08/09/2012 2:32PM

Emerald Downs: Washington Oaks a tough one to figure

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Erin Palmer/Emerald Downs
Champagneandcaviar beats Exclusive Diva in the Kent Handicap at Emerald Downs last month.

AUBURN, Wash. – Champagneandcaviar and Exclusive Diva, first and second in the Kent Handicap last month, will try to turn back a talented invader from British Columbia on Saturday in the $65,000 Washington Oaks at Emerald Downs. The meeting’s traditional championship for 3-year-old fillies, the nine-furlong Oaks attracted eight entrants, with Exclusive Diva likely to start as a short-priced favorite.

The newcomer is Our Eleanor, a well-traveled filly who began her career in Kentucky and then made stops in Louisiana, Illinois, and Ontario before landing this spring at Hastings in Vancouver, where she has won two of four starts and most recently was a fast-closing second in the 1 1/16-mile Supernaturel Handicap on July 7. The other seven are based at Emerald Downs.

Exclusive Diva had stamped herself as the dominant horse in the division with a pair of stakes victories to begin the Emerald meeting before suffering a shocking loss to Champagneandcaviar, a 28-1 outsider, in the Kent. Champagneandcaviar earned her victory the hard way, outfinishing the odds-on favorite in a spirited stretch duel after briefly relinquishing the lead.

While those two could hook up again in the Oaks, the pace scenario is likely to change. With no one eager to take the lead in the 1 1/16-mile Kent, jockey Javier Matias nursed Champagneandcaviar to the front and they loped along on a soft pace – a half-mile in 47.80 seconds – before quickening on the turn. After a relaxed beginning, she had energy in reserve while covering the final five-sixteenths in 30.12. It’s doubtful the speedy Exclusive Diva and jockey Juan Gutierrez would be content to sit behind similar fractions in the Oaks. In her season-opening victory, a front-running Exclusive Diva ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:14.58 to win the Seattle Handicap by more than eight lengths.

Howard Belvoir, who trains Champagneandcaviar, studied the Oaks past performance lines but couldn’t identify the most likely pacesetter. It might be his horse – but maybe not.

“Usually, speed wins this at a mile and eighth because everyone takes a hold,” Belvoir said. “I was surprised that Exclusive Diva didn’t go last time, but I think they really want her to rate. I think they might send Talk to My Lawyer a little bit – she’s got blinkers on and she’s going to show more pace – and then they’ve got Royal Moses blinkers off. They’re probably going to let her go if they think she’s got some speed. And you’ve got the Canadian horse. She can show some speed, too. She nearly won at Hawthorne wire to wire, so I don’t know.”

Talk to My Lawyer beat males in the 1 1/16-mile Gottstein Futurity a year ago, but has been all over the board in 2012. She hinted at a strong comeback in her most recent start, rallying to finish second in a six-furlong allowance race. Royal Moses has just one victory but has been stakes placed on five occasions. Until further notice, Exclusive Diva and Champagneandcaviar are the best of the local lot.

And then there’s Our Eleanor, the scary newcomer making her Emerald Downs debut after four starts on the Hastings bullring.

“The Canadian horse is the one to beat,” Belvoir said. “But first time out here, sometimes they don’t run that well. It’s a big advantage to have trained over this racetrack.”