with her, and she's been training lights out. She's dead fit. And it's about as good an Oaks field as you could ask for. There are four or five horses that could easily win this thing.''