Frontrunning Tactics Pays Off for Serengeti Empress in Kentucky Oaks

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

May 6th, 2019

A bold, frontrunning gambit paid off for Serengeti Empress in the $1.25 million Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) on May 3 at Churchill Downs, surprising many handicappers who were expecting anything but a gate-to-wire winner.

A full field of 14 3-year-old fillies, many of them speedy frontrunners or pace-pressers, lined up to contest 145th running of the Kentucky Oaks, so a fast and contested pace was widely expected. But when jockey Jose Ortiz committed 13-1 shot Serengeti Empress to the lead from post 13, none of their rivals issued a challenge, so Serengeti Empress happily waltzed to a three-length advantage through fractions of :23.25, :46.65 and 1:11.26.

Turning into the homestretch 38-1 longshot Liora emerged from the pack and briefly loomed a serious threat, but Serengeti Empress—digging deep even while leg-weary—gradually pulled away down the lane to prevail by 1 3/4 lengths, with Liora leaving the pace-tracking 10-1 shot Lady Apple 5 1/2 lengths behind in third place.
Serengeti Empress’s upset victory represented a masterful training job from Tom Amoss, who prepared the brilliant but inconsistent filly for a career-best effort just six weeks after she bled and was eased during the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2). The Kentucky Oaks marked the third graded stakes triumph of Serengeti Empress’s career and has stamped her among the most accomplished female members of her foal crop.

But behind Serengeti Empress, there was chaos. At the start of the Oaks, the 2018 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) winner Jaywalk lugged in and caused Positive Spirit to clip heels and fall, though both Positive Spirit and her rider were uninjured. Heavy favorite Bellafina, a six-time graded stakes winner, was slow into stride and dropped much farther off the pace than usual before rallying mildly to finish fifth. Grade 1 winner Restless Rider, the second choice in the wagering, completely misfired and trudged home thirteenth.

Handicappers will also want to take note that the Kentucky Oaks produced a slow finish, with Serengeti Empress running the final three furlongs in :38.91 for a final time of 1:50.17 for 1 1/8 miles, which translated to an uninspiring 88 Beyer speed figure.

Coupling the slow time with the disappointments of the favorites, it would appear the 3-year-old filly division in North America is wide-open at the moment. By virtue of her victory in the Oaks, Serengeti Empress has staked her claim for tenuous leadership, but no future plans have been set for the daughter of Alternation and major races like the Acorn Stakes (G1), Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) and Alabama Stakes (G1) could be ripe for conquest by a late-maturing filly who did not contest the Kentucky Oaks.