Nicholas Godfrey on the Kentucky Oaks

One of the biggest days annually in the American racing calendar, the 2019 Kentucky Oaks scene is set by Nicholas Godfrey.

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HERE is this week’s starter for ten: only three days’ racing in the US can be guaranteed to attract a six-figure crowd to the track. The Kentucky Derby leads the way from the Preakness Stakes – but can you name the third?

Well, it isn’t the Belmont Stakes, which usually hits 100,000 when the Triple Crown is on the line but not otherwise, nor even less the Breeders’ Cup, which languishes well behind with a record single-day gate of 80,452 in 1998.

Rather, the third-best attended race meeting in the States is Friday’s Kentucky Oaks, for which the record attendance was the 124,589 reported for Cathryn Sophia’s victory in 2016. Not since 2004 has the crowd dipped beneath six figures.

Although visitors from far afield head to Louisville for Derby weekend, Oaks day is renowned as party time for the locals in the Kentuckiana region. In case you’re wondering, that means the Ohio Valley around Louisville consisting of much of northern Kentucky and southern Indiana.

Gates open at Churchill Downs at 8am, two and a half hours before the start of a 13-race card ending at 7.23pm. The marquee race, worth $1.25 million and sponsored by Longines, has long been regarded as America’s senior race for three-year-old fillies. Accept no substitutes: other races on the US calendar may even be called the ’American Oaks’ but they aren’t. Friday’s race beneath the Twin Spires is the big one, a functional equivalent of the Oaks at Epsom, on which it was based.

If the Kentucky Derby is the ‘Run for the Roses’, then the Kentucky Oaks is ‘Lilies for the Fillies’, in reference to the garland of flowers traditionally draped over the winner’s shoulders.  Like the Derby, it was first run in 1875, having been founded by Colonel Meriwether L 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.

Bellafina, trained in California by former Newmarket-based Simon Callaghan, is hot favourite for this year’s edition after her runaway victory in the Santa Anita Oaks. Mind you, she was also strongly fancied on her only previous outing outside California in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs, and she finished only fourth.

Given that Breeders’ Cup winner Jaywalk looks a shadow of her former self, Restless Rider looks a value option. She has two wins and two seconds on the main track at Churchill and presumably needed last month’s run after a layoff at Keeneland.

Churchill Downs has worked hard to improve the Friday card as a whole – think the Aintree Grand National meeting, so much better than it used to be. The Oaks is now supported by five more Graded stakes (including the Grade 1 La Troienne for older fillies and mares) on a 13-race card.

Such is the success of the Friday card that they’ve now started pushing Thursday as the big hometown occasion for local folk, as Pat Day, all-time leader in the Churchill Downs jockey standings, told me recently.

“The whole area gets excited and there are all kinds of activities leading up to the Derby,” said four-time Eclipse Award winner Day, who retired in 2005 with 8,803 North American victories to his name. As well as the Derby on Lil E Tee in 1992, Day won the Oaks on Goodbye Halo in 1988 and Secret Status in 2000. He is now a member of the Kentucky Horse Commission and president of the racetrack chaplaincy.

“I have to give big credit to the people at Churchill Downs because they’ve also done a great job upgrading the facilities at Churchill Downs,” adds Day. “The Oaks on the Friday is now almost as big a day as the Saturday. The local people in Louisville used to go to the Oaks but now they go on Thursday and call it ‘Thur-by’!”

Indeed they do. General admission on ‘Thurby’ (which rhymes with ‘Durr-by’) costs only $22, and the track seems to be embracing a reputation for licentious behaviour. “New This Year: Thurby Goes Gonzo!” say the adverts, with illustrator Ralph Steadman on hand to sign artwork and posters.

Steadman was the ground-breaking artist who illustrated much of Hunter S. Thompson’s work – including his celebrated 1970 piece ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’. Thompson was a Louisville native, and Steadman joined him in his notorious antics at the racetrack that have gone down in Derby folklore.

Evidently this week “Squallis Puppeteers will bring Hunter S. Thompson to life throughout the track”, while patrons are asked to “Capture your most Decadent & Depraved Thurby Experience” in a “Gonzo photo op”.

The mind boggles.

SIX MEMORABLE KENTUCKY OAKS

1979 DAVONA DALE

Sorry people, can’t locate a video but have to include Davona Dale, who won like the good thing she was, splashing to victory by 4½ lengths as 2-5 favourite on her way into the Hall of Fame. It was her fourth victory in an eight-race winning sequence including a string of wide-margin successes (10 lengths in the Mother Goose; eight in the CCA Oaks) in top-level fillies’ contests in those pre-Breeders’ Cup days. No wonder a major Oaks trial is named in her honour at Gulfstream Park.

2007 RAGS TO RICHES

A horrible muddy track was no barrier to Michael Tabor’s filly as she slammed her Oaks rivals to win by more than four lengths. Next time out she was even better, beating subsequent Horse of the Year Curlin in an unforgettable Belmont before injury brought a premature end to her career. “She will go down in the history books as one of the best fillies ever to run,” said trainer Todd Pletcher.

2009 RACHEL ALEXANDRA

Superstar filly totally overwhelmed her rivals for a record winning margin of 20¼ lengths that left many people wondering what she’d have done if she’d been allowed to take her chance against the males 24 hours later. They probably had their answer two weeks later when she beat Derby victor Mine That Bird in the Preakness Stakes en route to a historic unblemished season featuring eight victories from eight starts, enough to earn her a deserved vote as Horse of the Year.

2010 BLIND LUCK

An absolute thriller in which the late-running favourite came from last, as was her customary modus operandi, was all out to get up in a dramatic last-gasp success over Evening Jewel. Pretty in pink, indeed – though to the naked eye, you could not separate the principals at the wire.

2012 BELIEVE YOU CAN

A historic victory as Rosie Napravnik became the first female jockey to win America’s senior race for fillies after a driving finish on Believe You Can. Rosie enjoyed it so so much she won it again two years later on Untapable, aboard whom she also won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

2018 MONOMOY GIRL

‘Dazzling’, as per the Churchill race caller, might have been a bit of an exaggeration but Monomoy Girl, trained by local boy Brad Cox, showed the heart of a champion to hold off Wonder Gadot 12 months ago. She was a champion, too, as she went on to demonstrate in a championship season featuring five Grade 1 wins altogether culminating in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. And just look at those packed stands!


Nicholas Godfrey on the Kentucky Oaks
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