05/01/2013 4:06PM

Kentucky Oaks: Dreaming of Julia tops deep, speedy cast

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Barbara D. Livingston
Dreaming of Julia is one of four fillies running in Friday’s Kentucky Oaks for trainer Todd Pletcher.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – All those 1’s might look great on paper, but how can they possibly add up? Indeed, the extraordinary amount of speed signed on in the Kentucky Oaks makes the filly classic a fascinating exercise in handicapping Friday at Churchill Downs.

Beholder, the defending champion in what is now the 3-year-old filly division, is one of a handful in the 139th Oaks with speed aplenty, and her role seems particularly critical in determining how the 1 1/8-mile race plays out.

The Oaks, the 11th of 12 Friday races, will be televised live on the NBC Sports Network on a one-hour show that starts at 5 p.m. Eastern. Post time is 5:45.

Beholder “does like to be in front,” said her trainer, Richard Mandella. “But I don’t know if a situation like this has ever come up for her, with all the other speed in there. She’s worked behind horses and all that before, but this all looks pretty interesting.”

Beholder, with Garrett Gomez, was assigned post 3 as part of a 10-filly Oaks field that many observers are calling the deepest in years.

Dreaming of Julia and Unlimited Budget, half of a sensational Todd Pletcher quartet, are other major players, along with Midnight Lucky, an unbeaten Bob Baffert rocket, and Close Hatches, an unbeaten Bill Mott up-and-comer.

Beholder, Midnight Lucky, and Close Hatches all have put their speed to optimal use in prior starts, and along with longer shots such as Silsita and Rose to Gold, they figure to combine for a wicked pace in the Grade 1, $1 million Oaks. If that is carried out to an extreme – which seems entirely possible on paper – then perhaps Dreaming of Julia, entered off an incredibly big effort in Florida, or Unlimited Budget, her unbeaten stablemate, will be able to take advantage by pouncing when the inevitable fades begin.

[2013 KENTUCKY OAKS: Get PPs, read live ontrack updates]

Dreaming of Julia, with a gaudy 114 Beyer Speed Figure from her 21 3/4-length triumph in the Gulfstream Park Oaks, figures as a solid favorite, a fact that does not displease Barbara Banke, the proprietor of the Stonestreet Stables made famous in recent seasons by Curlin and Rachel Alexandra.

John Velazquez, just back after being sidelined several weeks with injuries suffered in an April 7 spill in New York, has a return call on Dreaming of Julia, a homebred daughter of the great A.P. Indy. They will break from post 8.

“We’re happy with her draw and that Johnny V. is back,” said Banke, who ran Stonestreet with her husband, Jess Jackson, until his death in April 2011. “Her namesake, my daughter Julia, has several friends coming to the race, and that should be fun.”

Therein lies part of the allure of Oaks Day. For many in attendance, the afternoon is a major social event, with reunions of family and friends commonplace. Known for years as “Louisville’s Day at the Races,” it has become popular on a far broader scale in recent times, with six-figure crowd counts being routine and a lengthy, divergent agenda with only tangential connections to racing.

The significance of the day does not escape Pletcher, who already has experienced the thrill of an Oaks victory twice, with Ashado in 2004 and Rags to Riches in 2007. Aside from him granting his longshots, Silsita and Princess of Sylmar, decent chances to be in the fray, he said he hopes Dreaming of Julia and Unlimited Budget bring their “A” games to what amounts to the biggest race thus far in their careers.

“Both are doing extremely well,” he said. “The pace scenario could be a little tricky with all the speed, but we’re confident our horses will react the way they’re trained to.”

Unlimited Budget, with Javier Castellano to ride, will break from post 4. Owned by the Repole Stable of Uncle Mo fame, the daughter of 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense has improved Beyer-wise in all four starts, cresting last time with a 95 as an odds-on favorite in the Fair Grounds Oaks.

Midnight Lucky (post 2, Rafael Bejarano), never tested in her two career romps, has drawn comparisons to Plum Pretty, the 2011 Oaks winner for Baffert. Plum Pretty came here off a 25-length win in the Sunland Park Oaks, the same race Midnight Lucky won by eight lengths six weeks ago.

Baffert also has won the Oaks twice, with Silverbulletday (1999) his first winner.

Close Hatches (post 10, Joel Rosario) is owned by Juddmonte Farms, which won the Oaks in 2001 with Flute. Sired by the young Juddmonte stallion First Defence, she emphatically passed her first graded test four weeks ago, when she captured the Grade 2 Gazelle at Aqueduct to stay undefeated in three starts.

Mott also entered Flashy Gray in the Oaks, but she was scratched Wednesday morning with a minor injury from which she could recover in time to run in the May 27 Acorn at Aqueduct.

Rounding out the Oaks lineup are Seaneen Girl and Pure Fun.

Five other stakes directly precede the Oaks on a nearly eight-hour program that starts at 10:30 a.m. The Oaks kicks off a two-day daily double ending with the Derby on Saturday as well as a pick-three wager (Woodford and Derby).

Through the years, the Oaks has been won by numerous greats, including Alcibiades (1930), Cicada (1962), Susan’s Girl (1972), Bold ‘n’ Determined (1980), Open Mind (1989), and Rachel Alexandra (2009).

Tiffany Lass (1986), trained by Laz Barrera, was the last unbeaten filly to win the Oaks.

The 2012 winner was Believe You Can, allowing Rosie Napravnik to become the first female jockey to win the race.

A much-improved Friday forecast calls for cloudy skies and highs in the mid-70s.