Keeler Johnson’s Kentucky Oaks Super Six: March 29, 2017

Keeler Johnson’s Kentucky Oaks Super Six: March 29, 2017

The Twin Spires on Kentucky Oaks Day – Coady Photography

With the recent announcement that star filly Unique Bella has been sidelined with a shin injury, the prospective field for the $1 million Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) on May 5th suddenly lacks a standout favorite. Unique Bella was riding a four-race win streak that included three graded stakes victories, and on paper she towered over her expected Kentucky Oaks rivals. Now that she’s out of the picture, the race is shaping up to be a much more wide-open event.

The final round of Kentucky Oaks prep races will begin on April 1st with the Fair Grounds Oaks (gr. II) and the Gulfstream Park Oaks (gr. II), with each race offering 100 Kentucky Oaks qualification points to the winner. As we enter the homestretch of the Road to the Kentucky Oaks, here’s how I rank the top contenders…

1. Abel Tasman

After winning the December 10th Starlet Stakes (gr. I) to stamp herself as one of the best two-year-old fillies in the nation, Abel Tasman returned from a three-month layoff to finish second behind Unique Bella in the March 4th Santa Ysabel Stakes (gr. III), earning an impressive 101 BRIS speed figure. Abel Tasman’s effort was particularly noteworthy since she unleashed an eye-catching rally from the back of the pack, coming within a length of Unique Bella at the eighth pole before Unique Bella accelerated and widened the gap to 2 1/2 lengths. Abel Tasman, in turn, was eight lengths clear of the third-place finisher.

Since that race, Abel Tasman has been transferred from the barn of Simon Callaghan to Bob Baffert. Abel Tasman’s next target is the April 8th Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I), in which she’ll be ridden for the first time by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith. The two-prep approach should have Abel Tasman ready for a peak effort in the Kentucky Oaks, and at this point she looks like the favorite to win.

2. Farrell

Although Farrell hasn’t run as fast as Abel Tasman in terms of BRIS speed figures (her career-best is a 92), she’s won three straight stakes races dating back to last November, including the Golden Rod Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs and the Rachel Alexandra Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds. Her front-running speed is a major asset, and we’ll get a chance to see how she’s progressing when she runs in the Fair Grounds Oaks this Saturday.

3. It Tiz Well

After finishing a distant second to stablemate Unique Bella in the Santa Ynez Stakes (gr. II), It Tiz Well dropped into allowance company and crushed a seven-furlong event at Santa Anita by 3 3/4 lengths. That impressive performance warranted a start in the 8.5-furlong Honeybee Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn, where It Tiz Well rallied from just off the pace to win by a length in her two-turn debut. She earned a career-best 98 BRIS speed figure, and another small step forward would make her a force to reckon with in the Santa Anita Oaks, where we’ll see how she stacks up against Abel Tasman.

4. Paradise Woods

Yet another contender for the Santa Anita Oaks is the lightly-raced Paradise Woods, a daughter of Union Rags that was nominated to the Triple Crown before she’d made her debut, which hints at the level of talent she must have shown in training. After finishing second in her debut going six furlongs at Santa Anita on January 26th, Paradise Woods romped to victory in a 5 1/2-furlong maiden special weight on March 11th, winning by 4 1/4 lengths after settling a couple of lengths behind a fast pace. For that effort, she earned a 95 BRIS speed figure.

Trained by Richard Mandella, Paradise Woods will be taking a big step up in the Santa Anita Oaks, especially considering that she’s never run farther than six furlongs and was unraced at the start of the year. But she appears to have a lot of talent and might just be something special.

5. Elate

This Bill Mott-trained daughter of Medaglia d’Oro has fallen off the radar a bit in recent months, but I remain confident that she can be a contender in the Kentucky Oaks. After a solid runner-up effort in the February 11th Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs (a race in which she was short of peak fitness), Elate endured a poor start in the Honeybee Stakes and wound up far off the early pace before rallying to finish third, beaten 4 3/4 lengths. For a lightly-raced horse to adapt to a complete change of running style is impressive, and I suspect that she’s much more talented than her recent form implies. It’s also worth noting that her BRIS figure for the Honeybee–a 92–is equal to the best figures earned by Farrell.

6. Vexatious

While she has yet to run as fast as her main Kentucky Oaks rivals (her career-best BRIS speed figure is an 85), this Neil Drysdale-trained filly made a good impression when finishing third in an 8.5-furlong allowance race against colts on March 9th at Santa Anita. The two horses that beat her–Battle of Midway and Reach the World–are well-regarded contenders for the Santa Anita Derby, and Vexatious’ strong showing was particularly notable since she was coming off a 3 1/2-month layoff.

As a full-sister to Creative Cause and Destin, two colts that placed in Triple Crown races, Vexatious is bred to improve as distances increase, so she should have no trouble handling nine furlongs in the Kentucky Oaks. Her workouts have also been sharper in recent weeks, including a bullet half-mile in :47 4/5 on March 27th at Santa Anita. She’s entered to run against Farrell in the Fair Grounds Oaks on Saturday, and I’m expecting a big step forward–maybe even enough to pull off the upset.

Free past performances for all of the Kentucky Oaks nominees are available on the Brisnet website. Which fillies do you think have the best chance to win the Kentucky Oaks?

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Follow J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman"):

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, blogger, videographer, and all-around horse racing enthusiast who was drawn to the sport by Curlin's quest to become North America's richest racehorse. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He lives in Wisconsin and also writes for the Bloodhorse.com blog Unlocking Winners.

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