The Kentucky Derby is the king of all races for the history, the glamour, and the thrilling challenge of handicapping it every year. From a pure race consistency and quality level, though, Friday's Kentucky Oaks often outshines Saturday's big event. The Oaks is the highlight of Friday's card and the second-biggest race of the weekend at Churchill Downs. It is the equivalent of the Derby in that only three year olds can run, but it is exclusively for fillies - female horses - while the Derby is open to fillies but run almost exclusively by males. It also differs in that only 14 horses can enter instead of the 20 of the Derby. That makes things less chaotic and has a lot to do with why this race is less confusing to deal with a lot of years.
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Before we get to our Kentucky Oaks preview, we have to touch on an important and frustrating fact. For the second straight year the filly that is not only the best in her class but arguably the best three year old in training is not in the race due to injury. And both are from the barn of trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Last year it was the spectacular Songbird, and this year it is Unique Bella. Both would have been prohibitive favorites who would have been very tough to beat. Their absences massively changed the complexion of the races - and dimmed excitement for them.
Another factor to consider this year is the forecast. Louisville is set to see heavy rain Thursday night and light rain through the day on Friday. I don't expect the track to be sloppy, but there could be some mud. That factors in for my long shot pick here.
The oddsmakers got this right this year by my eye - the top four horses are the clear class. We'll look at those four and a long shot pick.
Paradise Woods, Flavien Prat (5/2): With Unique Bella on the sidelines, Paradise Woods emerged as the star out of California. She went into the Santa Anita Oaks as the 8/1 third choice in the seven-horse field and won it by a head short of 12 lengths. It was ridiculously dominating. I'm not entirely on the bandwagon, though. That race was her stakes debut and only her third race overall. She tried a maiden race for the first time on Jan. 26 and broke her maiden second time out. This is a whole lot to ask from a filly this soon, and I don't know that she has handled enough adversity to deal with a field this big in front of a crowd like this. I like here a lot obviously - her breeding is strong, Flavien Prat is a beast, and Richard Mandella knows his stuff. I certainly wouldn't want to take anything less than this morning line price, though, and I suspect we'll see her fall.
Miss Sky Warrior, Paco Lopez (9/2): After finishing fourth in her debut, this filly has reeled off five straight wins, with the last four in graded stakes. Impressive. Even more impressive if that she outdid Paradise Woods and won a race by 3 lengths. One small problem, though - in three New York stakes and the Davona Dale at Gulfstream she managed to avoid beating any horses I really like. I think she's a very nice filly, but backing her here requires a leap of faith because despite her record she's taking a step up in class. Like Paradise Woods, I wouldn't want to go any lower than this morning line.
Farrell, Channing Hill (5/1): This is my top pick in the race at this point. I love her breeding - in general and if the track comes up wet. She's won four straight and has done so against better company than Miss Sky Warrior. The first of those wins was around two turns at Churchill Downs, and she has three other starts and another win over this same track. We know she likes the Oaks surface and will be comfortable in Louisville. The extra distance should suit her, and she seems only to be getting better. Jockey Channing Hill should be motivated, too - he is the son in law of trainer Wayne Catalano, so if he doesn't win he'll hear about it at family dinners for years to come.
Abel Tasman, Mike Smith (5/1): I almost blindly back both Bob Baffert and Mike Smith in big races, so this filly is tough to pass on. Two things make me uneasy, though. First, she was second by those 12 lengths behind Paradise Woods last time out, so I'm not 100 percent convinced she is good enough here. Second, the connections have put her in blinkers (those cups that go around her eyes so she can't be distracted by what's beside or behind her) for the first time for this race. That's a significant change, and doing it for a race like this is a sign of more panic than I like in my runners.
Mopotism, Mario Gutierrez (20/1): I detest pretty much everything about Doug O'Neill, so picking one of his horses as a long shot must mean I like what I see - selectively, anyway. She broke her maiden on a wet track and has a very strong off-track pedigree. She got smoked by Paradise Woods and Abel Tasman in the Santa Anita Oaks, but if the track comes up her way this time she could easily be a part of the trifecta at a fat price.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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