07/05/2007 12:00AM

Local hopes for Oaks rest on Valbenny

Email
Bruno Cannatelli
Anamato heads international cast at Hollywood in the Oaks on Saturday.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Jockey Alex Solis climbed off Valbenny after winning the Grade 2 Honeymoon Breeders' Cup Handicap at Hollywood Park last month shaking his head in amazement.

"I felt like I had her in third gear," Solis recalled on Thursday.

Solis may need to use a fourth gear if Valbenny is to win the fifth stakes of her career in Saturday's $750,000 American Oaks at Hollywood Park. Trained by Paddy Gallagher for a large partnership, Valbenny is the lone California-based filly in a field of nine that includes four other American-based fillies as well as shippers from Australia, France, Ireland, and Japan.

The American Oaks and the Grade 1 Triple Bend Handicap will be shown live on ESPN on a program that begins at 7 p.m. Eastern.

Valbenny and Solis are unbeaten in four starts since November, all stakes. But the American Oaks will be her first start in a Grade 1 and first start at 1 1/4 miles on turf. Solis believes that Valbenny will be ready, and says that her patient, stalking style is her best asset.

"In her last two races, she's won so easy," Solis said. "In the last race, I never really moved on her. You can place her wherever you want."

Solis won the first American Oaks in 2002 with Megahertz, who finished second but was promoted to first after the disqualification of Dublino. Megahertz later developed into one of the finest turf mares of the last few years. At times, Solis sees a resemblance between Valbenny and Megahertz.

Valbenny "can give you a move over a quarter-mile like Megahertz could do, or she can give you a half-mile move if you need to," Solis said.

Three of Valbenny's stakes wins have come at Hollywood Park - the Miesque Stakes last November, the Senorita Stakes in May, and the Honeymoon at 1 1/8 miles on June 9.

Her stalking style, racing two or three lengths behind the pace, suggests that a longer trip will not be a problem, but the distance remains a concern for Gallagher.

"She gives that impression" that she can go 1 1/4 miles, Gallagher said. "But it's another step up. Alex seems to get that run out of her."

Valbenny should get an ideal trip in the American Oaks, with the pace expected to come from Baroness Thatcher, a stakes winner at Santa Anita in January who is making her turf debut, and Audacious Chloe, the winner of two minor turf stakes at Keeneland and Monmouth Park in the spring.

Audacious Chloe is trained by Todd Pletcher, who won the 2006 American Oaks with Wait a While. Pletcher also starts Panty Raid, the winner of the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico in May, who has yet to start on turf.

Last year, Wait a While had made one start on turf before the American Oaks.

"Panty Raid is kind of following in Wait a While's footsteps," said Ginny DePasquale, an assistant trainer for Pletcher. "She's had two good works on the turf at Belmont."

Panty Raid, who has a style similar to Valbenny's, makes her first start beyond 1 1/8 miles.

The four fillies from other countries range in ability from Group 1 winners - Anamato (Australasian Oaks in April) and Robe Decollete (Japanese Oaks in May) - to a French Group 3 winner in Just Little and a maiden race winner from Ireland in Supposition.

Anamato was foaled in Australia in August 2003 and is six to nine months older than the rest of the fillies, who were all foaled in the Northern Hemisphere. Because Anamato was bred in the Southern Hemisphere, she is eligible for the American Oaks. As a 4-year-old, she will carry 125 pounds, four more than her rivals.

Anamato brings proven form over longer distances. The Australasian Oaks was run at about 1 1/4 miles. Last November, Anamato was third in the Wakeful Stakes at about 1 1/4 miles and the Victorian Oaks at about 1 9/16 miles in Australia.

"She's thriving," her jockey, Michael Rodd, said on the Hollywood Park backstretch on Thursday. "This is her good distance. She finished third in the Victorian Oaks, so she can stay. I can afford to have her close with that confidence."