05/04/2016 1:06PM

Rachel's Valentina looking to follow in mom's footsteps in Oaks

Barbara D. Livingston
Rachel's Valentina is the 7-2 morning-line favorite for the Kentucky Oaks.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Though Rachel’s Valentina was born to run in the Kentucky Oaks, her connections claim it wasn’t always their plan to be in the race.

Yet seven years after Rachel Alexandra dominated the Kentucky Oaks like no one before or since, her only daughter, Rachel’s Valentina, is not only in the Oaks but is the 7-2 morning-line favorite.

The defection of the undefeated champion Songbird left the Kentucky Oaks a wide-open race. An overflow field of 15 was entered Tuesday, and though she hasn’t won since taking the Grade 1 Spinaway last September at Saratoga, Rachel’s Valentina is considered by some the horse to beat.

“I do believe she will be the favorite and the horse to beat,” said Steve Asmussen, who trained Rachel Alexandra for part of her career and is running three horses against Rachel’s Valentina in the Oaks.

Stonestreet Stables is the owner and breeder of Rachel’s Valentina. In 2009, Stonestreet was run by Jess Jackson, who bought a majority interest in Rachel Alexandra following her record-setting 20 1/4-length victory in the Oaks.

Fifteen days later, Rachel Alexandra won the Preakness Stakes and would roll through the remainder of her 3-year-old season undefeated, again beating males in the Haskell at Monmouth Park and older males in the Woodward at Saratoga. The Woodward completed an 8-for-8 season that earned Rachel Alexandra Horse of the Year honors in 2009 and a Hall of Fame election this year.

Jackson died in 2011, but his wife, Barbara Banke, has kept the stable and breeding operation going strong. Rachel’s Valentina is the second – and likely last – foal out of Rachel Alexandra. Her sire is Bernardini, the 2006 Preakness winner.

Rachel’s Valentina was sent to trainer Todd Pletcher, who said the filly’s talent was apparent from the beginning.

“When you look at her pedigree and she comes in, you have high hopes for her, and basically at every turn, she pleased us,” Pletcher said. “Once you can identify one that can run, it’s great. It isn’t always the case because they have a big-time pedigree. But it was pretty clear to us last summer that she was going to be something special.”

Rachel’s Valentina won her debut at Saratoga on Aug. 2 and five weeks later took the Grade 1 Spinaway. She ended her 2-year-old season with a second-place finish to Songbird in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Rachel’s Valentina was sent to Stonestreet’s farm in Ocala, Fla., where she spent three months before returning to Pletcher at Palm Beach Downs. The objective during all that time on the farm was to put weight back on the filly.

“She was a little light going into the Breeders’ Cup,” Banke said. “We really weren’t targeting this race. We wanted her to be at the top level when we got her back to the track.”

Rachel’s Valentina made her 3-year-old debut in the Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland on April 9. Rachel’s Valentina stalked the pacesetting Carina Mia, and turning for home, that pair was joined by Cathryn Sophia. Rachel’s Valentina turned back both of those fillies but was nailed on the finish line by Weep No More.

“It was one of those frustrating losses, but you had to be pleased and proud of her effort,” Pletcher said. “Though it was frustrating to lose, it was also very encouraging that she’s come back and trained on at 3 and is still a top-class filly.”

Rachel’s Valentina will run in the Oaks 11 days after it was announced that her mother was elected to the Hall of Fame. Rachel Alexandra will be enshrined this August in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

“It’s great,” Banke said. “We had high hopes she’d get in on the first ballot. It gives us another reason to celebrate.”

Perhaps on Friday, Rachel’s Valentina can get the party started early.