05/06/2011 7:14PM

Kentucky Oaks goes to Plum Pretty in a thriller

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Plum Pretty won her previous start by 25 lengths, but you might say her victory Friday in a dramatic renewal of the Grade 1, $1 million Kentucky Oaks was a little closer.

In fact, if it were another jump or two longer, the 137th and richest Kentucky Oaks might well have gone to St. John's River. But it wasn't, and a jubilant Bob Baffert was able to celebrate his second Oaks victory when the Churchill Downs photo-finish camera showed Plum Pretty had held on to win by a neck.

KENTUCKY OAKS REPLAY AND CHART »

Plum Pretty, with Martin Garcia aboard, returned $14.60 as fourth choice in a field of 13 3-year-old fillies. Her triumph in the 1 1/8-mile Oaks was preceded by third-place finish in the Las Virgenes in early February and her 25-length romp in the Sunland Park Oaks in late March. Plum Pretty, a Pennsylvania-bred daughter of Medaglia d'Oro, is owned by the Peachtree Stable of John Fort.

"This filly has really come around," said Baffert, the three-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer who won the Oaks in 1999 with Silverbulletday. "She has really changed so much . . . I've never had a horse win a race by 25 lengths."

Zazu, the Las Virgenes winner and 7-2 second choice, rallied to be third, another 2 1/2 lengths behind St. John's River, a 16-1 shot. Joyful Victory, the 2-1 favorite, was another half-length back in fourth.

Before an ontrack crowd of 110,122, third largest in Oaks history, Summer Soiree charged out to the early lead while Plum Pretty, having broken sharply from post 12, took up closest pursuit.

Leaving the far turn, while the rest jockeyed for position behind them, Plum Pretty cruised to the lead while Summer Soiree began to falter. Passing the eighth pole, Plum Pretty was ahead by three lengths, with only St. John's River emerging from the pack to threaten. Garcia kept Plum Pretty to a steady drive, and they were still visibly ahead when the wire came, stopping the timer in 1:49.50.

Plum Pretty, said Garcia, "has relaxed so well for me in the mornings. When I ask her to go, she just takes off. When I got to the quarter pole, I had so much horse. That was a very impressive win by her."

St. John's River, ridden by Rosie Napravnik, broke a bit sluggishly from her far outside post, leading her jockey to angle her straight to the rail heading into the first turn. From there, "we got such a perfect trip," said Napravnik, who barely missed becoming the first female jockey to win the Oaks. "Everybody talks about how long the stretch is here at Churchill Downs. I just wish it was one nose longer today."

At the postrace media conference, Fort, who began Atlanta-based Peachtree in 1981, said: "I can say that the last half-hour has been the most emotional, most exciting, and most gratifying moments of my life."

After Joyful Victory, the complete order was Bouquet Booth, Kathmanblu, Daisy Devine, Street Storm, Suave Voir Faire, Summer Soiree, Her Smile, Lilacs and Lace, and Holy Heavens.

The $2 exacta (12-13) paid $163 and the $2 trifecta (12-13-6) was $831.60.

The record Oaks crowd of 116,046 was set last year. For the third straight year, a sizable percentage of fans participated in a "Pink Out" theme used to raise funds and awareness for breast cancer research and treatment.

The Oaks victory was the second in three runnings for a daughter of Medaglia d'Oro, following Rachel Alexandra's record 20-length triumph in 2009.

The Oaks purse was increased this year to seven figures after many years of being a $500,000-added event.