JC / Railbird

Kentucky Oaks

Rachel’s Valentina, Ann’s Legacy

We’re just a few hours away from the Kentucky Oaks, when all eyes will be on likely post-time favorite Rachel’s Valentina, trying to emulate her dam, 2009 Oaks winner and Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, with a win. I’m a fangirl, she’s my pick. For the more considered and better-priced opinions of other handicappers, check the Kentucky Oaks day picks grid on Hello Race Fans.

Earlier this week, Golden Gate Fields announced that it hired Angela Hermann as its new race caller, replacing Michael Wrona, who moved to Santa Anita. Hermann comes to her new gig as the former racing analyst and substitute announcer at Canterbury Park, and she’s now the only full-time female race caller working in the U.S. She’s not the first, though — that would be Jefferson Downs’ Ann Elliott, who began calling at the defunct New Orleans track in 1962. Her almost forgotten story emerged with a tweet from Ron Flatter, who shared an episode of What’s My Line that Elliott appeared on that same year. Let T.D. Thornton pick up the story:

[Elliott] was comfortable in front of a mike, already had a decent local following, and the small track could reap the benefits of the novelty of having a lady announcer. What could go wrong?

Well, for starters, Elliott got booed lustily the first time she called a race. Shortly thereafter, an inebriated owner barged into the booth and started rooting for his horse in the middle of a call. Elliott, trying to keep her composure, had to lean so far out the window that she almost fell to the grandstand. Eventually, the racetrackers and fans took a liking to her, and she to them.

Keep reading.

Oaks-Derby 2015 Wrap

How’s this for a coincidence? Both the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby winning trainers omni-ed (finished first and third) in their races, Larry Jones with Lovely Maria and I’m a Chatterbox on Friday, Bob Baffert with American Pharoah and Dortmund on Saturday. And what a story it would have been had 52-year-old jockey Gary Stevens, second in the Derby with Firing Line, been Oaks-winning 56-year-old rider Kerwin Clark’s counterpart.

Sometimes the angle on both classics is upset and surprise; this year it was about being at the top of your game. Form held, in that the Kentucky Oaks winner, yet again, passed through the Fair Grounds. And in that the Kentucky Derby winner was the post-time favorite for the third year running. The Oaks win was the third for Jones since 2008, all with fillies owned by Brereton Jones. The Derby win was the fourth for Baffert, and for an owner, Ahmed Zayat, with a string of near-misses, including one in 2009 with the sire of this year’s winner. For Clark, the Oaks winner was his first Grade 1-winning mount, and the rider was the third to get his first Grade 1 win on one of Jones’ Oaks fillies. For Victor Espinoza, the Derby winner was his third, his second in two years.

“For me to get this opportunity at this time in my life when 15 years ago I had decided I was just going to stay in Louisiana and finish my career out there and just disappear quietly into the sunset,” mused Clark, “I got lucky.”

Espinoza knows the thrill. “I feel like the luckiest Mexican on Earth,” he exulted when Donna Brothers rode up for his first post-race interview, and then he praised his horse. “[American Pharoah] has been a special horse since the first time I rode him. He has a lot of talent and is an unbelievable horse.”

Talent enough to win the Triple Crown? We’ll find out over the next five weeks. Baffert said the plan is — of course — to continue on to the Preakness. His stablemate will do the same. “If Dortmund turns the tables on [American Pharoah], so be it,” the trainer told Jonathan Lintner of the Courier-Journal.

Such equanimity. He can allow himself that after getting both to Churchill Downs and winning with Pharoah. “I’m just relieved, very relieved,” Baffert said to DRF correspondent David Grening (subscription only):

“You know coming in here you got that kind of horse, and he showed it today. Pharoah probably didn’t run as well as he can, but he’s such a good horse. I’m just glad he got through here.”

American Pharoah was given a Beyer speed figure of 105 for the Kentucky Derby, the same figure he earned winning his final prep, the Arkansas Derby. TimeformUS awarded him 127 (post updated to included this link 5/7/15).

Fractions for the Kentucky Derby from the Daily Racing Form chart:

The DRF incremental times for the 2015 Kentucky Derby

Looking at the chart, it’s striking how consistent the top three finishers were through the first six furlongs. It’s a very even race. Dortmund (the leader, as predicted by the TimeformUS pace projector) took the field through a moderate first quarter in :23.24, a half in :47.34, and the first three-quarters in 1:11.29, and what had been a tight group near the front the first time past the grandstand separated into the three front-runners and the rest by the final turn. For a nice illustration of how the race unfolded, compare the official chart (PDF) points of call with the Blood-Horse pictorial race sequence.

Watching the replay, what’s most noticeable is how wide American Pharoah is turning into the stretch. Trakus has him covering 29 more feet than Firing Line and 69 more than Dortmund. Minor ground loss doesn’t seem like a bad trade for such an easy trip — the winner was unimpeded all the way around:

The final time for the Derby was 2:03.02, and American Pharoah’s margin at the wire one length over Firing Line. Espinoza had to go to work on him with hands and whip (something Larry Collmus picked up in his call, noting Pharoah was “under a ride”), and he responded. It wasn’t a brilliant victory, but a solid win, the kind that reveals a horse’s mettle. Pharoah is tough.

