07/02/2009 11:00PM

Foreign invaders familiar with Oaks distance


The American Oaks at Hollywood Park on Sunday holds the double distinction of being the first international race of the year in America as well as one of the better betting contests held anywhere in the world this year. Although a purse cut of $300,000 to $700,000 during these difficult times has led in part to an absence of Japanese invaders, England, Ireland, and New Zealand will be represented.

A mile and a quarter on turf are conditions foreign to all of the American fillies in the Oaks. However, two of the three foreign raiders, Apple Charlotte and Puttanesca, are stakes winners at the distance, while Rare Ransom has been banging heads at a tougher level of competition than any of her rivals.

Apple Charlotte will probably go off at the lowest price of the three foreigners. Trained by eight-time English Oaks winner Henry Cecil, she brings a near perfect record to Hollywood, only having lost for the first time in four starts when caught on the line in Newbury's listed Ballymacoll Stud Stakes last time on June 11. The Royal Applause filly had previously won a similar event over the course and distance and will surely stay the trip. Apple Charlotte has also won twice going a mile. Possessed of tracking speed, she may have to go a little more quickly than usual if she wants to take her customary position near the front. The trainer's wife, Jane, is on hand to give Mike Smith a leg up.

Wayne Hillis is no stranger to the American Oaks. The New Zealand trainer, who shares training responsibilities back home with his wife, Vanessa, saddled Boulevard of Dreams to finish seventh in the 2004 Oaks and vowed to return someday. That comes Sunday with Puttanesca, who will be ridden by Australian ace Glen Boss, the man who rode super-mare Makybe Diva to three consecutive victories in the Melbourne Cup from 2003 to 2005. By Bertolini out of a mare by Breeders' Cup Turf winner Prized, Puttanesca won the Group 2 Royal Stakes at the Oaks distance on New Year's Day at New Zealand's most prestigious track, Ellerslie. Since then she has been close up in all six starts, except when 15th in the New Zealand Derby. She has been sharpened in her last two outings when a narrow second against older colts in a pair of seven-furlong handicaps.

Boss will have to work out a trip from behind, but expect Puttanesca to be running late and do not concern yourself with her 125-pound impost, four pounds more than what every other filly in the field will carry. She is a Southern Hemisphere 3-year-old, and that assignment is weight-for-age on the scale and reflects the fact that Southern Hemisphere foals are six months older than their Northern Hemisphere counterparts. After the Oaks, Puttanesca will be turned over to Julio Canani.

Dermot Weld is back at Hollywood again with Rare Ransom. By the sensational young sire Oasis Dream, a European sprint champion who is developing a knack of getting top-class winners up to 1 1/4 miles, Rare Ransom was running in group races long before her American rivals had graduated to graded company. She opened her 3-year-old campaign with a sharp score over older colts in a Gowran Park allowance, then showed no little grit to finish fourth in a quagmire in the Irish 1000 Guineas. Most of her recent efforts have come on soft and heavy ground. Her two victories, however, have both been on good ground, and one has a suspicion that Weld has had Hollywood's firm turf in mind for her since the start of the year. Rare Ransom is the value play with regular rider Pat Smullen at the controls.

History will be made in the unlikely event the fresh-off-the-plane Wake Me Now can draw into the Oaks off the also-eligible list, as the Almutawakel filly would be the first horse saddled by Gary Stevens in his new guise as trainer. Victory for Wake Me Now is highly improbable, however, as she only won for the first time on June 11 in a rock-bottom handicap at Nottingham, albeit going 1 1/4 miles.