Two months ago Steve Asmussen saw in Vertical Oak a filly in need of confidence boost. In the aftermath of the May 19 $150,000 Adena Springs Miss Preakness Stakes (G3), the Hall of Fame trainer sees a talent who is increasingly adept at breaking the spirit of her would-be challengers.
J. Kirk and Judy Robison's Vertical Oak made the most out of her setup at Pimlico Race Course Friday when she overtook My Miss Chiff a furlong out and kicked clear by 3 3/4 lengths for her first graded stakes victory in the six-furlong Miss Preakness Stakes.
The last two outings for the 3-year-old daughter of Giant Oak have showcased a 180-degree turn in form from her first pair of stakes tries. In her seasonal bow, Vertical Oak came home fourth in the Jan. 21 Dixie Belle Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Though she was elevated to third via disqualification in the March 25 Purple Martin Stakes, she had to check up in tight quarters and never got herself going again after that adversity.
When she rebounded with a gate-to-wire, 7 3/4-length triumph in the April 29 Goldfinch Stakes at Prairie Meadows, Asmussen knew her progression path was back on track. After sitting a close-up third under Jose Ortiz through fractions of :22.61 and :45.54 while My Miss Chiff was pressed up front by 2-1 favorite Our Majesty, Vertical Oak surged on the outside to take command at the head of the lane.
"It needs to go her way for her to show her best side," Asmussen said. "When she had a rough trip at Oaklawn the time before, I think the key for her was finding a race like the one at Prairie Meadows that will give her a reminder of what she's good at. The last race did the move up. This was a very deep and talented field of 3-year-old filly sprinters and this now puts her right in the mix."
Vertical Oak touted herself as an impressive maiden winner at Saratoga Race Course last August, winning by 6 3/4 lengths at second asking. That finishing kick showed itself again in the lane on Friday when she put away the stubborn pacesetter to her inside and left that one to battle with eventual runner-up Our Majesty for minor honors.
"I had to put her (near the lead) because of the size of the field and I was in great position going into the turn," Ortiz said. "I waited and waited and then she jumped into the bit, so I knew I had a horse when I asked her."
Sent off at 6-1 odds, Vertical Oak covered the six furlongs in a final time 1:10.06 over a fast track. Our Majesty edged My Miss Chiff for second with Too Much Tip closing for fourth and Astrollinthepark rounding out the top five in the 13-horse field.
Grade 1 winner Pretty City Dancer was a late scratch out of the Miss Preakness when she pulled a shoe off in the paddock and then became too agitated to get reshod.
"She tried to flip the first time we put a nail in and that was it," said Norman Casse, assistant trainer for Pretty City Dancer.
Bred in Kentucky by Millennium Farms, Vertical Oak paid $15.60, $5.60, and $5 across the board while improving her record to four wins from eight starts with $249,200 in earnings. She is out of stakes-winning Pollard's Vision mare Vertical Vision and was purchased by J. Kirk Robison for $20,000 at the 2015 Fasig-Tipton October yearling sale.
"Most likely she'll go on to Belmont, they've got some nice 3-year-old filly races there," Asmussen said.
Vertical Oak is the first graded stakes winner for her late, third-crop sire Giant Oak, who died in March from a neurological condition.