LAS VEGAS--Part of this weekend’s Kentucky Derby betting puzzle fell into place Tuesday morning at Churchill Downs in Louisville, where a lightly raced filly was installed as the morning-line favorite for Friday’s 143rd Kentucky Oaks.
After running away to an 11-length victory last month in the Santa Anita Derby, front-running Paradise Woods drew post position 4 in the field of 14. She also commanded a lot of respect from track handicapper Mike Battaglia. He predicted Paradise Woods would end up the 5-to-2 favorite, even though it will be only her fourth race.
“She’s come a long way fast,” said trainer Richard Mandella, who missed out on a Kentucky Oaks win by a half-length four years ago when Beholder lost to Princess Of Sylmar. “Having been here before and left with my tail between my legs, I know that it’s an obstacle to overcome the crowd here with an inexperienced filly. But we’re going to do the best we can.”
Like Paradise Woods, Gazelle Stakes winner Miss Sky Warrior (gate 10, 9-to-2) won by double digits in her last prep, running away to a 13-length victory in the Gazelle Stakes at Aqueduct for her fifth consecutive win. She and Fair Grounds Oaks winner Farrell (gate 7, 5-to-1), Santa Anita Oaks runner-up Abel Tasman (gate 13, 5-to-1) and Gulfstream Park Oaks winner Salty (gate 14, 6-to-1) figure to be the other short-priced fillies in the Oaks.
Friday’s $1 million race over 1 1/8 miles is the first leg of the Oaks-Derby double that has become a popular destination for bettors’ dollars. Because it involves twice as much study of the fields, the “will pays” coming out of the Oaks often serve as a better gauge of where smart money is headed the next day on the Derby.
If the morning-line forecast on the Oaks is correct, the public will be invested in a speed duel early between Paradise Woods, ridden by Flavien Prat, and Miss Sky Warrior, with jockey Paco López aboard for trainer Kelly Breen.
“She is naturally gifted with a lot of speed, so being in the 4 we’ll let her come out of there,” Mandella said of Paradise Woods. “If she’s on the lead that’s fine. If somebody else is crazy for it we’ll probably settle just off of it.”
“I’m going to go crazy for it, so take back,” Farrell’s trainer Wayne Catalano jokingly told Mandella.
Then Catalano was quick to point out that Farrell (accent on the first syllable) stayed just off the pace before taking the lead in the final turn in the Fair Grounds Oaks for her fourth straight win. “My filly can probably do whatever she wants,” he said. “She’s proved that the last race. So we’ll watch what Mr. Mandella does, and then we’ll go from there.”
If there is a candidate to try and catch tiring speed horses and steal the race, it may be Salty with jockey Joel Rosario. In just her third race Salty broke slowly, ran wide and then picked off half the field ahead of her to win last month’s Gulfstream Park Oaks.
“Our filly doesn’t have a lot of speed,” said Mark Casse, Salty’s trainer. “She’s going to be able to drop over and save a little ground. That post could have been harder on some of the other fillies. Not so much for us.”
Casse is also training presumptive favorite Classic Empire for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, which will be a more crowded affair with 19 rivals. While he did not want to talk about that race in reaction to the Oaks draw, Casse did confess to thinking aloud about it to his son – assistant trainer Norman Casse.
“When we drew 14, I said, ‘Well, if we got that in the Derby we’d be happy,” he said. “We’re going to take it.”
The Derby field will be drawn Wednesday at 11 a.m. EDT.
Following is the field for the Kentucky Oaks, which has a post time Friday of 6:12 p.m. EDT. Each of the 14 fillies will carry 121 pounds.