Churchill Downs In The Spotlight

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Ted Black

May 5th, 2016

While many novice and serious thoroughbred racing enthusiasts were eager to see the post position draw and morning line for this Saturday's Grade I, $2 million Kentucky Derby for three-year-old colts and geldings, Churchill Downs will also offer a stellar card on day earlier when the three-year-old fillies take center stage.

The Friday card at Churchill Downs starts early and gets going midway through with a bevy of graded stakes capped by the Grade I, $1 million Kentucky Oaks for three-year-old fillies. With the defection of undefeated reigning division champion Songbird, many might consider the Oaks as a consolation prize for the winner. But in actuality the race could not have come up much tougher.

Slated as the 11th race on the Friday program, the Kentucky Oaks includes the best sophomore fillies in the land sans Songbird. It is truly one of those races in which bettors can not wheel a horse top and bottom with any confidence, but it does offer a myriad of potential value plays across the board and in the exotics.

In all likelihood, Rachel's Valentina will go postward as the lukewarm favorite in this event following a second-place finish in the Grade I Ashland Stakes at Keeneland last out. Rachel's Valentina was second to Songbird in the Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies after taking the Grade I Spinaway at Saratoga for trainer Todd Pletcher and now seeks her first two-turn stakes score.

Among the serious contenders in the Oaks is Cathryn Sophia, the beaten favorite when third in the Ashland. This Maryland-bred filly trained by John Servis of Smarty Jones fame had won her four prior outings before the Ashland, including consecutive Grade II scores at Gulfstream Park. After failing at 1-2 in the Ashland, Cathryn Sophia could float up to 4-1 or so in the Oaks.

Weep No More closed willingly in the lane to forge a 30-1 upset in the Ashland, overhauling both Rachel's Valentina and Cathryn Sophia in the final 100 yards. But horses that win at any level at such big prices are often poor plays in subsequent outings. They tend to get overbet - her 9-2 morning line price is ludicrously low - and they often fail to come close to duplicating their previous stunning victory performance.

But several other sophomore fillies appear headed into the Oaks in peak form and most will be generous prices. Terra Promessa has won all three of her starts this year for trainer Steve Asmussen and arrives off consecutive Grade III victories at Oaklawn Park. Lewis Bay captured the Grade II Gazelle at Aqueduct, but bear in mind she was thumped by Cathryn Sophia in a prior outing. Go Maggie Go has won both of her starts, including the Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks in which Paolo Queen was second off a maiden win. Mokat was second and third, respectively, in two outings at Santa Anita against Songbird and certainly merits respect in this spot. Royal Obsession was second to Lewis Bay in the Gazelle and Taxable was second to Terra Promessa in the Fantasy at Oaklawn.

One race earlier the Edgewood Stakes on the grass appears unplayable, but the Grade II, $400,000 Alysheba Stakes for older horses at one-mile and one-sixteenth looks very intriguing.

Cat Burglar arrives having won two of three starts at Santa Anita this season for trainer Bob Baffert, including the recent Santana Mile. Departing is winless in three starts this year for trainer Al Stall, but he is capable of beating these on his best day. Eagle and Noble Bird finished one-two in the Ben Ali Stakes at Keeneland last out, while Top Billing and Face Of A Winner both arrive off allowance tallies at Keeneland and Gulfstream Park, respectively, and both merit respect in this spot.

The two prior races on the card, the Turf Sprint at five furlongs on the lawn and the Grade II, $200,000 Eight Belles for three-year-old fillies at seven furlongs on the main track both look very wide open and difficult to grasp. But the Grade I, $300,000 La Troienne Stakes at nine furlongs for fillies and mares is very, very intriguing.

Sheer Drama, winner of the Grade I Madison Stakes at seven furlongs over the main track at Keeneland in her seasonal debut fo trainer David Fawkes, will prove difficult to top. She concluded her previous campaign by running fourth in the Grade I Breeders Cup Distaff after taking the Grade I Personal Ensign at Saratoga Race Course.

But those who are not convinced that Sheer Drama is a lock in the La Troienne have several solid options. Curalina makes her four-year-old debut for trainer Todd Pletcher after winning four of seven starts and nearly $1 million last season. Penwith returns east after running fourth in the Grade I Santa Margarita at Santa Anita after capturing the Grade II Royal Delta Stakes at Gulfstream Park in her prior outing for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.