LOUISVILLE — If one thing has kept a smile on trainer Larry Jones' face this week after he declared his Kentucky Derby hopeful out, it's the dark bay filly he plans on saddling in Friday's Kentucky Oaks.
"She's really trying her best to model after (2008 Oaks winner) Proud Spell," Jones said of Believe You Can, the graded stakes-winning contender he will send out in the $1 million test. "Maybe lightning can strike twice in the same place."
Having thrown down three consecutive bullet works, including a 5-furlong move in :58.40 at Churchill Downs this past Sunday, Believe You Can has had Jones beaming with the way she has moved over the track in recent weeks.
With a head-snapping pace potentially set to emerge in a 14-horse Oaks field loaded with speed, the daughter of Proud Citizen could give Jones a second chance to soak in what it feels like to win the nation's premier filly race.
As is Believe You Can, Proud Spell was conditioned by Jones and owned by former Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones when she snagged the lilies four years ago.
The joy of his first Oaks triumph was short-lived for Larry Jones, however, as his other standout filly, Eight Belles, fatally broke down the following day while galloping out after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby.
Earlier this week, Jones announced that his charge Mark Valeski — also owned by Brereton Jones — would be withdrawn from consideration for the Kentucky Derby and instead be pointed toward the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park. Difficult as that decision was, it has ensured Believe You Can will be feted for days should she take the 11⁄8-mile Oaks.
"The last time we won the Oaks, we didn't get to enjoy it but for just one day," Larry Jones said. "What happened the next day took any of the Oaks enjoyment away. That was the very first thing I thought when we took Mark out of consideration is I thought if we win it this time, maybe we'll get to enjoy it for a while."
Believe You Can has won two of her three starts this year and is coming off a head victory in the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks on March 31. Like several Oaks contenders, Believe You Can has done some of her best running on or close to the lead but has also shown she can rate — as she did in winning the Grade III Tempted Stakes at Belmont last October.
That ability to relax and take back could be the X-factor in the Oaks with graded-stakes winners Broadway's Alibi, On Fire Baby, and Grade I winner Eden's Moon all strong candidates to set a hot pace.
"She will not be anywhere near the lead here, there is too much speed," said trainer Rusty Arnold, whose Oaks filly Karlovy Vary wired the field in the Grade I Central Bank Ashland Stakes at Keeneland last month. "She will lay back. We need for two things to happen — she has to have a good trip and be able to handle the dirt."
Karlovy Vary has not won over dirt.
The main track has not been an issue for 5-2 morning-line favorite Grace Hall. The daughter of Empire Maker won the Grade I Spinaway at Saratoga last September and most recently won the Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks by 6½ lengths going 11⁄8 miles on March 31.
Grace Hall is the only filly in the field with a win over the Oaks distance and is also the only holdover from last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs, where she finished second to champion My Miss Aurelia.
"I think that we just finished second that day (in the Breeders' Cup). I felt our filly ran very well without excuse," said Grace Hall's trainer, Tony Dutrow. "I have to feel good about (how she took to the surface) but what makes me feel even better is watching her train here the last two days."