Nicholas Godfrey on the Kentucky Oaks

Friday's feature race at Churchill Downs - the Kentucky Oaks - is set to be a mouthwatering clash between two of the star fillies in the US; Nicholas Godfrey profiles the pair.

  • Tuesday 01 September
  • Blog
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THEY’LL be running for the roses on Saturday – but first it’s ‘Lilies for the Fillies’ on Friday as the 146th Kentucky Oaks claims centre stage at Churchill Downs with a potentially sensational showdown between Gamine and Swiss Skydiver.

Don’t be misled on this subject. Other races on the US calendar may even be called ’American Oaks’ but they aren’t, not really – not even the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks, won in July by Paris Lights at Saratoga.

it is the Kentucky version that matters; Friday’s marquee race, $1.25 million Longines-sponsored highlight of a showpiece card with six graded stakes, has long been regarded as America’s senior race for three-year-old fillies.

Watch the 2020 Kentucky Oaks live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Friday 4th September.

Like the ‘Durr-by’, it was first run in 1875, having been founded by Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, who organised the Louisville Jockey Club after a trip to England in which he became besotted with horse racing, and Epsom in particular. The first Oaks, won by Vinaigrette, was run over a mile and a half in deference to Epsom; the distance diminished in the 20th Century to its current nine-furlong trip.

On an annual basis, the Kentucky Oaks is the third-best attended race meeting in the States, reliably attracting more than 100,000 souls in an attendance that is behind only the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Not since 2004 has the crowd dipped beneath six figures for a day usually regarded as party time for the locals in the Kentuckiana region.

Not this year, however, when the crowd will be lucky to reach three figures, let alone six as the Oaks is run behind closed doors with only those directly involved onsite as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. If there’s a party to be had, it won’t be underneath the Twin Spires.

Which, at the risk of stating the obvious, can be regarded only as a massive shame because in sporting terms the 2020 Oaks is being at least as eagerly anticipated as the Derby 24 hours later.

With recent winners including top-class dirt fillies such as Rags To Riches, Blind Luck, Monomoy Girl and the great Rachel Alexandra, who set a new record with a scarcely credible 20¼-length victory 11 years ago, the class of 2020 has something to live up to.

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That said, the prospect of Gamine and Swiss Skydiver fighting out an extended duel promises a thrilling spectacle for TV purposes.

Given that both fillies are blessed with ample tactical speed, as long as the fractions aren’t stupid it is entirely possible they will be racing one-two throughout. Swiss Skydiver has drawn the rail, which could make up jockey Tyler Gaffalione’s mind for him.

Then again, attempting to match strides with fearsome front-runner Gamine has been a fool’s errand so far during her four career starts, where she has led at every single point of call. Her past-performance running chart is a series of ‘1’s – and nothing else. The daughter of Into Mischief has looked every inch a superstar, crossing the wire first in her four races by a combined total in excess of 32 lengths for trainer Bob Baffert, who is seeking his fourth Oaks win.

Gamine is owned by Michael Lund Petersen, a Baltimore-based Dane who is a founding shareholder in the US division of Pandora jewellery. At Baffert’s pleading, he went to $1.8m to secure the filly at last year’s Fasig-Tipton Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale and it has never looked anything other than money well spent.

Named Gamine on account of her attractively boyish demeanour – though she is hardly slight in the Audrey Hepburn/Winona Ryder sense implied in any such description – the filly was sent off a 1-10 favourite on her Santa Anita debut in March and duly obliged by more than six lengths.

Her next start was less impressive as she dug in to score by just a neck on Oaklawn’s Arkansas Derby card. The result was also mired in controversy as both she and stablemate Charlatan, who landed the first division of the feature, were disqualified after failing post-race dope tests for a prohibited substance. Cross-contamination from human back-pain reliever was blamed.

Even if she had kept the race, a hard-fought victory in a minor allowance contest did not seem the stuff of legend. However, second place at Oaklawn was taken by ultra-tough Speech, a subsequent three-length Grade 1 winner in her own right who is seen as the filly most likely to upset the two principals in Friday’s race.

Moreover, the third-placed horse was more than six back. Not too shabby, then, in retrospect – and, note, this was a race around two turns, like the Kentucky Oaks.

Then we get to Gamine’s two more recent outings in Grade 1 company, which explain precisely why she is odds-on favourite for Kentucky with British bookmakers. First came an 18¾-length romp in the Acorn Stakes on the Belmont undercard, then a speed test in the seven-furlong Test at Saratoga, where she cruised home by seven. In the process, she posted two of the top three Beyer speed figures of the year by a member of the Classic generation.

The question for Gamine – ‘Queen Gamine’ according to Baffert – is whether she can maintain her brilliant speed just a little longer. On that score, there are no doubts about her chief rival Swiss Skydiver, who recorded her latest victory in Saratoga’s Alabama Stakes – a week later than Gamine’s Test Stakes swagger over fully three furlongs further.

Unlike her rival, Swiss Skydiver was a cheap purchase, costing only $35,000 at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale, where Gamine also went through the same ring for $220,000 before her resale at two.

Swiss Skydiver is not unbeaten – but the only time her colours have been lowered in her last five starts came when she was asked to take on her male counterparts in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Her connections had been eyeing a possible tilt at the Kentucky Derby and wanted to accrue a few qualifying points just in case.

In the event, Swiss Skydiver was hardly disgraced, leading for much of the way before giving way to Art Collector, who was regarded as the major threat to Tiz The Law in the Kentucky Derby until he was ruled out this week with a foot issue.

Otherwise, the daughter of US stallion Daredevil has three more graded-stakes victories to her name before her bloodless Alabama Stakes triumph, among them a form line that, taken literally, would give her the beating of Gamine thanks to a four-length verdict over our old friend Speech in the Santa Anita Oaks.

With nine runs under her belt, Swiss Skydiver is more experienced than Gamine and Churchill Downs is her home track; she won there as a two-year-old. Such is her talent that trainer Kenny McPeek is already talking about a crack at the rescheduled Preakness Stakes in four weeks’ time; mind you, he is never one to shirk an ambitious challenge. Earlier this year he was keen to bring Swiss Skydiver to Britain to run in the 1,000 Guineas – on turf, a surface she has yet to encounter.

If she doesn’t quite carry the level of expectation associated with Gamine after her spectacular wide-margin efforts, then Swiss Skydiver’s CV is pretty impressive in its own right. “We don’t have any fear of her,” says McPeek, who rarely has any fear of anything,

As the man says, you pays your money and takes your choice.

Watch the 2020 Kentucky Oaks live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Friday 4th September.

Nicholas Godfrey on the Kentucky Oaks
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