The first Saturday in May is the biggest day of the year in horse racing as the Kentucky Derby is run. People around the country that watch one horse race a year tune in to see the Run for the Roses.
But the party starts a day early at Churchill Downs with the running of the Kentucky Oaks, the female version of the Kentucky Derby. The Oaks is for 3-year-old fillies and is always run the Friday before the Derby.
Over the years, some of my biggest paydays have come in the Oaks. Last year we had Abel Tasman in the Oaks at 9-1 and it paid off when she came home with the win.
What happens this year? Let’s look at the field. There is rain in the forecast for the race and only about half the field have a race on an off-track. Most of have run well in the slop, but they are all young and inexperienced, so I tend to look past wet performances at this point.
There are two prohibitive favorites on the morning line and based on the past performances, it’s a justifiable line.
Monomy Girl, out of the Brad Cox barn and ridden by Florent Geroux is 2-1, while Bill Spawr’s Midnight Bisou – ridden by Mike Smith – checks in at 5-2.
Monomoy Girl has won five of six starts, with one second place finish. The last two starts were easy wins in the Grade II Rachel Alexandra in February at the Fair Grounds and the Grade I Ashland at Keeneland in early April. Also, in the last two starts, the horse had shown different styles, coming from last to first in the Rachel Alexandra and then wiring the field at Keeneland.
Midnight Bisou has three wins and two seconds in five starts, winning her last three starts, all graded races, all three at Santa Anita. The wins came in the Santa Ynez, Santa Ysabel and Santa Anita Oaks. There is also versatility in her running style, coming from well back to win the Oaks – her last start – to being able to sit right off the lead throughout the race in others.
What this means is no matter how the track is playing or where the two horses sit throughout the race, both should be in the mix when they are heading for home.
The key to the big ticket in the Oaks is to find that value horse, not only as part of your ticket, but one that could win the race as well. Given that there is not another horse in the race that is under 10-1, the possibilities abound!
I will start by looking at the rail horse – Sassy Sienna (15-1) – ridden by Gary Stevens and trained by Cox. The horse has only three wins in nine starts, but since Stevens took over four races ago, there is a pair of wins to go with a second and a third.
The last start was a win in the Grade III Fantasy at 11-1. Another runner that shows versatility in her running style, which given her rail draw is very important and she could be content to sit back out of the gate and let the race come to her.
Coach Rocks (12-1) is another intriguing entry for Dale Romans and Luis Saez. The horse did take seven starts to break, but when she did in February at Gulfstream, a light appeared to go off as she crushed the field by eight lengths. Poised for a possible bounce in her next start, she came back and won the Gulfstream Oaks by over a length. The maiden win was wire to wire, but the next start was a rally from back in the field.
Eskimo Kisses (15-1) has a pair of wins and four seconds in seven starts and is coming off a second-place finish to Monomoy Girl in the Ashland. The horse loves to come from off the pace and did so easily in the Ashland, but that day had little chance to run down the front-running winner.
Take Charge Paula (15-1) has done little wrong her last six starts for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. Jose Ortiz takes the mount on a horse that has three wins and three seconds in her last six runs, including a gutsy second-place finish at Gulfstream in the Oaks is her last start.
Rayya (12-1) is another to look at, especially if you are a fan of Mendelssohn in the Kentucky Derby. The filly was put in against the boys in the UAE Derby and finished second. Albeit it was 18 lengths behind Mendelssohn, but if you hold that apparently stunning performance in high regard, then you have to applaud the run by Rayya.
Bob Baffert is the trainer and Drayden Van Dyke gets the call.
Wonder Gadot (20-1) is the last I will look at here in the Oaks. The Mark Casse runner that is ridden by Johnny Velazquez is the definition of an under-achiever with only one win in her last five starts, that coming five starts ago, back in December.
She has run behind multiple horses entered here and has burned a lot of money in the process. But – and it’s a big but – if you’re are going to play vertical tickets, leaving Wonder Gadot off may cost you. Despite not winning in her last four starts, she has hit the board, running second twice and third twice in some solid races.
With a stalking style and breaking from the five-hole, Wonder Gadot figures to be perfectly placed.
My ticket: So, what do I play? I want value on my ticket, so my lone win bet will be on Sassy Sierra, a horse that should stay around 15-1 when they go to post. There has to be vertical plays as well, as that’s where the money figures to be, even if the two favorites hit the board. With 14 horses in the field, the exacta and trifecta both figure to play well. I will have both Midnight Bisou and Monomoy Girl on the ticket and will put them in a box with Sassy Sierra, Coach Rocks and Wonder Gadot. That’s a $20 wager on a $1 exacta and $30 on a .50 cent trifecta box.
By Dennis Miller