Some of the best female racehorses in this era of girl power have captured the Kentucky Oaks (GI) in recent years. In 2007, Rags to Riches overwhelmed her rivals in the Kentucky Derby's (GI) sister race, which served as a prelude to her historic Belmont Stakes (GI) victory. Rachel Alexandra annihilated the Oaks field in 2009, conquering the race by 20 1/4 lengths, as part of her Horse of the Year campaign. A year later, Blind Luck provided fans with a thrilling edition of the Oaks, rallying to win by a nose.
This year marked the 139th installment of the Kentucky Oaks, which presented one of the most competitive fields in memory. But it wasn’t a favorite that was bestowed the garland of lilies; it was a 38-1 longshot: Princess of Sylmar.
|Princess of Sylmar|
Photo by Brittlan Wall
But Princess of Sylmar soon let it be known that she is the type of horse that proves doubters wrong on a regular basis. In her second start, the chestnut filly demolished a maiden special weight at Penn National, crossing the wire an astounding 19 lengths ahead of her nearest rival. With her impressive triumph, it was on to Aqueduct in New York for the small chestnut filly.
Following a romp in an allowance optional claiming event, Princess of Sylmar entered stakes company. Her past two races – both of which she’d won in a breathtakingly easy manner – earned her respect in her black-type debut. She was sent off as the heavy favorite in her first two stakes races and lived up to her short odds, dominating the Busanda Stakes and the Busher Stakes at Aqueduct by a combined 14 ½ lengths.
The filly was riding a hot streak. She was proving herself to be a special filly, but as soon as she was beaten by Gulfstream Park shipper Close Hatches in the Gazelle Stakes (GII), a mass of people abandoned her bandwagon. A single loss had driven supporters away from her, allowing her to approach the Kentucky Oaks under the radar.
Her chances at taking home the “Lilies for the Fillies” seem to further diminish after her first work at Churchill Downs. The Todd Pletcher trainee appeared rather flat in her first breeze beneath the twin spires and less focus was put on her as race analysts paid more attention to the race’s favorites.
However, Princess of Sylmar rebounded in her second work over the track, breezing a half-mile in 49.20 seconds. She got over the track in a much flashier manner, suggesting that she was beginning to blossom. Still, few took notice.
When race day dawned, little attention remained on Princess of Sylmar, leading her to be sent off as the second-longest shot in the deep field of ten. Breaking from the sixth gate, Princess of Sylmar was involved in the wrestling match that occurred within the first few strides of the race, being squeezed by rivals and losing ground. She recovered quickly, but was left nearly eleven lengths behind the pacesetter, Midnight Lucky, by the end of the first quarter of a mile.
Finding a position just behind her favored stablemate, Dreaming of Julia, in ninth as the fillies entered the backstretch, Princess of Sylmar appeared very comfortable with Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith aboard as Midnight Lucky set brisk fractions in the vanguard. Gradually, Princess of Sylmar made up ground, advancing between horses down the backstretch as Smith piloted her closer to the lead.
Racing three paths off the rail as the field entered the far turn, Princess of Sylmar had upgraded to fourth by the time the horses reached the three-eighths marker. Smith guided her into an even wider position, beginning to ask the filly to begin her rally as the horses neared the quarter pole. As Eclipse Champion Two-Year-Old Filly and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (GI) victress Beholder stormed to the lead at the top of the stretch, Princess of Sylmar closed on the outside, steering around undefeated stablemate Unlimited Budget.
As the final furlong commenced, Princess of Sylmar found her best stride, drawing even with the frontrunners prior to surpassing Beholder within the final sixteenth, securing victory by a half-length as she switched leads at the finish. The filly had proved doubters wrong and achieved the impossible, taking on and defeating one of the toughest Oaks fields in history despite her long odds and peculiar path to Churchill Downs.
Princess of Sylmar’s Oaks win served as Mike Smith’s first triumph in the race and trainer Todd Pletcher’s third. Beholder, who had become worked up prior to the race and had even nearly fallen – dismounting jockey Garrett Gomez – in the post parade, performed valiantly to finish second in her attempt to become the first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner to capture the Oaks since Silverbulletday in 1999. Like Princess of Sylmar, the third- and fourth-place finishers – Unlimited Budget and Dreaming of Julia, respectively – were conditioned by Pletcher. Dreaming of Julia, also a victim of the vicious break, had received a very poor trip but made a gallant rally nonetheless.
There was very little focus on Princess of Sylmar prior to the Oaks, but at the culmination of the prestigious race, all attention was on the “fun-sized” filly. After the race, as Mike Smith was interviewed by NBC’s Donna Barton Brothers aboard Princess of Sylmar, he summarized the Kentucky Oaks winner perfectly, “She’s not very big, but she’s got a big heart.”
|Mike Smith celebrating aboard Princess of Sylmar|
Photo by Brittlan Wall