John Clay

A horse talks, a trainer listens and the Kentucky Oaks is won

If you don’t believe that horses can talk, you need to talk to Tom Amoss.

“They talk to you 24/7,” the trainer insisted Friday.

And who’s to argue after Amoss’ now-star filly Serengeti Empress went wire-to-wire in pulling off an upset victory in the 145th running of the $1.25 million Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks before a crowd of 105,709 at Churchill Downs.

According to Amoss, after winning the Grade 2 Rachel Alexandria, Serengeti Empress had bled “significantly” while finishing seventh in the Fair Grounds Oaks in New Orleans last time out. So after hearing rumblings the filly was injured, and knowing otherwise, Amoss decided to take her out on the track and video her on his phone galloping 5/8 of a mile, then post the video to social media as proof she was OK.

By then Amoss had decided to tell owner Dr. Joel Politi of Columbus, Ohio, that maybe the best thing to do would be to skip the Kentucky Oaks. But then the horse kept galloping. And galloping. Not understanding his instructions, the exercise rider galloped the filly around the track again.

“When she came back around her ears were straight up,” Amoss said, “the ears tell the tale. She was talking to me. She was telling me she was ready to run.”

Was she ever, jumping to the lead at the start of the Oaks much the same way she had done when winning the Grade 2 Pocahontas Stakes by a staggering 19 1/2 lengths last September at Churchill Downs.

“The track was speedy,” said jockey Jose Ortiz. “But with her I was gonna go, even if the track was slow.”

Meanwhile, in the back of the pack, the crowd gasped as Positive Spirit clipped heels with Jaywalk and took a tumble, unseating rider Manny Franco. (Luckily, the filly bounced right back up. Neither horse nor rider were hurt.) And the 9-5 favorite Bellafina found herself ninth of 14 at the start and never made much of a challenge while finishing fifth.

It was, as Moss eagerly stated, the biggest victory in the career of the 57-year-old trainer, who has a reputation for doing well with claimers. About five years ago, Amoss decided he wanted to change that and started attending and participating in yearling sales.

He bought the daughter of Alteration for $70,000 at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale in 2017 because of her athletic looks. Meanwhile, Politi’s four daughters had fallen in love with the 1981 song “Africa” by Toto, belting it out over and over on a retreat to the family cabin. The song includes the lyric “Rises like an Empress above the Serengeti.” Thus the horse’s name. (The girls connected on social media with Toto, who are now fans of the horse, reported Politi.)

After pulverizing the Pocahontas, however, Empress threw in a dud, finishing seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Churchill. “She got blocked,” Amoss said. “It wasn’t her day.”

Friday was her day as well as his day. A Louisiana native, Amoss spent his summers working at the race track while attending LSU. It was there, he said, that he learned the “golden rule” of showing up. To know how the horses are doing, you have to be there. They’ll talk to you if you are smart enough to pay attention and listen.

That’s how he knew that despite the bleeding episode in Louisiana, Serengeti Empress was just fine. And because racing is, as Amoss put it, “experiencing a moment right now, a big moment that can go one or two ways,” he wanted to be as transparent as possible and get the information about his horse out to the public through social media.

“I think that’s the new world of racing,” he said Friday. “I think we’re going to see more of that. I’m all for it.”

Oh yeah, he also said one more thing, “Understand, I didn’t bet a penny on her, but if I’d bet a million dollars I wouldn’t be any happier than I am right now.”

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