Fresh off a purse increase to $1.25 million, the 2019 Kentucky Oaks maintains its place as the premier race for 3-year-old fillies in the United States. While its male counterpart, the Kentucky Derby receives most of the attention, I always like to give the fillies their due. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the top early contenders for the big race contested at Churchill Downs on the first Friday of May …
1) Bellafina (Quality Road–Akron Moon, by Malibu Moon) – Out of the gate early in 2019, this Simon Callaghan-trained filly was impressive enough in her seasonal debut to take the top spot on my list away from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner. Bellafina actually went favored in the BC, but did not bring her “A” game. In California, though, she’s been absolutely dominant, winning the Sorrento, Del Mar Debutante, and Chandelier in succession at two, before rebounding from her fourth-place finish in the Juvenile Fillies with an overpowering victory in the Santa Ynez. As of today, I see her as the top young dirt filly in the land, but she will have to prove that she can get it done away from Southern California.
2) Jaywalk (Cross Traffic–Lady Pewitt, by Orientate) – A decisive win in the Breeders’ Cup should be enough to win her an Eclipse Award, but was just a hair away from landing her on the #1 spot in my first Top 10 for the Kentucky Oaks. Trained by John Servis, the $190,000 yearling purchase, by a first-crop sire, needed her first start, when second at Monmouth Park, but ever since, she has been outstanding. Her victories include a maiden score at Parx and a minor stakes at Laurel Park, before entering prime time. In both the Grade 1 Frizette and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, the speedy young filly controlled the race early on, before cruising to victory down the lane. After a brief freshening, she just got back on the worktab in South Florida.
3) Chasing Yesterday (Tapit–Littleprincessemma, by Yankee Gentleman) – If not for a hiccup at Saratoga, this half-sister to the Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah, would be perfect. Perhaps that early trip East for the Grade 1 Spinaway was a bit too early for the much talked about filly, but just like the top one on this list, she will need to prove it away from Southern California. Already a three-time stakes winner, she looked better than ever with a determined rally to get up in the Grade 1 Starlet Stakes in what was her first try at a route of ground. She continues to impress in the mornings, and looks like a strong #2 right now on the West Coast.
4) Restless Rider (Distorted Humor–Silky Serenade, by Unbridled’s Song) – A Grade 1 winner in Kentucky, this Kenny McPeek conditioned miss was a model of consistency at two. A sharp winner in her first two starts, including a runaway in the Debutante Stakes at Churchill Downs, the gray filly then finished second-first-second in three straight Grade 1 attempts, including a runner-up finish behind Jaywalk in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. Her final race of the year was a bit of a disappointment, running second in the Golden Rod, but overall, she did enough to be considered one of the top juvenile fillies in the country, and one with considerable experience over the Churchill Downs main track.
5) Feedback (Violence–Honest Answer, by Tale of the Cat) – This Chad Brown charge has only run but once, but she made quite an impression in that maiden score at Saratoga. The $85,000 weanling purchase ran off by eight lengths that August afternoon, but has not made it back to the track since. The good news is she’s been working steadily at Palm Meadows in South Florida and looks to be nearing a long anticipated return to the races.
6) Positive Spirit (Pioneerof The Nile–Above Perfection, by In Excess) – A little better each and every start, this Rodolphe Brisset-trained filly turned in a strong performance in her fourth and final appearance of 2018, winning Aqueduct’s Grade 2 Demoiselle Stakes by a pole. In her previous three starts, she finished third-second-first in a trio of maiden special weight races at Saratoga, Keeneland, and Churchill Downs respectively. Not only is she well traveled, but it certainly appears that the 9 furlong trip of the Kentucky Oaks will be well within her wheelhouse.
7) Anuket (Pioneerof The Nile–Rashnaa, by Tapit) – The second filly trained by Bob Baffert to make the list, after Chasing Yesterday, she did not make her debut until December 30. She was promptly bet down to 9-10 for that debut and did not disappoint her many backers with a stylish win going 6 furlongs at Santa Anita. Juddmonte Farms plunked down $575,000 to get this one as a yearling, and she has looked the part in the mornings, including another sharp workout since her debut win two weeks ago.
8) Liora (Candy Ride–Giant Mover, by Giant’s Causeway) – It took a few races for this half-sister to Family Tree to get going, but after winning her third start for trainer Wayne Catalano, she made a very smooth transition to graded stakes racing with a game, upset victory over Restless Rider by a nose in the Golden Rod Stakes at Churchill Downs. Bred to be a good one, look for her to get much more support next Saturday when she makes her seasonal debut against six others in the Silverbulletday Stakes at Fair Grounds.
9) Serengeti Empress (Alternation–Haversham, by Bernardini) – In order to have her in this Top 10, I was willing to forgive her to an extent for a poor performance while finishing way back in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. Before that disappointing result, the daughter of Alternation had been very impressive in winning back-to-back stakes races at Ellis Park and Churchill Downs by huge margins in her third and fourth career starts. Certainly the class may have gotten her last time, but I still think there is more there than what we saw at the World Championships.
10) Enaya Alrabb (Uncle Mo–Lotta Rhythm, by Rhythm) – After a ho-hum debut performance at Del Mar, the daughter of Uncle Mo has improved with each start for trainer Doug O’Neill. In her second start, she showed toughness up the rail to score in a one mile maiden event, and then quickly graduated to stakes racing. That stakes debut came in the Grade 1 Starlet Stakes at Los Alamitos, where she gave Chasing Yesterday everything she wanted before losing the photo by a head. She has worked well since, back at Santa Anita.
Photo of Bellafina courtesy of Benoit Photos