Kentucky Derby

Kentucky Oaks includes a scare, then a surprise winner

John Clay and Ben Roberts handicap Kentucky Derby 145

Herald-Leader sports writers John Clay and Ben Roberts give their picks on the 2019 Kentucky Derby field from Churchill Downs.
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Herald-Leader sports writers John Clay and Ben Roberts give their picks on the 2019 Kentucky Derby field from Churchill Downs.

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Serengeti Empress dispelled questions about her health and ability with a signature performance in the biggest race of her career.

The filly went wire-to-wire to win the $1.25 million Kentucky Oaks by 1 3/4 lengths over Liora on Friday at Churchill Downs.

The start featured a scary moment when Positive Spirit fell down and threw jockey Manny Franco after clipping another horse as the 14-horse field closed together from the gate. Both were able to get up and walk off the track. Serengeti Empress started from the No. 13 post to lead by the first turn and kept it up despite Liora’s late attempt to close the gap.

The dark brown filly rebounded from a seventh-place run in the Fair Grounds Oaks — a race in which she was vanned off the track with bleeding — to win the 145th running of the premier race for 3-year-old fillies. Serengeti Empress earned her second graded win in three starts this year and third overall in eight career races, and gave trainer Tom Amoss his first Kentucky Oaks victory.

“I have had all the sacrifices all trainers have,” Amoss said immediately afterward. “I got to taste the sweet, sweet drink of the Kentucky Oaks and I want more. This is awesome.”

Ridden by Jose Ortiz, Serengeti Empress covered 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.17 and paid $28, $14.80 and $9.60.

Liora returned $32.60 and $17, and Lady Apple paid $7 to show.

Bellafina, who began as the Oaks’ 2-1 morning line favorite, finished fifth.

Positive Spirit (6) unseated Manuel Franco shortly after leaving the gate during the 145th running of the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs on Friday. Alex Slitz

The Oaks’ scary beginning and Serengeti Empress’ easy victory comes soon after the industry enacted a raft of medication and safety rules changes following the deaths of 23 horses over three months at California’s Santa Anita Park.

The daughter of Alternation and Havisham by Bernardini underwent scrutiny after failing to finish her previous start at Fair Grounds on March 23 because of external bleeding. Serengeti Empress responded by turning in strong workouts at Churchill Downs, including 5 furlongs in 58 seconds on April 23. She was eventually cleared medically to run in the Oaks.

Running the Oaks on the anti-bleeding medication Lasix as most North American horses, Serengeti Empress left no doubt after breaking from the gate. The question from there was whether she’d be challenged, something Liora gamely attempted in the stretch before falling short.

“She’s such a fast filly,” Ortiz said. “She took me to the front and she fought the entire way around there. … This is an incredible win.”

After the early tumble, Churchill Downs’ outriders came to gather Positive Spirit under control immediately, and the on-call veterinarian at Churchill Downs gave an update soon after.

“She was able to walk to her barn under her own power and no ambulance was required,” said Dr. Alan Ruggles, on-call veterinarian for the American Association of Equine Practitioners. “They’ll evaluate her once she’s back in her barn. Her private veterinarians will see if there is any more significant injury, but from what we understand, this is likely a soft-tissue injury. Sometimes it can be a little bit of skin laceration. Sometimes it’s just losing a little bit of hair.

“The good news is that there didn’t seem to be any significant problems with her. All the reports that she walked off the track were very positive.”

Franco later confirmed he was uninjured in post-race comments provided by Churchill Downs.

“I clipped heels out of the gate. I’m OK,” Franco said.

Jaywalk was disqualified from sixth and placed 13th for interfering with Positive Spirit out of the gate.