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Full speed ahead: Serengeti Empress wins the Oaks

By Ron Flatter  ( 

Ridden by José Ortiz, Serengeti Empress led the whole way and won Friday's Kentucky Oaks. (Churchill Downs photo)

Louisville, Kentucky


In a race full of speed on a track favoring speed, the Kentucky Oaks was won Friday by a speed filly that usually leads at every call of her victories.


Six weeks after a bleeding episode stopped her in the Fair Grounds Oaks, and six months after finishing seventh as the odds-on favorite here at Churchill Downs in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, Serengeti Empress (13-1) looked the picture of health, running off with a 1¾-length victory in the $1.25 million Grade 1 feature for 3-year-old fillies.


“The track has been speedy, but my plan was to go to the lead even if the track was slow,” winning jockey José Ortiz said. “I think that’s the best path for her. She’s happy there, and that was my Plan A.”

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Of her four victories that include last year’s Grade 2 Pocahontas by 19½ lengths and this year’s Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra by 4½, Serengeti Empress led from gate to wire in three of them, the only exception being in her debut.


Liora (38-1) came on from mid-pack to finish second, leaving trainer Wayne Catalano to say “we just got outrun.”


Third-place pace chaser Lady Apple (10-1) finished 7¼ lengths behind. Champagne Anyone (8-1) closed to fourth place. Betting favorite Bellafina (9-5) never improved from mid-pack on her way to a disappointing fifth.


“It was the distance that did her in,” Bellafina’s trainer Simon Callaghan said. “I think she wants to run in one-turn races.” We’ll give her a break now and refocus on one-turn races.”


A winning $2 exacta ticket paid $878.40, the 50-cent trifecta $3,510.90 and the $1 superfecta $67,087.40.


Named in part for a lyric in the Toto song “Africa,” Serengeti Empress went to the lead and never showed any signs that she might come back to the pack. Her fractions were 23.25, 46.65 and 1:11.26 through the first three-quarters of a mile. Her winning time was 1:50.17, no better than 22nd fastest of the 60 runnings of the Oaks at 1⅛ miles. But even though she slowed late, Serengeti Empress still had more left in her tank than her rivals.


“She made the lead out of the gate down the back side just like in the Pocahontas last year as a 2-year-old right here on this track,” winning trainer Tom Amoss said. “The ears tell the tale.”


In telling his story at the post-race news conference, Amoss wiggled his index fingers parallel to each other to describe what Serengeti Empress’s ears were doing early in the race.


“When the ears are doing this, you know you’ve got something underneath you,” he said. “ I wasn’t concerned about how fast she was going. I knew José had horse, and that was sweet. Very sweet.”


What Amoss briefly thought that he had this spring, though, was a troubled horse that was vanned off after walking across the finish line last on March 23 in the Fair Grounds Oaks. She bled through her nostrils that day, but an endoscopy revealed clear lungs.


“Horses talk,” Amoss said. “As she talked to me that morning, she said ‘I’m going to be OK.’ When she came back around and looked as good as she did, I went back to the barn, and I changed my mind, and I took it day to day from there.”


Workouts since for Serengeti Empress have been followed by more rigorous examinations that were quickly reported at every step by the Amoss stable on social media. Everything kept coming back clean, so the Oaks was never out of the picture for owner Joel Politi.


“She’s some athlete,” said Politi, who spent $70,000 in the fall of 2017 to buy Serengeti Empress at a yearling sale at Keeneland, Kentucky. With about $705,000 in first-place money from the Oaks, the filly sired by Alternation has raised her career earnings to more than $829,000.


There was a scare early in the race when Positive Spirit tumbled after clipping hooves with Jaywalk in the opening strides of the race in front of the grandstand and the announced crowd of 105,719. But she bounced back onto her feet quickly as did jockey Manny Franco. Neither suffered much more than some scrapes and bruises.


