While the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve is understandably dominating the attention of handicappers these days, we would be remiss for failing to recognize the competitive nature of Friday’s $1.25 million, Grade 1 Longines Kentucky Oaks.
The 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-old fillies is an exciting event in its own right … and it might actually be a more intriguing betting race than the Kentucky Derby.
Nine fillies have been entered in the Kentucky Oaks, with #5 Gamine and #1 Swiss Skydiver looming as the overwhelming favorites. Both fillies have been fantastic this year, and their showdown at Churchill Downs ranks as one of the highlights of the week.
Swiss Skydiver has taken the more traditional route to the Kentucky Oaks — or at least, as traditional a route as can be followed in a racing year restructured due to COVID-19. Trained by Kenny McPeek, the speedy daughter of Daredevil dominated Grade 2 Fasig-Tipton Gulfstream Park Oaks, Grade 3 Fantasy Stakes, and Grade 2 Santa Anita Oaks during the spring before squaring off against males in the Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Even while facing tough company, Swiss Skydiver ran a huge race to finish second behind Art Collector, who almost certainly would have been the second choice in the Derby had he not been removed from consideration Sept. 1 with a minor foot issue.
Showing no signs of wear from her busy campaign, Swiss Skydiver bounced right back in Saratoga’s Grade 1 Alabama Stakes racing 1 1/4 miles against fellow fillies, pressing the pace before drawing clear with authority to win by 3 1/2 lengths while geared down late. It was a strong effort on the speed-figure scales, producing a 102 Beyer Speed Figure, a 109 Brisnet Speed rating, and a 106 Equibase Speed Figure.
With such a decorated resume, Swiss Skydiver would normally rank as an overwhelming favorite to win the Kentucky Oaks. But 2020 has been anything but a normal year, and there’s a chance Swiss Skydiver won’t be favored at all in the Kentucky Oaks. The postponement of the race from May 1 to Sept. 4 has allowed Gamine to emerge as a formidable challenger for three-time Kentucky Oaks-winning trainer Bob Baffert.
A daughter of Into Mischief, Gamine has been sensational since her Mar. 7 debut at Santa Anita, crossing the finish line first in all four of her starts. She was extraordinary in the Grade 1 Acorn Stakes on June 20 at Belmont, pulling clear with unprecedented authority to dominate by 18 3/4 lengths. Her final time of 1:32.55 shattered the stakes record, missed the 52-year-old American record by less than two-fifths of a second, and produced huge speed figures of 110 (Beyer), 109 (Brisnet), and 117 (Equibase).
Gamine proved her blowout victory wasn’t a fluke by returning to win the Grade 1 Longines Test Stakes sprinting seven-eighths of a mile at Saratoga. Dueling for command with classy graded stakes winner Venetian Harbor proved to be no obstacle, as Gamine kicked clear easily down the homestretch to win by seven lengths in 1:20.83 (missing a 42-year-old track record by 43 hundredths of a second), earning a 108 Beyer, 109 Brisnet speed rating, and 111 Equibase Speed Figure.
Stretching out over 1 1/8 miles in the Kentucky Oaks will be a new obstacle for Gamine, but her powerful finishes running shorter suggest she’s up to the task. Certainly, she negotiated 1 1/16 miles just fine in a May 2 allowance race at Oaklawn Park, finishing a neck in front of future Grade 1 Central Bank Ashland Stakes winner #4 Speech. With Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez in the saddle, Gamine will have every chance to nab a third straight Grade 1 win in the historic Kentucky Oaks.
But here’s the problem — both Swiss Skydiver and Gamine share the same running style. Gamine is a pure front-runner who has never been headed, and while Swiss Skydiver has shown the ability to track the pace, she’s never far out of contention and typically pounces to the front before long. You know Swiss Skydiver won’t just settle back and let Gamine romp along in uncontested fashion — she’ll have to challenge her key rival sooner rather than later to prevent Gamine from escaping with an easy pace.
In short, a speed duel could be in the offing. And while it’s possible Swiss Skydiver and Gamine are so talented that they’ll survive an intense pace and run 1-2 all the way around, there’s also a possibility one could crack under the pressure. And that’s where Speech enters the equation as an intriguing contender.
An improving daughter of Mr Speaker, Speech hasn’t finished out of the top three in seven starts. During the spring, she knocked heads with both Gamine and Swiss Skydiver and performed admirably each time. After rallying to cross the finish line a neck behind Gamine in the above-mentioned Oaklawn allowance race, Speech stepped up in class for the Santa Anita Oaks and gamely chased Swiss Skydiver down the lane to finish second by four lengths.
But Speech took a clear step forward in the 1 1/16-mile Ashland Stakes at Keeneland. After tracking quarter-mile fractions of :24.04, :47.14, and 1:10.44 set by Venetian Harbor, Speech rallied decisively in the homestretch, pulling clear to win by three lengths in the track-record time of 1:41.26.
This performance earned Speech a career-best 104 Brisnet Speed rating, and while she’s still technically slower on paper than the favorites, Speech could certainly take another step forward in the Kentucky Oaks. She’s training strongly and figures to sit a picture-perfect trip stalking the pacesetters. If a speed duel unfolds and one of the favorites falters, Speech figures to be the beneficiary.
So how should we bet the Kentucky Oaks? It will be tricky to make a profit playing both Swiss Skydiver and Gamine on top, so let’s favor Gamine, who seems more likely to enjoy a relaxed journey after drawing outside her main rival. Underneath, we’ll use Speech in equal strength with Swiss Skydiver while also tossing Grade 3 Indiana Oaks winner #7 Shedaresthedevil into the mix for third place.
Wagering Strategy on a $25 Budget
$10 trifecta: 5 with 1,4 with 1,4 ($20)
What to say at the betting window: Churchill Downs, 12th race, $10 trifecta, 5 with 1,4 with 1,4
$2.50 trifecta: 5 with 1,4 with 7 ($5)
What to say at the betting window: Churchill Downs, 12th race, $2.50 trifecta, 5 with 1,4 with 7
Good luck, and enjoy the race!