It was almost the race that never was.
After trainer Tom Amoss sent Serengeti Empress out in the March 23 Twinspires.com Fair Grounds Oaks at Fair Grounds, his heart was in his throat when his athletic daughter of Alternation was pulled up midway through the race and vanned off. Amoss was suddenly faced with the possibility that his plans to point the dark bay toward a start in the $1.25 million Longines Kentucky Oaks May 3 at Churchill Downs would no longer be plausible.
Taking a moment to reflect, Amoss decided to do the one thing that has served him time and time again since he began training more than 30 years ago: listen to his horse.
Six weeks later, Amoss crossed the track beneath the historic Twin Spires and embraced owner Joel Politi as he hoisted the trophy high — Serengeti Empress the definitive winner of the 145th running of the Oaks.
“All credit goes to Tom," Politi said. "I think Tom is the greatest trainer in the world and I'm ecstatic that he won this race. What we've been through emotionally in the last six weeks is a lot of things. For us, she's a really special horse.
“The first thing that we talked about repetitively was, the day after the [Fair Grounds] Oaks, Tom and I stood in the barn and said, ‘We’re not under any pressure to run in the Oaks.’ We were not going to run just to run. We took it day by day and she's an incredible athlete. She told us she was fine repetitively along the way and if she wasn't, both of us were very committed to not running.”
With confidence in his filly's ability to recover without incident, Amoss made a lucky mistake.
“When I got up here, I said to myself, ‘I’m reading all these comments that she's hurt.’ She was never hurt, but I finally decided one day that I was going to bring her out to the racetrack in early April after we'd just got here and take a film clip of her to put on social media. I had decided at that time that I did not think we would run in the Kentucky Oaks. But when we made that decision, I was concerned people would think she was still hurt from the Fair Grounds Oaks. So I told my exercise rider to back her up to the seven-eighths pole and then gallop her behind me so I could film her on my phone and then to pull her up at the half-mile point. I took the video and all of a sudden, she came around again and went an extra mile and when she entered the second mile it was fate. Horses talk and she talked to me that morning and said, ‘I’m going to be OK.’
"If he hadn't made that mistake that day, I was getting ready to call Joel and say, ‘Let's just leave the race alone.’ When she came back to the barn and looked as good as she did, I went back to the barn, changed my mind, and we took it day to day from there. She spoke to us that day when she worked. We treated her therapeutically just as we would treat her if she were going in the Kentucky Oaks. It was important to us that she worked well and didn't have (another) episode."
Serengeti Empress proved her battle-worthiness again on March 23, firing a bullet five furlongs over the Churchill main track in :58 1/5, the fastest of 30 at the distance. From that point on, Amoss knew he had made the right choice.
While she was not the favorite in Friday's field of 14, Amoss was confident Serengeti Empress would be able to hold her own.
Calling on his filly’s speed early, jockey Jose Ortiz angled Serengeti Empress inward toward the rail and established control. Setting fast fractions of :23.25 and :46.65 through the first half-mile, Amoss said he knew she was running to her potential.
“Down the backside when we put up a very fast opening half-mile, my wife turned to me and said, ‘That’s too quick,’ and I said, ‘Not for her it’s not.’ When my filly is good, she's really good.”
Serengeti Empress crossed the finish 1 3/4 lengths ahead of Liora in a final time of 1:50.17 for 1 1/8 miles over a track rated fast. Sent off at post-time odds of 13-1, Serengeti Empress returned $28, $14.80, and $9.60 on a $2 wager.
"Tom gave me a lot of confidence in her,” Ortiz said. “I had never been on her, and he told me, ‘Ride her like you own her.’ And that's what I did. I went out of there, I knew her best races are in the lead, and I just tried to get her comfortable. I don’t care if I was going a little bit too fast. As long as she was comfortable, I was comfortable with it.”
It was another 5 ½ lengths back to third-place finisher Lady Apple, followed by Champagne Anyone and favored Bellafina in fifth. Street Band, Chocolate Kisses, Motion Emotion, Jeltrin, Out for a Spin, Flor de la Mar, Restless Rider, Jaywalk, and Positive Spirit completed the order of finish.
Attempting to become the first 2-year-old champion to win the Kentucky Oaks since Silverbulletday in 1999, Jaywalk crossed the finish line sixth but was disqualified to 13th for taking the path of Positive Spirit and forcing the filly to go over heels.
Following Positive Spirit's fall, jockey Manny Franco walked off the track under his own power and the filly was caught by an outrider. She appeared to be in good order when she returned to the barn area.
“When I watched her today out of the gate it looked a lot like the Pocahontas last year,” Amoss said. “She made the lead out of the gate down the backside just like in the Pocahontas last year as a 2-year-old right here on this track. She went very, very quick but the ears tell the tale. When the ears are doing this (movement back and forth), you know you've got something underneath you.”
Serengeti Empress has won five of her eight career starts and earned $1,037,120. The Kentucky Oaks was the filly's third graded score. She took the Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill Downs at 2 and won her sophomore debut in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes Feb. 16 at Fair Grounds.
Bred in Kentucky by Tri Eques Bloodstock out of the Bernardini mare Havisham, Serengeti Empress was purchased by Politi for $70,000 from the consignment of Brookdale Sales to the 2017 Keeneland September yearling sale.
As for her unique moniker, Politi said all credit goes to his daughters.
“So I have four daughters, four lovely daughters," Politi said. "My number three daughter, Annie, latched onto the song “Africa” by Toto. She played it and killed it and sang it. We kind of embraced it, and we had just bought Serengeti Empress. So we went through the lyrics and in it, it says Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus over the Serengeti. So we named her Seregenti Empress.”
Friday's victory marked the first Kentucky Oaks win for Amoss, Ortiz, and Politi. Amoss has saddled only two prior starters in the Oaks. The first was Venus Valentine in 2016 who finished 12th after lagging in the field and failing to rally. The second was Chocolate Martini in 2018, who ran fifth.
For Amoss, it all comes down to three decades of hard work, one talented filly, and the decision to let the horse tell the trainer when she's ready to run.
“I have never won a race this big in my entire life," Amoss said, "and I've been training since 1987. I've won a lot of races but none like this. And I've heard it said when it happens, it's just a different experience. (Serengeti Empress) is a great athlete and I'm so blessed to have her.”