Franco rides Spinoff in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. That race is unlikely to be run under similar conditions to the Oaks, which was raced on a track that had fully dried and tightened after a drenching rain before Friday’s first race. Conversely, up to a half-inch of rain is forecast to fall on a Saturday full of showers. The National Weather Service put the chance of precipitation at 70 percent.


Either way, though, the speed bias may be in play – whether it is from track grooming or slop. Serengeti Empress, then, may be an example for pace-setting Derby horses – and Derby bettors – to follow.


Kentucky Derby notes and opinions


It will end up filling with an estimated $150 million. So far a modest $859,534 came into the win pool by 7:45 p.m. EDT on the first day of betting here on Saturday’s Kentucky Derby with the early money favoring Maximum Security (9-2), a potential pace-setter on a track that favored speed Friday. Following are the odds at that time with the Churchill Downs pari-mutuels listed first, followed by the futures odds at the Westgate Las Vegas:


1. War Of Will 18-1 18-1

2. Tax 38-1 30-1

3. By My Standards 14-1 20-1

4. Gray Magician 28-1 50-1

5. Improbable 5-1 5-1

6. Vekoma 22-1 18-1

7. Maximum Security 9-2 6-1

8. Tacitus 5-1 6-1

9. Plus Que Parfait 50-1 80-1

10. Cutting Humor 22-1 30-1

13. Code Of Honor 13-1 12-1

14. Win Win Win 14-1 18-1

15. Master Fencer 50-1 80-1

16. Game Winner 6-1 7-2

17. Roadster 9-1 5-1

18. Long Range Toddy 44-1 30-1

19. Spinoff 54-1 25-1

20. Country House 72-1 30-1

21. Bodexpress 99-1 40-1


Omaha Beach had successful throat surgery Friday morning to repair an entrapped epiglottis, according to the Fox Hill Farm page on Facebook. “The surgery went well and quick,” the post said. “Thank you Dr. (Rolf) Embertson and the great team at Rood & Riddle.” The favorite in the Kentucky Derby futures before he was scratched suddenly Wednesday afternoon, Omaha Beach is being aimed by trainer Richard Mandella for a return to the track this summer.


McKinzie (7-10) showed that it was not necessarily a dislike for Churchill Downs that caused him to finish 12th in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. Trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Mike Smith, the 4-year-old Street Sense colt toyed with the rest of the field before running off to a 4¾-length win in the $400,000 Grade 2 Alysheba over 1 1/16 miles on the “good” main track. McKinzie was clocked at 1:41.10 for his first win of 2019. He had finished a close second in the San Pasqual and the Santa Anita Handicap, each time as an odds-on favorite.


The runner-up to Stormy Liberal here in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, World Of Trouble (1-5) led the whole way, extending to a 3¾-length victory in the $250,000 Grade 2 Turf Sprint over 5½ furlongs of firm grass. Trained by Jason Servis, the 4-year-old colt was ridden for the second time in a row by Manny Franco. When they were together last month, World Of Trouble won the Grade 1 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct.


After becoming a horse to watch in 2019 with her win here in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, Newspaperofrecord (1-5) was overtaken in the stretch and upset by Concrete Rose (5-1) in Friday’s $250,000 Grade 3 Edgewood. Trained by Rusty Arnold and ridden by Julien Leparoux, Concrete Rose’s only loss was in that Breeders’ Cup race. Her 3¾-length victory was clocked at 1:43.34 over 1 1/16 miles of turf rated good.


Ron Flatter’s racing column from Louisville is posted daily at during Kentucky Derby week. You may also hear a horseplayers pop-up edition of the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Wednesday at with the focus on handicapping all 19 horses in the Kentucky Derby. Vinny Magliulo, Dave Tuley and Patrick McQuiggan are joined by DraftKings’ Johnny Avello. Friday morning’s regularly scheduled RFRP features By My Standards’s trainer Bret Calhoun and XBTV’s Zoe Cadman. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available through Apple, Google and Stitcher.

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