Kentucky Derby weekend gets one of the nation's most illustrious lead-ins with Friday's G1 Kentucky Oaks for the 3-year-old fillies. The 1-1/8 miles 'Run for the Lilies' will be Race 11 of 13 on a mega-card that includes 7 stakes. Two-day bets like the Oaks-Derby Double, the Oaks-Turf-Classic-Derby Pick 3 and an all-stakes Pick 6 add importance to what already shapes up as a great betting race this year.
G1 winners ECHO ZULU and NEST figure to battle for favoritism. KATHLEEN O., TURNERLOOSE and DESERT DAWN have G2 wins on their ledger. SECRET OATH, NOSTALGIC, HIDDEN CONNECTIO, YUUGIRI and SHAHAMA are G3 winners. This is a Who's Who of 3YO fillies from every corner of the US and beyond; the gang's all here.
With 14 fillies stretched in many cases to their longest career test, expect a strong pace led by YUUGIRI and ECHO ZULU, while HIDDEN CONNECTION has been headstrong in the morning and hints that she's going to be breathing fire. VENTI VALENTINE and TURNERLOOSE should be just off that trio in what projects to be a strong pace.
There's a Big-4 here in ECHO ZULU, NEST, SECRET OATH and KATHLEEN O. that, at various times, each has looked like she could be the division's leader. It's been a matter of timing, however. ECHO ZULU had first lease as the 2-year-old champion and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner. SECRET OATH stormed into consideration in January and February with dominant Oaklawn stakes wins. KATHLEEN O. made her case April 2 when blowing out the Gulfstream Park Oaks to stay unbeaten. And NEST got the last impression with an April 8 Ashland win at Keeneland that maybe trumped everything seen before it.
So where are they now, in terms of their best, could go a long way in determining who wears the lilies Friday. ECHO ZULU comes in off a modest victory in the Fair Grounds Oaks by her standards, albeit that prep has been a Kentucky Oaks beacon for a decade or more. SECRET OATH finished third with a poorly timed move in the Arkansas Derby vs. the boys and will change riders to Luis Saez in a big upgrade. KATHLEEN O. and NEST have trained well since their more recent victories and appear to be holding strong form. Of the quartet, it's the champion ECHO ZULU with the most cloud right now. NEST ran so huge in the Ashland, it may have been too big. I fear a chance of a regression off that effort, but a repeat of it would win this. That leaves KATHLEEN O. and SECRET OATH as the Big-4 pair I trust most Friday.
Most Certain Exotics Contender:
KATHLEEN O. got zero pace help in the Gulfstream Park Oaks and still finished with flair. She'll love how this table is set. The outside post is good for sleek, athletic physique.
Best Longshot Exotics Contender:
While Todd Pletcher's NEST gets all the attention, his new transfer from Dubai, SHAHAMA, has really impressed me in the mornings. She should be overlooked and useful in the exotics.
Sending it in ($100 bankroll):
$20 exacta key-box 10-KATHLEEN 0. with 1-SECRET OATH ,4-NEST ($80). $5 exacta part-wheel 10-KATHLEEN 0.,1-SECRET OATH ,4-NEST with 13-SHAHAMA ($15). $5 Oaks-Derby Double 10-KATHLEEN O. to 1-MO DONEGAL.