LOUISVILLE — It wasn't until last Saturday that Princess of Sylmar fully convinced her connections she was ready to join a Kentucky Oaks field regarded as the best in recent years. And three jumps out of the gate Friday, her prospects for taking down such wildly accomplished rivals were looking shakier than her previous status.
The way the chestnut filly got over the track in her final major move ultimately told trainer Todd Pletcher he needed to add a fourth Oaks starter to the trio he already had inked in.
After getting knocked sideways at the start in the toughest race of her young life, Princess of Sylmar demonstrated there is even more strength in Pletcher's numbers than anybody anticipated.
Dismissed as the second-longest choice in the 10-horse field at odds of 38-1, Princess of Sylmar made the 139th edition of the Kentucky Oaks the site of her first graded stakes win. She collared reigning juvenile filly champion Beholder in deep stretch to win the 11⁄8-mile race by half a length before a crowd of 113,820 at Churchill Downs.
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Of the four fillies Pletcher started in the Oaks, Grade I winner Dreaming of Julia and previously unbeaten Unlimited Budget were the clear picks to possibly derail Beholder and a field that also featured another unbeaten in Grade II winner Close Hatches.
After what he termed a disappointing first move over the Churchill track, Pletcher contemplated skipping the Oaks with Ed Stanco's homebred filly and pointing for Pimlico's Grade II Black-Eyed Susan on May 17. Princess of Sylmar delivered both times in the crunch, first giving her five-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer what he was looking for in her final 4-furlong move last Saturday — and again in the signature race for 3-year-old fillies.
"We talked about passing this ... and then we talked about let's bring her to Churchill and see how she handled the track," said Pletcher, who saddled his third career Oaks winner. "To be honest, her first work over the track, I told Ed this was not what I was hoping for. She didn't seem comfortable going over it.
"The one thing we noticed is it seemed like every horse we were working on the inside just wasn't performing as well as the horse on the outside. We switched and put her on the outside next time and she was completely different."
Overshadowed as she was, Princess of Sylmar was far from devoid of back class. The chestnut filly broke her maiden second time out by 19 lengths and proceeded to win her next three starts by a combined 193/4 lengths.
Her first try at graded stakes company saw her finish a well-beaten second to Close Hatches in the Grade II Gazelle at Aqueduct on April 6. Still, there was encouragement to be found in that loss.
"When you see a filly run the way she did and overcome some of the obstacles she did in some of those races, and then from the eighth pole to the wire kick clear to win by eight, I said, 'She is better than that,'" Pletcher said.
All that preparation almost went up in smoke seconds into the Oaks when Rose to Gold in post No. 9 broke inward and knocked into Dreaming of Julia, who then caused a chain reaction that caused Princess of Sylmar's jockey Mike Smith to briefly lose grip on his irons as he tried to regain his balance.
"It felt like there were three jocks on one horse, that's how much they squeezed us over," said Smith, who earned the first Oaks win of his Hall of Fame career. "They were still going quick up front, and Princess gathered herself up and was right back into it around the first turn and taking me where I needed to go."
With Beholder prompting her, Midnight Lucky skipped through fractions of :22.84 and :46.79 as Princess of Sylmar settled on the outside in ninth down the backstretch.
Beholder, who became fractious while waiting to load and dumped jockey Garrett Gomez behind the gate, gamely advanced to take over the lead coming out of the turn just as Princess of Sylmar was rolling four wide to pick off challengers.
The extra energy Beholder expended in her pre-race antics may have cost her in the final strides as Princess of Sylmar angled out and wore her down to win in 1:49.17 over a fast track.
"She almost fell down and rolled in the post parade and lost it going to the gate," Gomez said. "I knew that might jeopardize her performance. She still ran a tremendous race after everything that happened."
Unlimited Budget held for third while race favorite Dreaming of Julia took the worst of the start but still came on to get fourth. Pletcher's other horse in the Oaks, Silsita, finished last.
Princess of Sylmar, meanwhile, now has Pletcher ripping up his depth chart.
"The plan has always been she'd go to Todd and if she's good she'll stay there and if not she'll go back to Pennsylvania and as a Pennsylvania-bred we could pick up that 20 percent bonus in claiming races," owner/breeder Stanco said. "Guess what, that's not going to happen."