Trainer Kelly Breen summed up this year’s Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) field succinctly a few days ago.
"This is like the Final Four. You have the best fillies here from California, New York, Florida, and Louisiana," he said.
The New Jersey horseman should know. He has one of them.
Breen’s filly, Al and Arlene London’s homebred Miss Sky Warrior, is the toast of New York, having won Aqueduct Racecourse’s Gazelle Stakes (G2) by 13 lengths. On paper her toughest opponents are Paradise Woods, the lightly-raced morning-line favorite from California; Coffeepot Stables’ Farrell, who swept the Oaks preps at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots; and Gary Barber and Baccari Racing Stable’s Salty, winner of the Gulfstream Oaks (G2) in just her third start.
But it’s far from a "Final Four" kind of race, as she’ll meet 13 other 3-year-old fillies May 5 in the $1 million Oaks at Churchill Downs. Even with these four belles of the ball, there are plenty of "Cinderella" horses in the cast.
Steve Sarkowsky and Pam and Marty Wygod’s Paradise Woods comes to the race off a stunning 11 3/4-length romp in the Santa Anita Oaks (G1). Bred by the late Herman Sarkowsky, the daughter of Union Rags was so highly regarded that she was nominated to the Triple Crown series despite not making her debut until Jan. 26. Second that day, she won next time out going 5 1/2 furlongs March 11 under Flavien Prat.
Four weeks later she took the lead in the Santa Anita Oaks and never looked back, earning a monster speed figure that made many forget Unique Bella, the pro-tem leader of the division earlier this year before being sidelined in late March with a shin injury.
Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella is aware of her lack of experience coming to the Oaks, but her brilliance has earned her a place in the starting gate, and a place at 5-2 on the morning line.
While Paradise Woods’ brilliance came to racing’s attention recently, the buzz on both Miss Sky Warrior and Farrell have been growing since the beginning, with the connections of both getting rave reviews while their fillies were in their formative stages.
The Londons got glowing reports from the Greathouse family’s Glencest Farm on their daughter of First Samurai and when the reserved Breen first saw her at the training center in Ocala he called her “poetry in motion.”
After dropping her debut in September, when she faced eventual grade 1 winner Yellow Agate, Miss Sky Warrior hasn’t missed the winner’s circle since and comes into the Oaks with a pair of wins at 1 1/8 miles under her belt, including last year’s Demoiselle Stakes (G2). All week at Churchill Downs she’s looked as good as any on the track.
A few barns over, Farrell has been carrying the banner for trainer Wayne Catalano who cracked "can I bet now?" when she was pegged as the 5-1 third choice for the Oaks.
Headstrong from the start at Beau Lane’s Woodline Farm near Paris, Ky., Farrell is by Malibu Moon and is a half sister to two grade 1 winners, including Carpe Diem . Her edge, besides winning her last four starts—all stakes—by a combined 15 1/2 lengths, is her 2-0-1 slate in four starts under the Twin Spires. She cruised under Catalano’s son-in-law Channing Hill in last fall’s Golden Rod Stakes (G2), topping fellow Oaks contenders Daddys Lil Darling and Ever So Clever. In her last outing, she beat Oaks runners Wicked Lick and Vexatious in the TwinSpires.com Fair Grounds Oaks (G2).
“She’s a dominant kind of figure,” Hill said of Farrell. “She’s beaten quite a few of the fillies that are in the Oaks. I think they’ve gotten better, but so has Farrell. In the Fair Grounds Oaks, she proved she could come from off the pace. I don’t ever want her too far back because she has so much tactical speed.”
As well as Farrell has galloped over the Churchill main track this week, no filly has looked as good as the Mark Casse-trained Salty.
Drawn outside in post 14, the Quality Road filly doesn’t have early lick, so should be able to find her rhythm early to make the most of her closing kick. Like Paradise Woods, she’ll be making just her fourth start and second around two turns in the Oaks.
Of note in this year’s Oaks, five of the other entrants have all run, and run well, under the Twin Spires.
Daddys Lil Darling won the grade 2 Pocahontas Stakes in September, topping Ever So Clever, who will break from post 1 after a surprising run from 10th to first in the Fantasy Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn Park.
Sailor's Valentine was a convincing winner of the Central Bank Ashland Stakes (G1). She might be the only grade 1 winner running this weekend at 30-1 on the morning line.
Calumet Farm’s Vexatious, a full sister to Creative Cause and Destin, has had troubled trips in a pair of preps for Hall of Fame trainer Neil Drysdale. Drysdale’s two previous Oaks winners, Bold n’ Determined (1981) and Princess Rooney (1983) are both in the Hall of Fame.