04/22/2007 11:00PM

Who's who in the Kentucky Oaks


The $500,000 Kentucky Oaks is one of the most prestigious races for 3-year-old fillies in America. But aside from breeders, who value Grade 1 victories for broodmare prospects, it is one of the least appreciated races on the American racing calendar.

Want proof? Then you are invited to the following three-part quiz.

* Without looking it up, name the filly who won this race last year.

* Do you have any clue who won the Kentucky Oaks in 2005?

* Can you name a second-place finisher in the last 10 years?

Bet you can't get two out of three. You probably cannot get even one right, and you will be in the distinct minority if you are able to name any two winners of this high-class annual race that has been run as long as the Kentucky Derby, is nationally televised, and gets reasonable newspaper coverage throughout the country.

There is no mystery here. The Kentucky Derby dwarfs the Oaks in its mighty shadow. Nevertheless, the Oaks often is an intriguing handicapping puzzle that has a direct betting link to the Derby via the special Oaks-Derby daily double.

This year's Oaks could be the forum to confirm trainer Todd Pletcher's Rags to Riches as the most exciting 3-year-old filly in America. Yet, the suddenly improved filly High Heels could provide an acid test.

As a primer for those who have been preoccupied with Kentucky Derby fever, here, alphabetically, are thumbnail sketches for the 15 fillies under consideration for the maximum 14 starting berths. As usual, Pletcher is likely to have more than one major contender in the lineup.

Autobahn Girl: One of two for trainer Nick Zito, who has been racing below the radar because his 2007 Derby prospects did not pan out in Florida this year. This filly, a winner of a minor stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in February, was fourth to highly rated Cotton Blossom in the Tampa Bay Oaks and may need more seasoning to compete at this level.

Baroness Thatcher: This Patrick Biancone-trained daughter of Johannesburg set the pace but was caught late by Rags to Riches in the one-mile Grade 1 Las Virgenes of Feb. 10, then was hard used when Rags to Riches scored a dominating victory in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks at 1 1/8 miles. Sharp recent works at Keeneland suggest she will be competitive, and she does have two of the best Beyer Speed Figures in the race.

Cash Included: Winner of the Grade 1 Oak Leaf Stakes at Santa Anita's Oak Tree fall meeting in 2006, she started her 3-year-old season with two fair efforts to Rags to Riches in Grade 1 stakes at Santa Anita. More recently, she ran third to the vastly improved High Heels in the Grade 2 Fantasy at Oaklawn April 6. She rates a chance, but needs a forward move to threaten the top ones.

Cotton Blossom: This Pletcher trainee was third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last fall at Churchill Downs. She won the Florida Oaks in her return at Tampa and followed that with a good second in the Fantasy. She is working sharply at Keeneland and is likely to improve in her third outing of 2007 in the Oaks.

Dawn After Dawn: Finished right behind the consistent Octave when third at 54-1 in the Grade 1 Ashland, won by Christmas Kid at Keeneland April 7. Was this a fluke? Not according to jockey Robbie Albarado, who is in the best riding form of his career and will ride the unbeaten Curlin in the Kentucky Derby.

After a positive workout at Keeneland, Albarado told trainer Wesley Hawley that he noticed "significant improvement" since he rode the filly to victory in turf allowance at the Fair Grounds last December. Chance to spice up the exotics.

Grace Happens: She was a fair third in the Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn on March 16 but has not panned out as planned for trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who could use some of his old magic. She will need a pace meltdown to threaten.

High Again: The fourth-place finisher in the Ashland, she won the Grade 2 Bonnie Miss at Gulfstream in March and has been a contender in all eight of her starts, all for Hall of Fame trainer Billy Mott. But some improvement still is needed in what will be her fifth start of the year.

High Heels: She was competitive in most starts in 2006 and early '07, but exploded to win the Fantasy at Oaklawn by 6 3/4 lengths at 9-1. Owned and bred by Anita Ebert and trained by Gary Hartlage, High Heels just needs a repeat of her last outing to give Rags to Riches all she can handle.

Mistical Plan: The Fair Grounds Oaks winner, she tired badly in the Ashland on a Polytrack surface that has not been kind to front-running types. She won the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks with a competitive Beyer in her prior outing, and her best race as a juvenile was a highly rated second-place finish in the Grade 3 Pocahontas at Churchill. She looms a likely pace factor.

Octave: A Grade 2 winner at Saratoga last summer, she enters the Oaks with four straight second-place finishes in Grade 1 and Grade 2 stakes. These include the BC Juvenile Fillies last fall and a narrow defeat in the Ashland. All four outings earned consistent Beyer Figs between 85 and 87, compared to the mid-90s earned by Rags to Riches and High Heels. Octave is working sharply at Keeneland for Pletcher and seems eligible for a forward move in her third start of the year.

Rags to Riches: Graduated convincingly at seven furlongs in her second outing to start 2007 and promptly won the Grade 1 Las Virgenes at a mile and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks at 1 1/16 miles in February and March. She has been working in company on even terms with Pletcher's light-bodied, strong-finishing Derby threat Circular Quay. She is the obvious horse to beat at unsatisfying odds in the Kentucky Oaks.

Sealy Hill: A Polytrack pro, she won the Bourbonette at Turfway on March 24. She did finish second to Autobahn Girl in an allowance route on traditional dirt at Gulfstream in January, but she is another needing a strong forward leap to outlast most of these.

Silver Knockers: The "other" Zito trainee, she was a good second in the seven-furlong Grade 2 Forward Gal at Gulfstream March 10 and made a move before tiring in the Ashland at 1 1/16 miles over the Keeneland Polytrack. Improvement likely, but also she seems in deep water.

Swift Temper: Fourth-place finisher in the Bonnie Miss and Fantasy, she will be a very long price in the Oaks, but her distance breeding has encouraged her ambitious, low-profile connections to put her in the field.

Tough Tiz's Sis: She might not make the field because she has zero graded stakes earnings, but this Bob Baffert-trained miss was a dominating winner over a stubborn Swiss Current in the Sunland Oaks at Sunland Park March 18. She definitely has a graded stakes future and would be dangerous if she can luck into the Oaks with a favorable inner post.

By the way, last year's Oaks winner was Lemons Forever at 47-1, with Ermine second. The winner and second-place finishers in 2005 were Summerly and In the Gold.