Pletcher Confident in Oaks Contender Rachel’s Valentina

Rachel’s Valentina gallops at Churchill Downs in preparation for the Oaks. Eclipse Sportswire photo.

LOUISVILLERachel’s Valentina was seemingly born to win the $1-million Kentucky Oaks on Friday at Churchill Downs.

Her dam, Rachel Alexandra, roared off by 20 ¼ lengths in the 2009 Oaks. For an encore, she left behind the boys in the Preakness, Haskell Invitational and Woodward Stakes. Her classy sire, Bernardini, also prevailed in the 2006 Preakness.

Then again, the formula of breeding the best to the best to obtain the best is far from infallible. In the case of Rachel’s Valentina, a tepid 7-2 favorite for an Oaks thrown wide open by the April 17 withdrawal of ailing 2-year-old filly champion Songbird, the certainty is that she was born to adversity.

She never got to know her famous mother because Rachel Alexandra developed complications during the delivery that required surgery. Although her dam [mother] returned to health, Rachel’s Valentina was raised by a nurse mare.

Once the youngster was ready to hit the racetrack, it did not take long for her regal bloodlines to show.

“There was no mystery from the beginning,” said Todd Pletcher, her trainer. “She was just very good in everything she did. She caught on to everything very quickly.”

Rachel’s Valentina made an impressive debut for Stonestreet Stables last August at New York’s Saratoga Race Course, rallying four wide to take a six-furlong contest. She stepped up to Grade 1 competition in only her second start and overcame a slow beginning to take the Spinaway last September before placing second to Songbird in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Rachel's Valentina winning the Spinaway Stakes. Eclipse Sportswire photo.

Pletcher went from hoping he had something special to feeling sure he did.

“There have been plenty of well-bred horses who can’t run,” he said. “With her pedigree, you have high hopes, high expectations, but you still need to see them do it. It was great to see it early on.”

After the Breeders’ Cup, Rachel’s Valentina was rewarded with a winter vacation before she resumed training in January with the Oaks as her primary target.

 “When she came in, everything was very methodical. There were no setbacks,” Pletcher said. “We didn’t have time for two (preps), so we wanted to have her well-prepared for the one.”

Rachel’s Valentina showed she was well-equipped for the April 9 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland Race Course with her performance but a late surge by 30-1 Weep No More nailed her by a neck. It was a valiant effort, but so taxing that it was worrisome.

“When you watch a race like that and you see one dig down a couple of times and give you that extra effort off a layoff, your first concern is ‘I hope it didn’t knock her out,’ “ Pletcher said. “She’s come back with two excellent breezes, she had an excellent breeze over the track, she’s gained a bit of weight. The signs we are looking for are very encouraging.”

Rachel’s Valentina will break from post 11 as part of a full 14-horse field in the 1 1/8-mile Oaks for John Velazquez, her regular rider. Pletcher is chasing his fourth Oaks victory after successes with Ashado (2004), Rags to Riches (2007) and Princess of Sylmar (2013).

Ashado had won the Spinaway. Rags to Riches also reached the Oaks as a Grade 1 winner. Princess of Sylmar had shown signs of possessing Grade 1 quality without breaking through.

Pletcher is known for choosing his words carefully and to downplay his prospects. So, for him, it was somewhat bold when he did not hesitate to place Rachel’s Valentina in the company of his trio of Oaks champions.

“This filly gives us a lot of the same good signs that those fillies did,” he said.

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