In the wake of record-breaking floods the past few days, and a Louisville weather forecast of more rain through May 6, Midwesterners need no further reminders that Thoroughbred racing is an outdoor sport.
Along with the usual slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, it may also be necessary to deal with Mother Nature as we navigate through the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) and Saturday's Kentucky Derby Presented By Yum! Brands (G1), and all the supporting graded stakes that go along with them.
Here's how we see the five grade 1 races at Churchill Downs 24 to 48 hours out—Friday's La Troienne and Kentucky Oaks, and Saturday's Humana Distaff, Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, and Run For The Roses.
La Troienne Presented By Spirit Funds (Fri., CD, race 5, 12:35 EDT): Much will depend on the weather, and whether the connections of Finest City (#8) opt to run their multiple graded-stakes winning mare in this 1 1/16-mile race or await the seven-furlong Humana Distaff the next afternoon.
Either race will be the first start outside California for Finest City, and given that she is a high-strung sort, the reigning champion female sprinter may be best served by waiting for Saturday. The distance is better, the draw is better, and both races are for the same money.
If Finest City is out, Paid Up Subscriber (#4) will be awfully tough to deny as she stretches out off a rallying third in the Madison Stakes (G1), which was her first start since a runner-up try in the Juddmonte Spinster Stakes (G1) last fall and her first for Chad Brown. Purchased after the Spinster for $1.1 million at the Fasig-Tipton November sale, Paid Up Subscriber is a perfect 3 for 3 at Churchill Downs, and two of those wins came in early spring following seasonal debuts at Keeneland.
A - 4, 8
B - none
C - none
Kentucky Oaks (Fri., CD, race 11, 6:12 EDT): You don't need me to tell you Paradise Woods (#4) is the filly to beat— heck, she would have rated a long look in the Derby based on a big-figure win in the Santa Anita Oaks (G1) by almost a dozen lengths.
The problem is two-fold: After going off at 8-1 in the Santa Anita Oaks, Paradise Woods is going to be a short-priced favorite, and it will be based solely on the basis of that one race, which was just her third career start and her first route. Moreover, it was accomplished with the benefit of an uncontested lead over a surface that received a Racing Flow rating of -176, which is classified as an "important speed bias."
Abel Tasman (#13), a distant second as the odds-on choice in the Santa Anita Oaks, is back for another try, and will be equipped with blinkers in her second outing for Bob Baffert.
Farrell (#7), Miss Sky Warrior (#10) and Salty (#14) respectively come off dominating wins in Louisiana, New York and Florida, and have to be considered in the first half of the Oaks-Derby double, and first leg of a pick three with the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic and Derby.
A - 4, 10
B - 7, 13, 14
Humana Distaff (Sat., CD, race 6, 1:13 EDT): Still kicking myself for putting Carina Mia (#7) over Finest City (#5) in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1), but the former may rebound with a vengeance in what will be her first appearance since then.
Carina Mia has notched two of her three graded stakes victories over this surface—a sloppy edition of the Golden Rod Stakes (G2), and a powerful performance in the Eight Belles Stakes (G2). Large crowds haven't fazed last year's Acorn Stakes (G1) winner, she is sitting on "go" after a solid line of workouts at Payson Park and a fast blowout at Churchill May 2.
Finest City lost no luster finishing second to Vale Dori (a winner of five straight) when stretched out to 1 1/8 miles in the Santa Margarita Stakes (G1), and ought to relish the cutback to seven furlongs if this is where she winds up.
The others to consider are Paulassilverlining (#2), fresh off a win in the Madison first out for Juddmonte Farms and Chad Brown; and Lightstream (#6), a deep closer whose four wins have all come at seven furlongs, along with a close second in the last year's Test (G1).
A - 5, 7
B - 2, 6
Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (Sat., CD race 11, 5:25 EDT): A well-matched field of 12 includes Divisidero (#2) and World Approval (#7), last year's winner and runner-up, along with the grade 1 winners Bal a Bali (#6) and Beach Patrol (#8), and several others who figure close on their best form.
World Approval might wind up as the controlling speed, depending on what Beach Patrol does, but the field as a whole does not have much experience with rain-softened footing. The more rain that falls, the more unpredictable this race becomes.
The exception is Bal a Bali, who won eight times on courses labeled soft or heavy in his native Brazil, before coming to the United States two years ago.
Can'thelpbelieving (#11) was better than ever in 2016, but the 6-year-old gelding has been idle since winning the Cliff Hanger (G3T) last summer.
A - 6, 7
B - 2, 8, 11
C - 1, 4, 9, 12
Kentucky Derby Presented By Yum! Brands (Sat., CD, race 12, 6:46 EDT): The fastest entrants have either been somewhat unreliable, compromised by minor injuries, or have only produced one big-figure effort. Falling into that category are Always Dreaming (#5), Hence (#8), J Boys Echo (#13), Classic Empire (#14), McCraken (#15), Tapwrit (#16) and Irish War Cry (#17).
Others have shown some consistency, but look outgunned by the numbers as far as their win prospects go. That group includes Lookin At Lee (#1), Untrapped (#4), State of Honor (#6), Girvin (#7), Battle of Midway (#11), Sonneteer (#12), Gormley (#18) and Practical Joke (#19).
The no-show by Irish War Cry in the Xpressbet Fountain Of Youth Stakes (G2) remains a mystery to all, including those closest to the Curlin colt. The key, as with most lightly raced runners with natural speed, involves getting him to relax early, which he did nicely in winning the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2) and the Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets (G2). If he can settle off the other speed horses, as in the Wood, he has all the physical attributes to handle this assignment, and while it's hard to foretell such things, he is superbly bred to handle off-going.
Gunnevera (#10) was a never-in-it third in the Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1), but it's worth bearing in mind he had already garnered sufficient qualifying points by winning the Fountain Of Youth four weeks earlier. He is already a graded stakes winner in three states, and looks like the best of the off-the-pace runners when he fires.
A - 10, 17
B - 14, 15