04/19/2010 12:00AM

Kentucky Oaks a classic in its own right


NEW YORK - It happens every year, and it isn't fair. But short of moving the race, which will never happen, there doesn't seem to be a thing anyone can do about it.

The Kentucky Oaks is, with all due respect to the Mother Goose and Alabama, the most important race for 3-year-old fillies in the United Stakes. But every year, the Oaks is completely overshadowed by the Kentucky Derby. This, of course, is understandable. Every other race in the United States, with the single exception of the Breeders' Cup Classic, would be overshadowed by the Derby, which is by a long way the best-known race in this country. The Derby is just so huge that it dwarfs everything around it. Then there is the fact that the Oaks is run just the day before the Derby, on a Friday. And while Oaks Friday in Louisville is a city holiday, Oaks Friday outside of Kentucky is, well, the last day of the work week.

But right now, there is an opportunity to show some love for the Kentucky Oaks, and we're going to take it. And we're going to start by talking about the favorite for the Oaks, Blind Luck.

Just like with Rachel Alexandra last year, there are many who think that if Blind Luck runs a week from Friday at Churchill Downs, she'll be running a day too early. In other words, there are those who believe Blind Luck should be facing males in the Derby, and it's hard to take strong issue with that. Blind Luck is admirably consistent - she is 6 for 9 and has yet to finish worse than third - she has already won three Grade 1 races, and her closing style would be an excellent fit in a Derby this year that has an abundance of early-speed types.

The Beyer Speed Figure of 104 that Blind Luck earned in her domination of the Grade 2 Fantasy Stakes last time out - in, notably, her first career start on dirt - would be the second-highest in this Derby field behind only Eskendereya. In fact, I think Blind Luck is better than at least 14 of the 20 horses listed in DRF's Derby Watch last week. If it were not for Eskendereya casting such a large shadow of his own over this year's Derby field - after his overwhelming victories in the Wood Memorial and Fountain of Youth, he promises to be the strongest Derby favorite in years - then there might be no reason at all for Blind Luck not to take her shot against the boys. In any event, she is Oaks-bound. And while no one knows if she will win the Oaks by the length of the stretch the way Rachel Alexandra did last year, it is obvious why she will be a solid favorite.

Perhaps the biggest threat to Blind Luck in the Oaks is Devil May Care. Devil Mare Care showed considerable potential last year when she jumped from a maiden win in her debut to a hard-fought decision in the Grade 1 Frizette in her second start. That made her a popular wiseguy pick in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, but like every other New York dirt horse in the last two Breeders' Cup on the synthetic track at Santa Anita, Devil May Care didn't come close to replicating her best form. Her first start this year, in the Silverbulletday Stakes, was also a throwout, because she ran her race before the start when she acted up at the gate. But Devil May Care was really, really good most recently in the Grade 2 Bonnie Miss. She scored with complete authority over Amen Hallelujah, who although possibly distance-challenged, was in formidable form as she had won the Santa Ynez at Santa Anita and ran away with the Davona Dale at Gulfstream in her prior two starts.

There are the usual intriguing types in this Oaks, and for me that group includes Ailaleah, It's Tea Time, and Crisp.

Ailaleah was about as fast as any Oaks-bound filly last year when she won the Tempted Stakes, and that includes Blind Luck and Devil May Care. This year has been a different story. Ailaleah didn't run a jump in the Forward Gal Stakes in her first start this year, and while she was more competitive in the Fair Grounds Oaks last time, she still disappointed. I, however, think it's too soon to give up on her.

It's Tea Time began her career only in late January with a second on turf at Gulfstream, and she followed with a maiden win on turf there before falling a diminishing neck shy of posting an 18-1 upset in the Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland. It's Tea Time is an unknown on dirt, and there does seem to be a connection between success on the turf at Gulfstream and on Keeneland's Polytrack. It's hard not to like how far It's Tea Time has come in only three starts, and you would think she's got tons of room for more improvement.

Crisp, with blinkers on for the first time, upset Blind Luck when she won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks in her last start, although it must be noted that Crisp was right with an extremely slow pace that had to seriously compromise the late-running Blind Luck. On the other hand, Crisp did win the Grade 3 Santa Ysabel early this year over Evening Jewel, and the form of that race has been flattered since. Evening Jewel, who is also expected in the Kentucky Oaks, came back to run Blind Luck to a nose in the Grade 1 Las Virgenes, and won the Grade 1 Ashland. Crisp has never raced on anything other than Southern California synthetics, but she did get her maiden win at Hollywood Park, which is thought to be more like dirt than any other synthetic track in California.

That bodes well for Crisp, as does the fact that Lookin At Lucky, Line of David, American Lion, and Conveyance all came out of California to win dirt preps on the road to the Kentucky Derby.