Condo Commando, Stellar Wind and Lovely Maria strut their stuff as Include Betty enters Kentucky Oaks picture

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Jen Caldwell

April 5th, 2015

The Kentucky Oaks (G1) has gotten both clearer and murkier thanks to Saturday’s final four major preps and points races. Each winner displayed grit and made the case for why she should be favored in the May 1 Oaks at Churchill Downs.

In an attempt to remain impartial, the races will be discussed in chronological order, so that means first up is the Gazelle S. (G2) at Aqueduct.

There really isn’t much to say about the race, the only one on Saturday that took place at the Oaks distance of 1 1/8 miles (other three were 1 1/16 miles). Condo Commando (Tiz Wonderful) did her usual job of leading all the way home. She was briefly challenged by Puca (Big Brown) for pacesetting duties rounding the first turn, but quickly put that filly in her place and drew off.

Condo Commando appeared to be jogging along at her own pace, but still turned back each challenge that came her way. The field even seemed ready to swamp her entering the stretch, but all it took was a shake of the reins from jockey Joel Rosario and the dark bay lass pulled off to earn a 97 BRIS Speed rating, the same number she garnered for her Busher S. victory to open the year.

The odd thing was that Condo Commando kept cocking her head toward the infield. Could be something caught her attention, but she’ll need to remain focused with all the hullabaloo that surrounds Oaks Day.

Puca finished a nice second and seems to have really moved forward off her well-beaten fourth in the Davona Dale S. (G2). She could turn into a real threat if that improvement continues between now and May 1.

Keeneland’s Ashland S. (G1) was supposed to be Peace and War’s (War Front) shot at earning enough points to make the Oaks field. The Florida-bred shipped over from Britain last fall to take the track’s Alcibiades S. (G1), but hadn’t competed since, stateside or overseas.

Peace and War shipped from Britain once again for the Ashland, but this time ran into a filly from trainer Larry Jones’ barn. That nearly always means trouble, and it proved true on Saturday as Lovely Maria (Majesticperfection) tracked in second just off the flank of Angela Renee (Bernardini), who ran nearly in tandem with pacesetter Temper Mint Patty (Congrats).

Peace and War was keeping pace to Lovely Maria’s inside down the backstretch, but began fading nearing the final turn and was last on the wire. Her connections indicated she needed the race following the long layoff but gave no mention if the Oaks was still on the table.

As for Lovely Maria, that bay lass immediately challenged Angela Renee after she took command on the turn. She had already gained a slim margin by the time the duo hit the stretch and merely extended her advantage from there when straightened for the drive home by jockey Kerwin Clark, who earned the first Grade 1 win of his career in the race.

Lovely Maria was herself earning a first stakes victory in the Ashland, and extended nicely in the lane to be awarded a 96 BRIS Speed number. Even better, she also garnered a 99 BRIS Late Pace figure, indicating a versatility that could come in handy in the Oaks.

Angela Renee ended finishing second once again to a Jones trainee. In her prior start the bay miss ran fourth to I’m a Chatterbox (Munnings) in the Rachel Alexandra S. (G3) in late February at Fair Grounds.

Jones has said that he considers Lovely Maria and I’m a Chatterbox, who captured last weekend’s Fair Grounds Oaks (G2), to be about equal at this point. It’ll be interesting to see which one goes off at lower odds come Oaks Day.

Thank goodness Stellar Wind (Curlin) had already proven just as capable coming from behind as she does up front. The John Sadler pupil’s resourcefulness came in handy in Saturday’s Santa Anita Oaks (G1) after the ground broke out from beneath her at the start.

Stellar Wind found herself in last on the first turn and backstretch, but jockey Victor Espinoza never panicked. He let his filly settle into stride as Glory (Tapit) and Luminance (Tale of the Cat) battled it out up front.

Luminance had taken over by the final bend, but Stellar Wind was coming with a rush on the far outside. She passed the rest of the field like they were standing still and set her sights on Luminance, easily overtaking her and drawing off to a 5 1/4-length score in just her second start of the season.

Stellar Wind made her three-year-old bow another easy win in the Santa Ysabel S. (G3) in late February, and this should set her up nicely for the Kentucky Oaks. She’s already a proven traveler, having begun her career on the East Coast at Laurel Park before being purchased privately and sent to Sadler at Santa Anita on the West Coast, and earned a BRIS Speed rating of 98 to top all others in the prep races on Saturday.

Luminance was no match for Stellar Wind while suffering her first career loss in her stakes debut, but will likely continue to progress between now and Oaks Day. However, she probably still won’t be able to take Stellar Wind down at that point, not if the Santa Anita Oaks winner performs anywhere near what she did on Saturday.

Include Betty and Oceanwave have both proven to be late runners, and that was on full display in Oaklawn Park’s Fantasy S. (G3), which concluded the quartet of events. The duo broke from the far outside posts and were in no hurry as the field separated itself into two groups, the front runners and the stalkers.

In fact, Include Betty contentedly loped along in last after going widest of all on the first turn while Oceanwave settled toward the front of the second group. Nearing the final turn, Include Betty attempted to split horses but her way was blocked so jockey Rosemary Homesister Jr. took her back and swung wide.

Unfortunately for Oceanwave, she was stuck between rivals and had to wait, then found a wall of horses impeding her way. Ramon Vazquez finally managed to get her out to the center of the track, and the gray lass closed with a furious rush but ran out of ground as the wire came just in time for Include Betty.

The winner crowded Achiever’s Legacy (City Zip) quite a bit in the stretch, but there didn’t appear to be any contact. Joe Rocco Jr. on Achiever’s Legacy claimed foul but the stewards disallowed it.

Both Include Betty and Oceanwave showed grit and determination, and just a bit farther, say the Oaks distance of nine furlongs, would have likely seen Oceanwave triumph. Obviously neither one earned a very high BRIS Speed number, but their BRIS Late Pace figures were impressive – 107 for Include Betty and 105 for Oceanwave. The track usually plays fast on both Derby and Oaks Day, and there is speed in the race, but these two could give them a run for their money.

Photo 1: Condo Commando (NYRA/Adam Coglianese Photography)
Photo 2: Lovely Maria (Keeneland/Coady Photography)
Photo 3: Stellar Wind (Benoit Photos)
Photo 4: Include Betty, Oceanwave (Oaklawn Park/Coady Photography)