Trainer Mark Hennig, who has three starters in Friday's Kentucky Oaks.

Trainer Mark Hennig, who has three starters in Friday's Kentucky Oaks.

Anne Eberhardt

Hennig Keeps His Options Open With Three-Horse Oaks Entry

Don't believe Bobby Frankel. That was the message from rival trainer Mark Hennig Wednesday morning. He said his decision to increase his Oaks entry from two fillies to three was an insurance policy to make sure his client, Edward P. Evans, would have a runner in the big race. It was not, as Frankel claimed, a strategic maneuver to knock out the highly-regarded Flute.

"I could have entered With Ability, Gold Mover, and Sweep Dreams, too, if that had been the intention," Hennig said. "If I had really wanted to keep him (Frankel) out, I could have had a six-horse entry. I didn't give much thought to it, to tell you the truth. I was worrying about my client, not his."

Hennig created a stir on Monday when he told Daily Racing Form that he planned to add Raging Fever to his already announced Oaks entry of Tap Dance and Mystic Lady. Raging Fever and Tap Dance both are homebreds who race for Evans.

"Basically, I put Raging Fever in to keep our options open," said Hennig, who has more fillies in the Oaks than any other trainer. "It's not likely that she'll start unless something happens to Tap Dance. But we'll probably wait until Friday to scratch her, when we're sure everything is going to be okay. I think this is something that is perfectly natural for an owner to do when he has two horses that fit the race."

The Kentucky Oaks field is limited to 14 starters, with preference given to the 3-year-old fillies that have the highest career earnings. Flute, with only $96,200, dropped to 15th on the earnings list of Oaks candidates when Raging Fever was added to the mix. But Flute got into the field anyway, when Scoop dropped out because of a throat infection at the last minute on Tuesday when entries closed and the post positions were drawn.

"I knew Flute was going to get in," Hennig said. "When I called the racing office at 10:00 on Tuesday, they told me Scoop was out."

In reality, according to Hennig, he's more worried about Ashland Stakes winner Fleet Renee than Flute, who finished second in the Santa Anita Oaks.

"I think Fleet Renee is the standout," he said. "If I could have entered one to get her out of the race, I would have. If this was 'Survivor,' I would have voted Fleet Renee off the island a lot earlier than I would have voted off anybody else. I thought she was very impressive in the Ashland at Keeneland, and she's got nice form."

Hennig need not make apologies for his decision to enter Raging Fever. An earner of $637,040, she was one of country's best 2-year-old fillies last year, winning five straight races in New York -- including the Frizette and Matron Stakes -- before closing out the season with a sixth-place effort in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. So far this year, the daughter of Storm Cat has finished second in the Dame Mysterieuse Stakes at Gulfstream Park and third in the Beaumont Stakes at Keeneland.

"She's had two rough trips this year, two trips she really didn't want," Hennig said. "In her last race (the Beaumont), she got away slow and had to check going into the turn. The Oaks is not the ideal place to run her. We would rather take our time and run her in a place where she's a little bit more likely to get a clean trip."

The entry of Raging Fever and Tap Dance was listed at 6-1 odds on the Oaks' morning line. A daughter of Pleasant Tap, Tap Dance won one of five races last year. She competed three times on dirt and twice on grass.

"We've were trying to establish whether she was turf or dirt filly," Hennig said. "She trained like a filly that would want to get on the turf eventually, and she always gave me that impression. So, I tried her a couple times on grass. But until we added the blinkers (in her first race this year), it was hard to get her attention. She would kind of run spotty in her races. Every time Craig Perret rode her, he would comment on how she was just running in spurts and always seemed to have something left."

Pleasant Tap made her 2001 debut at Gulfstream Park, winning a seven-furlong allowance by 1 ¾ lengths. Competing twice more at Gulfstream, she finished sixth in the Gaily Gaily Stakes on grass, then strolled by four lengths in the Bonnie Miss Stakes.

In the Gaily Gaily, "she was kind of wrangled back," Hennig said. "She wants to be more of a free-running filly -- not that she wants to be on the lead, but she just wants you to let her run her race. (Jockey Jorge) Chavez kind of took hold of her that day and wrestled her back off the pace, and they went extremely slow, as I recall. She just wouldn't relax in behind horses like he wanted her to.

"In the Bonnie Miss," Hennig continued, "we let her run away from there and run her race. She just basically galloped around there that day. I think she probably can run on either dirt or grass , but we are going to keep her on the dirt for now. She's always acted like a filly with a lot of stamina, and I know the distance (1 1/8 miles) won't be a problem in the Oaks. It's just a matter of her class level and whether she fits from that standpoint."

Owned by Lee Lewis, Mystic Lady is 8-1 on the Oaks' morning line. She closed out her juvenile campaign with a 13 ½-length romp in the Hollywood Wildcat Stakes at Calder Race Course last November. This year, she has won three of her five races, including the Herecomesthebride Stakes at Gulfstream and the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park. In the April 13 Fantasy, her most recent outing, Mystic Lady was ahead by 3 ¾ lengths at the wire.

"She's doing great," Hennig said. "She's a little bit of the same type as Tap Dance; she doesn't do a whole lot in the mornings. Basically, you have to ask her for anything; she doesn't go out there and overtrain. She's not a real big filly, but she tries hard and she's got a lot of heart.

"I thought she ran exceptionally well in the Fantasy, he added. "When they turned for home, there was a wall of horses behind her that looked like they could just swallow her up if she didn't have some class. But she just ran away from them. When she switched leads, she found another gear, and I was real impressed with the way she finished up."

While both Mystic Lady and Tap Dance like to run near the front, "I don't think either one has to be on the lead," Hennig said. "Mystic Lady has kind of run from a little bit off of the pace at times. It just depends on how the Oaks sets up. I would much rather have the type of fillies that have a little bit of speed to keep them out of trouble rather than the ones that try to weave their way through the field."

Hennig is a former assistant to Hall-of-Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has saddled four Oaks winners: With Pride (1982), Lucky Lucky Lucky (1984), Open Mind (1989), and Seaside Attraction (1990). His experiences with Lukas, according to Hennig, are proving helpful as he gets his three-filly entry ready for this year's Oaks.

"Drawing from your experience with Wayne," he said, "it prepares you for the onslaught of the press and the publicity and everything that goes with it. It can be a little bit overwhelming if you haven't been here before. You can get caught up in the press and worrying about what the next guy is doing with his horse. The most important things are to know your horse, stick with your training program, and have your horse in the best condition you can."