04/28/2008 11:00PM

Oaks just as tough to decipher as Derby

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NEW YORK - Everyone is talking about the Kentucky Derby, but the Derby is not the only prestigious race this week. The Kentucky Oaks on Friday at Churchill Downs is a great event. And beyond talk over which filly might pass up the Oaks in favor of facing males in the Derby, there has been hardly any discussion of the Oaks itself, as is so often unfortunately the case.

According to Churchill Downs, there were at least 11 candidates for the Oaks as of Monday. That included Proud Spell, whose connections appear to have ended their flirtation with the Derby, leaving Eight Belles as the only filly likely to take on the boys Saturday. In addition to Proud Spell, who handed last year's champion 2-year-old filly, Indian Blessing, the first defeat of her career in a decisive victory in the Fair Grounds Oaks two starts back, the other Oaks candidates are:

A to the Croft, who has hit the board in four graded stakes races; Absolutely Cindy, upset winner of the John Battaglia Memorial over males three starts back; Awesome Chic, a stoutly bred daughter of Awesome Again and an A.P. Indy mare who won going away last time out in the Florida Oaks in her first start around two turns; Bsharpsonata, whose win streak was stopped at four when narrowly beaten in the Ashland; Country Star, a two-time Grade 1 winner last year; Golden Doc A, winner of the Grade 1 Las Virgenes three starts back and third or better in her last six starts; Highest Class, third in stakes in her last three starts; Honest Pursuit, who earned her maiden win last time out; Little Belle, who stretched her win streak to three with her upset of the Ashland; and Pure Clan, winner of two graded stakes over Churchill's main track last fall and on the board in stakes in her two starts this year.

After reviewing the past performances of these 11, it may come as a surprise that many of the talking points that apply to this year's Derby are just as pertinent to the Oaks - slow final times in preps, questions about synthetic track form shifting to dirt, a murky pace scenario, and disappointing last-out efforts.

None of the 11 Oaks candidates has earned a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure. Little Belle's Ashland, a race that is often a springboard to the Oaks, earned a Beyer of only 88. The Santa Anita Oaks, in which Golden Doc A was beaten a half-length, got just an 87. Absolutely Cindy's Battaglia got an 89. The highest Beyer is Proud Spell's 99 in the Fair Grounds Oaks, but she tailed off 16 points when third in the Ashland. The highest last-out Beyer of these 11 was Pure Clan's 97 in the Fantasy, a race in which this potent stretch runner was laying second early because the pace was so slow and the field so small, and wound up fading to third.

Pure Clan, and other closers of varying stripes such as A to the Croft, Absolutely Cindy, Awesome Chic, Country Star, Golden Doc A, Highest Class, and Proud Spell, could be at a disadvantage Friday because of the lack of genuine speed. As is the case in the Derby, there is not a single need-the-lead type among the "Oaks 11." True, Little Belle and Bsharpsonata went around the track one-two in the Ashland, but by default. Given the Ashland's trotting-horse-like fractions, and from what those two had shown before, theirs was far from a display of genuine speed.

As for the synthetic track implications, Country Star and Golden Doc A, like the Derby's Colonel John, have never raced on the dirt they will encounter in the Oaks. Although she had won on dirt before, Little Belle's breakthrough in the Ashland raises questions because it was run on Polytrack. There is also the Pyro-Blue Grass question of whether Polytrack was responsible for Proud Spell's disappointing effort in the Ashland instead of a mere regression in form. And speaking of disappointing efforts, there is Country Star's fifth in the Ashland. It might not have had anything to do with Polytrack because she won the Alcibiades at Keeneland last fall. But, the Polytrack at Keeneland did seem to play differently this spring than it has in the past.

Traditionalists like to refer to the Oaks as the filly counterpart to the Derby. That may have never been more true than this year.

Quick impressions of some weekend stakes, by track:

* Aqueduct - With the way Harlem Rocker inhaled the very capable J Be K in the final furlong of Saturday's Withers to remain undefeated, he could have a significant impact in the 3-year-old male division in the not-too-distant future.

Criminologist's victory in the Beaugay Handicap, also on Saturday, suggests she is close to cracking the upper echelon of the female turf division.

* Lone Star - I'm not quite ready to jump on Monterey Jazz's bandwagon, even after his 118 Beyer Figure win in Saturday's Texas Mile. He was able to open up through soft early fractions, and his only real opponent, Zanjero, hadn't raced in more than six months.

* Hollywood Park - Surf Cat might have gotten up in Saturday's Mervyn LeRoy Handicap, but I'm not taking it as proof the he is all the way back to what he used to be. The Mervyn LeRoy had the look of a race that fell apart, with precious few able to capitalize.