In Spite of Defections, Kentucky Oaks Field Still 'Plenty Damn Tough'

Some people called it the best Kentucky Oaks field ever. But its luster has been diminished by the losses of Tempera, Bella Bellucci, and Belterra. Tempera, the champion 2-year-old filly of 2001, was euthanized after developing colitis and laminitis. Bella Bellucci, the second choice on the morning line, was scratched because her blood work showed that something wasn't quite right. And Belterra, who was third in the Ashland Stakes, dropped out after her trainer, Carl Nafzger, determined that she had not recovered sufficiently from throat surgery.

However, the remaining fillies are no slouches.

"It's still plenty damn tough as far as I'm concerned," said Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, who will send out longshot Ile de France. "There's the filly from Keeneland (Take Charge Lady), and the two from California, You and Habibiti, are both very good. Those three stack up with anybody. I don't really know Imperial Gesture, but I'm sure she's pretty good, too."

Here's a look at the field:

FARDA AMIGA (30-1) was fourth in the Oaks, nosed out for third by Ile de France, whom she had beaten in previous race on turf. Farda Amiga comes from off the pace, and trainer Paulo Lobo hopes that a fast pace and the long stretch at Churchill will help her chances.

HABIBTI (6-1) has been a top-class filly throughout her career. She was a two-time grade I winner at two, but has lost twice this year to her longtime rival You in the Las Virgenes Stakes and the Santa Anita Oaks.

But it's hard to get excited about her after you talk to trainer Bob Baffert.

"She could be doing better," he said. "For her, she's very light. It's not that she lost weight, but it's hard to put any on. She's been like that all winter. And she hasn't been able to beat You. I worked her the other day, and she worked good. But nobody else liked the way she way she worked."

TAKE THE CAKE (15-1) finished second to Take Charge Lady in the Ashland Stakes. But let's be honest, it wasn't even close as Take Charge Lady cruised to a 4 ΒΌ length victory. Take the Cake took awhile to get herself together mentally, according to trainer Carl Nafzger, but she does have some ability. She won the Forward Gal Stakes at Gulfstream Park back in January, in only her third career start. Nafzger thinks there will be plenty of pressure up front on Take Charge Lady, making her more vulnerable than in the Ashland, when all she had to do was lay right off a doomed-to-fade speedball.

YOU (7-2) has her Hall of Fame trainer, Bobby Frankel so high that he's walking on clouds. "They'll have to run their asses off to beat her," he declared on Wednesday after the filly completed an easy three-furlong blowout. He also reported that You has blossomed physically since she arrived in Kentucky about three weeks ago.

You had everybody on the backstretch buzzing when she worked six furlongs in 1:16.20 on April 24. The move looked effortless, and Frankel said the clockers told him it was the best they had seen at Churchill in years.

You is undefeated in two starts this year, winning the Las Virgenes Stakes and Santa Anita Oaks over a classy Habibti. It's hard to criticize her.

Frankel has won the Oaks twice before, with Keeper Hill in 1998 and Flute in 2001. He has prepared You in much the same way as those fillies, running her in the Santa Anita Oaks, then giving her a long break.

MS. BROOKSKI (30-1) will be making her first start for trainer Niall O'Callaghan when she goes to the post in the Kentucky Oaks. Earlier this year, she won the Davona Dale Stakes at Gulfstream before being purchased privately by Gary Tanaka, whose past record shows that he is a good judge of horseflesh. He bought Ms. Brookski with the Oaks and the Coaching Club American Oaks in mind, according to O'Callaghan.

"It's a very tricky thing running a horse in a grade I that you've never run in a race before," O'Callaghan said. "But we certainly think she's of high quality. I certainly wouldn't run her if I didn't think she had a shot to hit the board here."

IMPERIAL GESTURE (4-1) finished second to champion Tempera in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last year, but defeated that rival soundly this year in the UAE Oaks in Dubai. While her sire, Langfuhr, was a sprinter, Imperial Gesture doesn't seem to have any problems covering route of ground. At 1 1/8 miles, the UAE Oaks was the same distance as the Kentucky Oaks. Hanging her head low, Imperial Gesture looks awkward when she runs, but that has been no handicap to her performance.

ART FAIR (50-1) was a surprise entry into the Kentucky Oaks field. She won a small stakes at Turfway Park earlier this year, but has never faced the kind of quality she will see in this race. Trainer Joe Woodward said Art Fair will be "a notch or two above her head" in the Oaks. That is an understatement.

TAKE CHARGE LADY (2-1) is 3-for-3 this year, with dominating victories in the Silverbulletday Stakes, Fair Grounds Oaks, and Ashland Stakes. She likes the lead, but showed she can rate in the Ashland Stakes. The general consensus is that she will cruise to victory if left alone on the front, so look for plenty of rivals to be hanging close. Trainer Kenny McPeek would like to see her stalking the pace.

While speed is her chief talent, Take Charge Lady also shows tremendous poise. In the mornings at Churchill, she stands quietly near the clocker's stand and watches horses gallop by while barely moving a muscle. Can be on the light side physically, but McPeek's assistant, Helen Pitts, reports that she has been eating better than ever before, which is the sign of a happy horse.

If it rains , Take Charge Lady could be vulnerable. McPeek says she doesn't care for a muddy Churchill track. If it's dry, she'll be hard to beat.

ILE DE FRANCE (30-1) was third in the Santa Anita Oaks in her last outing, beaten by only two lengths. Trainer Richard Mandella was leaning toward the La Troienne Stakes for her next start, but said he changed the plan to the Oaks at the request of her owner-breeder (T N T Stud). After all, "she did run a good race in the Santa Anita Oaks," Mandella noted. "And she is an improving filly, no doubt about it." According to Mandella, jockey Alex Solis will try something a little different with Ile de France in the Kentucky Oaks.

"When we watched the replays of our filly's last couple of races, she looked like she was going to win both," Mandella said. "In the Santa Anita Oaks, she was turning for home and looked like she was going to open up. Alex (Solis) hit her and she really didn't like it. Then we looked at the race before that and she looked like she had it won, and he hit her and she got beat a head at the wire, when she kind of stopped real quickly. So, we're going to try not hitting her."

Mandella also has been working Ile De France behind horses in attempt to get her to settle down and rate more kindly off the lead.