It might be time again for Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort officials to rattle cages in Kentucky regarding graded races.
The American Graded Stakes Committee, a service of Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, came in for local lampooning three decades back when it hung a Grade 2 stamp on the Apple Blossom Handicap. Stunningly, the race was dropped from Grade 1 status in a decade that stars such as Bayakoa, Lady's Secret and Paseana competed. Oaklawn, coming into its own nationally, took a dim view of that decision.
Rather than acknowledge the committee's perceived snub, the track refused to recognize any of its ratings. The late Chick Lang Jr., operations director at the time, said in response that "all of our races are Grade A," while the track assailed the decision (tongue firmly in cheek) in trade publications.
The committee, although perhaps not publicly acknowledging the flak that resulted, restored the Apple Blossom to Grade 1, where it remains today in the track's stakes schedule.
Oaklawn, if it wishes, could voice similar concerns about the Fantasy Stakes. How does Grade 3 status come to a race that has produced the Kentucky Oaks winner two of the last three years, a Preakness winner included, and in consecutive years two decades back went to a Kentucky Derby runner-up and another Preakness winner?
Racing has issues beyond whether a certain race should be Grade 1, 2 or 3 but the Fantasy rating stings a little as its 51st running falls today prior to the 87th Arkansas Derby, the track's other Grade 1 prize.
Then again, 3-year-old fillies receive less attention in the national spotlight than their same-aged male counterparts. And, the Oaks, which along with the Derby dates to 1875, is getting saturation coverage that it might not have once gotten.
As the breeding center of North America, Kentucky offers two spring races for fillies that hold sway. The Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland appeals more to breeders than, say, the Fantasy, also providing travel and schedule advantages for Oaks-minded horsemen and Churchill Downs' filly classic on Derby eve.
Fantasy starters become eligible for 200 Oaks qualifying points with the winner receiving 100 and the next four spots worth 40, 30, 20 and 10, respectively. Oaklawn has built up its filly races with a lucrative series of preps, of which the 10-horse field is comprised. Godolphin's Wet Paint, with 60 points from sweeping the Martha Washington and Grade 3 Honeybee, is the likely favorite with trainer Brad Cox keeping Flavien Prat in the saddle.
Wet Paint, with both local wins over wet surfaces, may have more issue with pace than track conditions, both her local races requiring prolonged rallies before a combined winning margin of five lengths. Sired by Blame, the only horse to beat mighty Zenyatta, who today turns 19, has a distance pedigree designed for the Oaks' nine-furlong distance. The Fantasy, like the other Oaklawn preps, is a sixteenth shorter.
Returning players include Condensation and Taxed after local stakes seconds to the favorite. Trainer Randy Morse, with a good eye for horses, claimed Taxed for $50,000 in November at Churchill Downs and came away two races back with the Martha Washington runner-up. Chris Hartman claimed Condensation at the same track for the same price earlier in the month. Frosted's daughter winning a local mile race in the mud Feb. 11 before second in the Honeybee.
Royal Spa bids to give trainer Rodolphe Brissset a second Fantasy win a year after Yuugiri's triumph. Pate, trained by Mike Maker, finished a neck second in the Dixie Belle after winning locally, both times sprinting. Maker might have a better chance with Towhead, fifth in the Honeybee after a Jan. 20 Oaklawn victory at two turns.
Steve Asmussen got a useful effort when Breeders' Cup starter Grand Love ran third in the Honeybee when slightly troubled. Any horse sired by Gun Runner deserves attention, Asmussen winning the 2021 Fantasy with Pauline's Pearl. Completing the field are She's Lookin Lucky, Take Charge Briana and Remington Park star Olivia Twist.
The Fantasy, carded as race 10, is set for 5:35 p.m.