05/03/2017 10:40AM

No shortage of speed, talent in Kentucky Oaks

Barbara D. Livingston
The speedy Farrell can be taken back a bit by jockey Channing Hill if necessary, said trainer Wayne Catalano.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Something’s got to give in the Kentucky Oaks.

Paradise Woods won her last race by half a block. So did Miss Sky Warrior. Farrell has gone unchallenged in her last four races. Salty, Sailor’s Valentine, Ever So Clever, and Abel Tasman also will bring credentials of varying strength Friday to Churchill Downs, adding to what shapes up as a terrific 143rd running of the Grade 1, $1 million Kentucky Oaks.

“There are some real top-class fillies in there,” said Wayne Catalano, the trainer of Farrell. “We love our filly, but a lot of guys like their horses, too – and they should. It’s a heck of a horse race.”

Paradise Woods, off her spectacular 11 3/4-length score in the Santa Anita Oaks, will come favored in an oversubscribed field that will be limited to 14 starters. Summer Luck is the lone also-eligible and can run only in the case of a defection prior to scratch time of 9 a.m. Eastern Friday.

Flavien Prat, the hottest young rider on the Southern California circuit, will be aboard when Paradise Woods breaks from post 4 in the 1 1/8-mile race. The speedy daughter of Union Rags has struck a grand appearance since arriving here early in the week from the West Coast.

“I’m very happy with her,” said trainer Richard Mandella. “She looks like she’s getting better to me.”

Miss Sky Warrior, another filly with exceptional speed, has trained right along since arriving here April 17 following a 13-length romp in the Gazelle at Aqueduct, her fifth straight victory. Early tactics figure to be critical to the Oaks outcome, given the abundance of speed signed on. Paco Lopez will be aboard Miss Sky Warrior for trainer Kelly Breen when she breaks from post 10.

“It’s a perfect position for us,” said Breen. “Paco is a great gate rider with a good head on his shoulders. He’ll be able to see what we’re going to have to do.”

Catalano also believes that jockey Channing Hill, his son-in-law, will push the right buttons aboard Farrell (post 7) as the race unfolds. Farrell won the Golden Rod at Churchill last fall, her first of four straight stakes wins.

“He’s got a lot of confidence in what she can do,” said Catalano. “The filly has already run big over this racetrack. If we need to take back a little, that’s no problem.”

Still, if the fractions are too demanding, leading the favorites to get leg-weary down the stretch, the Oaks could then dissolve into a free-for-all. A handful of fillies appear capable of capitalizing under the right circumstances, including last-out winners Salty, Sailor’s Valentine, and Ever So Clever.

“We need pepper,” trainer Mark Casse said in a clever play on words in regard to how he’d prefer a hot pace ahead of Salty, the winner of the Gulfstream Park Oaks.

“Our filly has matured, really come around nice,” said Eddie Kenneally, the trainer of Sailor’s Valentine, the winner of the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland. “She’s got excellent speed but can rate if she’s asked.”

Ever So Clever has shown an effective kick on several occasions, including in the Pocahontas here last September and in winning her last start, the Fantasy at Oaklawn Park.

“She’s a decided closer,” said trainer Steve Asmussen. “We’ve got great respect for the form of the other 3-year-old fillies this year, but I’m very happy with how she looks. She’s filled out well and gotten stronger. She’s at her best when it matters most.”

Abel Tasman, one of the division leaders through much of the prep season, will be equipped with blinkers for the first time as she looks to make amends for her distant runner-up finish in the Santa Anita Oaks. She is trained by Bob Baffert, a two-time Oaks winner with Silverbulletday (1999) and Plum Pretty (2011).

“She likes to look around a lot,” said Baffert. “I think the blinkers are going to make a big difference.”

The balance of the Oaks lineup comprises Daddys Lil Darling, the Ashland runner-up; Lockdown, the Gazelle runner-up; Tequilita, the Gulfstream Park Oaks runner-up; and longshots Mopotism, Jordan’s Henny, Vexatious, and Wicked Lick.

Rain and highs in the low 50s are expected to envelop a crowd of more than 100,000 here Friday, but that will do little to suppress the collective mood on what is known as Derby Eve and Louisville’s Day at the Races. The Oaks is the focal point of a full day of celebration and anticipation, with the familiar “Pink Out” being further accentuated this year by every Oaks jockey being attired in pink riding pants.

Churchill has integrated the pink theme as a popular Oaks Day staple in heightening awareness of breast-cancer research and fund-raising.

The Oaks is carded as the 11th of 13 races on a Friday program that starts at 10:30 a.m. Eastern. Post time for the Oaks is 6:12, with full television coverage provided by NBC Sports Network.

Five other graded stakes precede the Oaks: the Grade 1 La Troienne (race 5), the Grade 2 Alysheba (race 6), the Grade 3 Twin Spires Turf Sprint (race 7), the Grade 2 Eight Belles (race 8), and the Grade 3 Edgewood (race 10).

The Kentucky Oaks was first run the same year as its big brother, the Kentucky Derby, in 1875. Through the ages, the Run for the Lillies has been won by some of the true greats, from Modesty (1884) and Alcibiades (1930) to Susan’s Girl (1972), Bold ‘n Determined (1980), Open Mind (1989), and Rachel Alexandra (2009).

Cathryn Sophia, ridden by Javier Castellano, was a 2 3/4-length winner of the 2016 Oaks for the Cash Is King Stable and trainer John Servis.