Paradise Woods, Miss Sky Warrior impress in final Kentucky Oaks preps

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Jen Caldwell

April 17th, 2017

The past two weeks has seen a flurry of activity as sophomore fillies try to earn enough points to make the 14-horse restricted Kentucky Oaks (G1) field.

The Road to the Kentucky Oaks series of points races concluded on Friday, April 14, but not without some last minute fireworks and a newcomer who put the division on notice.

Of the final five races in the series, only two were won by favorites. But the biggest upset came in the Ashland Stakes (G1) at Keeneland on April 8. That 1 1/16-mile affair was captured by SAILOR’S VALENTINE, the 22-1 second longest shot on the board.

The gray daughter of Mizzen Mast raced just off the flank of pacesetter Someday Soon until hitting the turn of the Ashland. That’s when jockey Corey Lanerie gave Sailor’s Valentine her cue and the filly moved up to challenge. Someday Soon wouldn’t back down, though, and it took until midstretch for Sailor’s Valentine to wrest control away from the leader.

The Eddie Kenneally pupil paid $46.40 for her first stakes win and earned 100 points to the Kentucky Oaks on May 5. However, even a duplicate of her Ashland effort probably won’t be enough to win the Run for the Lilies, and Sailor’s Valentine may just like Keeneland. Her only other win came when she broke her maiden at the Lexington, Kentucky, venue by 3 1/4 lengths in her debut last October.

One who could be a threat in the Kentucky Oaks is Daddys Lil Darling. The bay lass settled near the rear of the field around the first turn and on the backstretch, angled out and then back in on the turn, came out four wide in the lane and flew home to just miss by a half-length on the wire.

Daddys Lil Darling is trained by Kenny McPeek and has already proven herself at Churchill Downs. She took the Pocahontas Stakes (G2) last fall and was even second, though well-beaten, to Farrell in the Golden Rod Stakes (G2). Her only other run this year came when she made her seasonal debut in the March 11 Florida Oaks (G3) on Tampa Bay Downs’ grass. The Scat Daddy filly is in the Kentucky Oaks field, sitting pretty in ninth with 60 total points, and may have saved her best for the big day.

The upsetter and the newcomer came back-to-back on April 8, as PARADISE WOODS schooled six rivals in the Santa Anita Oaks (G1) under jockey Flavien Prat.

Trained by Richard Mandella of Beholder fame, Paradise Woods took command of the race from the start and never looked back. The Union Rags filly galloped down the backstretch and only seemed to hit full stride when Prat urged her on exiting the turn. She immediately responded, opening up in a flash and pulling away to record an 11 3/4-length victory in her stakes debut and third career start.

Paradise Woods previously broke her maiden by 4 1/4 lengths on March 11 at Santa Anita Park going 5 1/2 furlongs, and was second in a six-furlong maiden to kick off her career on January 26. She easily handled the stretch out to 1 1/16 miles in the Santa Anita Oaks, earning an excellent 110 BRIS Speed rating for the win.

The Santa Anita Oaks was supposed to be Abel Tasman’s time to shine. With Unique Bella sidelined, the Bob Baffert trainee was sent off the 4-5 favorite, but no one had expected Paradise Woods. Abel Tasman was easily best of the rest, despite probably running more ground than anyone, including Paradise Woods. She broke in last and settled well back at first, made up ground down the backstretch while five wide, faded all the to the back again nearing the turn, then swung widest of all and rallied down the center of the track to be 2 1/4 lengths clear of third.

Though she didn’t win, Abel Tasman ran well in defeat and may have set herself up for an even better effort in the Kentucky Oaks. She’s eighth on the Leaderboard with 70 points.

MISS SKY WARRIOR was one of the two favorites who lived up to her odds, and the First Samurai filly did it in spectacular fashion when taking the Gazelle Stakes (G2).

She broke on top and was never challenged under jockey Paco Lopez, whose only job was to not fall off. Miss Sky Warrior positively loped around Aqueduct’s main track, drawing off under a loose rein for the 13-length score.

The top three actually didn’t change in the race, as Lockdown finished second and Full House third after running in those spots throughout.

But the big story was the ease with which Miss Sky Warrior won. Trained by Kelly Breen, she is now two-for-two at the Kentucky Oaks distance of 1 1/8 miles, having also captured the only other Road to the Kentucky Oaks points race beside the Gazelle run at nine furlongs. That came in last year’s Demoiselle Stakes (G2), also at Aqueduct.

For those who may think Miss Sky Warrior is a horse for the course, nothing could be further from the truth. She broke her maiden by seven lengths at Parx Racing and made her sophomore debut at Gulfstream Park prior to the Gazelle, scoring a half-length triumph in the Davona Dale Stakes (G2).

The dark bay lass was awarded a career-best 98 BRIS Speed rating for her Gazelle rout and is in firm control of second on the Kentucky Oaks Leaderboard with 160 points.

EVER SO CLEVER provided a 15-1 upset when taking the Fantasy Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn Park by 1 3/4 lengths under Luis Contreras. The Steve Asmussen filly came from the rear of the field and rallied six wide rounding the final bend to run down pacesetter Chanel’s Legacy.

Ever So Clever is quite familiar with Churchill Downs, as she took her maiden debut by 7 1/4 lengths there last July and placed in both the Pocahontas Stakes (G2) and Golden Rod Stakes (G2). However, the Steven Asmussen pupil hadn’t done so well in her two races this year at Oaklawn Park. She never showed any run when fifth in both the Martha Washington Stakes and Honeybee Stakes (G3), so this win was a real surprise.

While Ever So Clever now sits in third on the Kentucky Oaks Leaderboard with 106 points, the best effort in the Fantasy may have come from Vexatious. That filly currently needs two defections to make the Kentucky Oaks field, as she is in 16th with 40 points. The bay lass just missed second by a neck to Chanel’s Legacy in the Fantasy, but that was after a zig-zagging stretch run.

After biding her time in midpack well off the rail on the backstretch, Vexatious was the inside part of a pinball effect between her, Benner Island in the middle and Ever So Clever on the outside. Benner Island got the worse of it, but Vexatious also found the way blocked when angling in to avoid any more bumping. She then came back out and closed fast but just ran out of room late.

Vexatious’ only other stakes try came as a third in the Fair Grounds Oaks (G3) just two weeks before on April 1 and, if she makes the field, it would only be three weeks between the Fantasy and Kentucky Oaks. That’s a lot of racing for a young filly, but Vexatious might still factor.

Normally, this report features races in chronological order. However, the Beaumont Stakes (G3) is a wild card race on the Road to the Kentucky Oaks series and only offered 10-4-2-1 points.

SWEET LORETTA won the about seven-furlong affair at Keeneland on April 9 by three lengths while making her seasonal bow for trainer Todd Pletcher. However, the Tapit filly looks to be more of a sprinter and only owns the winner’s share from this race in terms of points to make Kentucky Oaks field. She’s currently in 25th on the Leaderboard and doesn’t appear headed that way.

As for the rest of the top four in the Beaumont – Sine Wave (2nd), Laney (3rd) and Promises Broken (4th) – not a one of them is even nominated.

Paradise Woods photo courtesy of Benoit Photos