04/26/2010 12:00AM

Arnold high on It's Tea Time's talent


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Rusty Arnold tends to speak only when spoken to. This axiom doesn't normally apply to 55-year-old Kentucky hardboots, but Arnold seldom has been one to randomly pop off, especially when it comes to his horses.

In recent weeks, however, Arnold has been in rare form, telling anyone who bothers to ask that a filly named It's Tea Time is approaching the 136th Kentucky Oaks in such fantastic shape that he wouldn't be surprised if she were to upset the likes of Blind Luck and the other top-class fillies who will clash Friday at Churchill Downs in the Grade 1, $500,000 classic.

"I don't say anything to anybody," Arnold said with a grin, "but to be perfectly honest, I think this is a top, top filly, and no matter what happens Friday, I really think we're going to have a great year with her."

It's Tea Time, bred and owned by Alex Campbell Jr., served notice that she could become a late-blooming factor in the 3-year-old filly division when she and jockey Alan Garcia narrowly missed catching the victorious Evening Jewel, ridden by Kent Desormeaux, in the April 3 Ashland Stakes over Polytrack at Keeneland. The Grade 1 Ashland was just the third career start for It's Tea Time, and her first since she won a Feb. 21 maiden race on the Gulfstream Park turf.

"She might've been a little unlucky not to win the Ashland," said Arnold. "Maybe it was her greenness and a great ride by Desormeaux that combined to beat us, but overall, we were thrilled with the way the filly ran."

It's Tea Time will be making her first start on dirt in the 1 1/8-mile Oaks, but the Dynaformer filly has spent many mornings training at Churchill. Arnold assistant Jack Bohannan oversaw It's Tea Time "all last fall here," Arnold said Monday while watching his horses train from the backstretch, "and you could tell she really loves this racetrack. The only reason we started her out on turf is because pedigree-wise it made sense. Her maiden win was even better than it looked because she broke from the far outside in a field of 10, and it's hard to win from there going two turns at Gulfstream, and then she ran extremely well in the Ashland.

"Seeing this is her first try on the dirt, she might only run fourth or fifth Friday, but that wouldn't shake my confidence in her. I know this is a top filly. Distance is no problem for her, and we could always go back to the grass with her. We're only giving up one thing to these other fillies Friday, and that's experience. Talent-wise, we're not giving up anything."

It's Tea Time is one in a full gate of 14 fillies expected in the Oaks, for which entries were to be drawn Tuesday. A couple of new shooters, Champagne d'Oro and Age of Humor, entered the Oaks picture Monday when trainer Dale Romans withdrew Sassy Image and Todd Pletcher said he would enter Devil May Care only in the Derby.

Romans, who still will be represented in the Oaks by Quiet Temper, said he "really wanted to make the race" with Sassy Image, in no small part because he trains the filly for his brother, Jerry Romans Jr. Last fall, Sassy Image demonstrated a fondness for the Churchill main track with wins in the Pocahontas and Golden Rod stakes, but the filly recently came up with a minor injury that Romans said necessitated her passing the Oaks.

"She's got a curb," he said, referring to inflammation of a ligament behind a hock. Sassy Image will be pointed to the May 14 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico, said Romans.

With Devil May Care going to the Derby, undisputed favoritism in the Oaks is sure to go to Blind Luck, a mere $11,000 yearling purchase who arrived here Saturday following a charter flight from her Southern California base. Blind Luck is trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, who won the Oaks in 1991 with Lite Light and in 1996 with Pike Place Dancer.

Blind Luck, with Rafael Bejarano to ride, has won 6 of 9 starts and more than $1 million. She is the most notable holdover in a division that already has had several of its top fillies, including She Be Wild, Always a Princess, Beautician, and Negligee, either become sidelined by injury or lose their peak form.

One of the last Oaks fillies scheduled to arrive here was Joanie's Catch, who provides a start contrast to It's Tea Time in terms of race experience: the Florida-based filly will be making her 19th career start Friday, easily tops in the field. Joanie's Catch, trained by Barry Rose, was being vanned here from Calder on an 18-hour trip following training hours Monday.

Evening Jewel, by way of a Tuesday charter flight from Southern California, was scheduled to be the last Oaks starter to arrive in Louisville.

The Oaks will be the 11th of 12 Friday races and will be televised live on the NBC Universal cable network, Bravo, during a one-hour telecast that starts at 5 p.m. Eastern.