For that matter, so is Firing Line, who I unfairly and wrongly (so wrongly) discounted when handicapping. The Sunland Derby winner had finished second to Dortmund in their two earlier meetings, and the pair went to the front together in the Kentucky Derby, keeping both busy. “I not only have to turn the tables on Dortmund with Firing Line, but I’ve got to figure out a way to beat American Pharaoh,” Stevens said during a Reddit AMA two weeks ago, talking about his Derby strategy. “I’ve already figured out a way to beat Dortmund! For my plan to work, I’ve got to be in the right place at the right time.” Credit the rider with pulling off at least half his plan — Firing Line headed Dortmund turning into the final quarter and finished two lengths ahead of the previously undefeated colt. If Firing Line did anything wrong, it was that he didn’t switch leads in the stretch (via @randy_moss_TV).

No excuse for Dortmund — he just didn’t have that last furlong in him. Frosted ranged up late and almost got him for show. “He’s a really good horse and he ran like it today,” said jockey Martin Garcia after the Derby. “He always comes to run; that’s the kind of horse he is. He got beat today by really good horses. That can happen.” The question going forward is, did he reveal a distance limitation, or — with the experience — will he be able to handle 10 furlongs in races such as the Travers or Breeders’ Cup Classic?

Back to the Kentucky Oaks: Lovely Maria earned a Beyer speed figure of 94; TimeformUS gave her 105. She drew away for a 2 3/4 length win (PDF):

Her victory is lovely, for so many reasons.

Odds and ends: American Pharoah is a handsome animalthat was quite a Derby winner’s circle celebration … “justice of sorts in Pharoah’s win.”

Rebel Possible for Brandi

Owner Willis Horton and trainer D. Wayne Lukas are considering entering filly champion Take Charge Brandi in the March 14 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, the same race American Pharoah is expected to make his first start in since last September. Lukas told Mary Rampellini that the Kentucky Oaks is still Brandi’s goal, but Horton likes the idea of keeping her options open: “If we win the Rebel we get the 50 points for it, and it puts us in a position where we can either go to the Kentucky Oaks or the Kentucky Derby.” And if she finishes second, she’ll get 20 points, which would likely put her on the bubble for a Kentucky Derby entry. The returning 2-year-old male champion looks formidable; he’s also been out with a foot injury. Add in the larger purse and that, aside from Pharoah, the Rebel is expected to draw “names that shouldn’t strike fear into the hearts of anyone,” starting Brandi in this race, instead of the Honeybee, looks like a pretty good (and sporting) move.

Vance Hanson isn’t so sure:

From what I’ve witnessed from my seat on the backbenches, Take Charge Brandi would seem better served going for the Honeybee rather than the more difficult Rebel hornets’ nest. If her connections ultimately choose the latter, though, it would probably be no less useful a prep for the Fantasy …

She has 40 points towards the Oaks — there’s really nothing for her to lose.

Mr. Z, another Lukas trainee, is one of the defectors from the Rebel Stakes after finishing third in the Southwest. He’ll start next instead in the March 28 Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds. He’s also getting an equipment change:

3/3/15 Update: She’s going in the Rebel, says Lukas.

3/10/15 Update: She’s out. Take Charge Brandi will miss the Rebel Stakes and Kentucky Oaks after being diagnosed with a non-displaced knee chip.

Derby Day Notes

Untapable gets a Beyer speed figure of 107 for her Kentucky Oaks victory, and a TimeformUS figure of 114, numbers that put her in the same company as Kentucky Derby starters California Chrome and Wicked Strong in their final preps. When the “absolutely fabulous” filly makes her next start, the $4 she paid to win as the favorite on Friday is going to look like big money.

Early wagering on the Kentucky Derby has California Chome as the 2-1 favorite, with 27% of the $3.9 million win pool as of 10:00 AM. My picks in the race are California Chrome – Medal Count – Samraat. See who the Hello Race Fans team likes in all of today’s stakes races at Churchill. Good luck!

It’s not only Derby day, it’s opening day at Suffolk Downs, MAYBE FOR THE LAST TIME EVER, as every notice about the start of the 2014 meet points out. First post is 2:15 PM. Top rider Tammi Piermarini has mounts in eight races.

Oaks Reprise

Jon White surveys the likely Odgen Phipps field:

The 2013 Kentucky Oaks field was considered one of the best ever. The five fillies listed above as candidates for the Phipps all ran in last year’s Kentucky Oaks. Princess of Sylmar won at 38-1. Beholder finished second at 9-1 after acting up and unseating Garrett Gomez prior to the start. Dreaming of Julia finished fourth as the 3-2 favorite after she “got annihilated at the start” and “got stopped later in the race,” according to Todd Pletcher, the filly’s trainer. Midnight Lucky finished fifth at 7-2, which has been her only loss in four career starts to date. Close Hatches finished seventh at 7-1.

Amazing. Unlimited Budget, third in the 2013 Kentucky Oaks, hasn’t been mentioned among the Phipps possibles, but she is still running, finishing second in the G3 Rampart Stakes at Gulfstream last month.

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