05/05/2017 7:09PM

For Paradise Woods, paradise lost in Kentucky Oaks

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Barbara D. Livingston
Paradise Woods set a very fast pace in the Kentucky Oaks and faded to 11th as the heavy favorite.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Richard Mandella scuffed some of the mud that his filly had just contended with off his feet and positioned himself in front of a television set underneath the stands at Churchill Downs, waiting for the replay, looking to understand. Outside, Abel Tasman was getting her picture taken bedecked with lilies after winning the Kentucky Oaks, while Mandella's heavily favored Paradise Woods walked back to the barn after finishing 11th.

“It happens,” Mandella said with a slight smile. “It does happen.”

Mandella, for one, knows that it happens. Four years ago, he brought another bay California-based filly to the Kentucky Oaks, also off a Santa Anita Oaks victory. She finished a creditable second after coming undone before the race. Beholder turned out OK, earning four Eclipse Award titles and retiring last fall with more than $6.1 million in earnings.

So, onward.

“We'll give [Paradise Woods] a break and come back later,” Mandella said.

After finishing second on debut, Paradise Woods won her last two starts, including an 11 3/4-length romp in the Santa Anita Oaks that made her the newest darling of the racing world. The success was no surprise to her connections – Mandella thought so highly of the filly that he had nominated her to the Triple Crown this year.

In the Kentucky Oaks, Paradise Woods raced to the inside of runaway Gazelle Stakes winner Miss Sky Warrior, the two laying down opening splits of 22.79 and 46.24 seconds. Paradise Woods led by a length after that half, but jockey Flavien Prat already knew he was in trouble.

"She broke a step slowly but got into the race, but then she never felt comfortable. Last time," he said, referring to her win in the Santa Anita Oaks, "she was just cruising down the backside. This time, she was not really comfortable."

Miss Sky Warrior began to edge up on Paradise Woods at the three-furlong marker, and the 1.20-1 favorite beat a steady retreat from there, finishing more than 20 lengths behind Abel Tasman – who had been the distant runner-up in the Santa Anita Oaks.

"It was a hot pace, and the one laying on her was laying pretty hard, but she didn't look like herself," Mandella said. "She didn't have that pretty stride that she had last time. Maybe the slop threw her a curve, or maybe she ran so hard last time it left her a little empty. [Prat] just didn't have the horse. By the half-mile pole, he did not feel the same. Whether it was the mud or what, who knows?"

– additional reporting by Jay Privman