Have you seen the field that has assembled for Friday’s running of the $1.25 million Grade 1 Longines Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs? Most folks are talking about the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, and understandably so – the Derby has drawn an impressive group of horses. But the Kentucky Oaks is shaping up to be every bit as competitive.
Case in point? The Kentucky Oaks has drawn 15 entries – 14 in the main body of the field, plus one also-eligible. No fewer than 10 have won at the graded/group stakes level, while two others are stakes winners and the remaining three have placed at the graded level. Sorting out this remarkably deep field of 3-year-old fillies won’t be easy.
Six short weeks ago, #7 Echo Zulu (4-1) was shaping up as clear favorite to win the Kentucky Oaks. The daughter of Gun Runner went unbeaten and unchallenged in four starts last year, rattling off Grade 1 wins in the Spinaway Stakes, Frizette Stakes, and NetJets Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies to earn champion 2-year-old filly honors at the Eclipse Awards.
But Echo Zulu’s 2022 debut didn’t go quite as bettors expected. Favored at odds of 1-10 to win the 1 1/16-mile Grade 2 Twinspires.com Fair Grounds Oaks, Echo Zulu led all the way through comfortable pace fractions but had to dig deep late to hold off #3 Hidden Connection (20-1) by a nose. The 90 Brisnet Speed rating Echo Zulu received was lower than the figures in the 96-103 range she posted at age 2.
The question is, was Echo Zulu short of peak fitness in her first run of the season? Or has she lost the talent advantage she held as a juvenile? And can she bounce back with a stronger effort in the Kentucky Oaks, or is Echo Zulu vulnerable?
Rather than assume Echo Zulu will recapture her best form against a tough field in the Kentucky Oaks, we’ll lean toward a trio of fillies who have displayed stronger form this season. For starters, there’s morning line favorite #4 Nest (5-2), who has won four straight stakes on the Road to the Kentucky Oaks. She was especially impressive in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 1 Central Bank Ashland Stakes at Keeneland last month, settling in fourth place behind a slow pace before powering clear down the homestretch to win by 8 ¼ lengths.
This effort produced a strong 98 Brisnet Speed rating, and Nest is eligible to keep improving with distance and maturity. Her full-brother Idol won the 2021 Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap racing 1 ¼ miles at age 4, so stretching out over 1 1/8 miles in the Kentucky Oaks should only help Nest’s chances.
#10 Kathleen O. (7-2) also figures to relish the Kentucky Oaks distance. Conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, Kathleen O. is undefeated in four starts, including a trio of stakes. She’s stepped up her game with every start and made a great visual impression in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks five weeks ago, rallying boldly from behind a slow pace to draw off and dominate by 2 ¾ lengths with a 97 Brisnet Speed rating. If Kathleen O. gets a faster pace to work with on Friday, watch out – she’ll be tough to hold off down the lane.
#1 Secret Oath (6-1) is the other filly we must strongly respect. After dominating the Martha Washington Stakes and Grade 3 Honeybee Stakes on the Road to the Kentucky Oaks (earning a 97 Brisnet Speed rating in the latter race), Secret Oath squared off against males in the 1 1/8-mile Grade 1 Arkansas Derby and ran deceptively well in defeat. A troubled start, an early rally, and a wide trip combined to leave Secret Oath in third place, but she was only beaten 3 ½ lengths and might have finished much closer with a clean journey.
So how can we take all of these opinions and combine them into a Kentucky Oaks wagering strategy? We’ll start by counting on Nest to finish either first or second. We’ll play Kathleen O. and Secret Oath on top of some tickets as backup, then add the improving Grade 3 Gazelle Stakes winner #2 Nostalgic (15-1) to the mix for second and third place.
Here are two wagering strategies to consider, depending on your preferred budget. One emphasizes exactas, while the other adds trifectas into the mix for a shot at a bigger payoff.
Wagering Strategy on a $20 Budget
$4 Exacta: 4 with 1,2,10 ($12)
What to say at the betting window: Churchill Downs, 11th race, $4 exacta 4 with 1,2,10
$4 Exacta: 1,10 with 4 ($8)
What to say at the betting window: Churchill Downs, 11th race, $4 exacta 1,10 with 4
Wagering Strategy on a $50 Budget
$6 Exacta: 4 with 1,2,10 ($18)
What to say at the betting window: Churchill Downs, 11th race, $6 exacta 4 with 1,2,10
$6 Exacta: 1,10 with 4 ($12)
What to say at the betting window: Churchill Downs, 11th race, $6 exacta 1,10 with 4
$2 Trifecta: 4 with 1,2,10 with 1,2,10 ($12)
What to say at the betting window: Churchill Downs, 11th race, $2 trifecta 4 with 1,2,10 with 1,2,10
$2 Trifecta: 1,2,10 with 4 with 1,2,10 ($8)
What to say at the betting window: Churchill Downs, 11th race, $2 trifecta 1,10 with 4 with 1,2,10
Good luck, and enjoy the race!