SARATOGA SPRINGS — It’s the big rematch.
It’s the master against the former student.
It’s two fillies who were confidently sent to run against males in respective legs of the Triple Crown, and performed well, if not winning.
There are multiple juicy storylines heading into Saturday’s Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks at a mile and an eighth on the main track.
Meanwhile, trainers D.Wayne Lukas and Todd Pletcher are just trying to win a race.
Lukas will send out Secret Oath in Saturday’s Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks on Saturday, and her primary competition will come from the Pletcher-trained Nest.
The CCA Oaks pits the two horses who are clearly the best in the 3-year-old filly division right now and finished 1-2, two lengths apart, in the Grade I Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs on May 6.
Off that victory, Lukas chose to run Secret Oath in the Preakness at Pimlico on May 21, but she ran into traffic and finished fourth.
Meanwhile, Pletcher, who won the 2007 Belmont Stakes with the filly Rags to Riches, had been charting a course to the June 11 Belmont for Nest for months, and she didn’t disappoint, finishing second, three lengths behind stablemate Mo Donegal.
Throw in the fact that Pletcher began his training career as Lukas’ assistant in 1991 and eventually joined Lukas in the National Racing Hall of Fame last year, and the CCA Oaks has all the makings of an intriguing matchup.
“To be honest, it’s a race we want to win just as much as we would in any circumstances,” Pletcher said Thursday morning. “Really, really happy for Wayne. He’s had a great year, and I think it’s terrific for horse racing for him to be in the spotlight. From that standpoint, I think it’s great.
“From a Nest perspective, we’re trying to win a race.”
In the Kentucky Oaks, Secret Oath and Nest had to contend with a full starting gate of 14 horses.
There are only five signed on for the CCA Oaks, with Nest a slight favorite on the morning line at even money and Secret Oath at 6-5.
Nest, a daughter of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, regains the services of jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., after he fulfilled his commitment to ride Mo Donegal in the Belmont. Secret Oath, a daughter of 2016 Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Arrogate, will be ridden by Luis Saez.
The two fillies have similar running styles, from off the pace, which was on full display when Secret Oath used a five-wide trip in the stretch to win the Kentucky Oaks.
Nest, meanwhile, had a more difficult time finding running room on the inside, but finished with enthusiasm to get within two lengths of Secret Oath.
“Luis got to know her in that race and realized that that’s what he can or can’t do with her,” Lukas said. “The thing about it is we’d like to get that trip every time. She got a really pretty trip.
“What I pull out of there is Nest is a very good filly with a strong trainer. I have great respect for all of them. It’s a very nice bunch, and if you like fillies and you like good racing, you’ll see it there [in the CCA Oaks], I think.”
“The most important part about it is how the race develops,” Pletcher said. “In the Oaks, we sort of got bottled up in the middle of the turn when Secret Oath made that big sweeping move and got a head start on us. We’ve got to try for that not to happen.
“But our filly’s trained great since the Belmont, and I think she’s even better for the distance of the Alabama [mile and a quarter], but she’s been successful at a mile and an eighth, as well.”
Pletcher said they had considered skipping the CCA Oaks and training up to the Aug. 20 Alabama, but Nest has thrived since finishing second in the mile-and-a-half Belmont.
That decision comes to the benefit of the fans on Saturday, since they’ll get to see the top two 3-year-old fillies duke it out instead of what probably would’ve amounted to a public workout for Secret Oath.
“Right after the Belmont, we said, ‘Look, we’ll let her tell us if she wants to run back or needs more time to the Alabama,’” Pletcher said. “But she came out of the race super, and we don’t see sitting on her another month.
“I actually think she’s gained some weight since she ran in the Belmont, which is nice to see.”
Pletcher joined Lukas’ operation just as it was in the midst of revolutionizing how the big stables do business, gathering a high volume of many of the best horses and maintaining barns all over the country.
He took out his trainer’s license in 1995, and it didn’t take long for him to establish himself as one of the best in North America.
He has won seven Eclipse awards and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in the first year he was eligible, after 25 years as a head trainer.
“Very intense. Good work ethic. Very observant. A good grasp of the game,” Lukas said, of his impression of Pletcher when he first started working in Lukas’ barn. “I never doubted for a second that he would be very successful on his own. When he left, he left with my blessing. He had great organizational skills. I think he got that from me more than anything. But there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to be successful.”
The CCA Oaks presents a puzzle for both trainers, since it appears that there isn’t much early pace for the two fillies to run into.
Only the Steve Asmussen-trained Society, who is undefeated but lightly raced and jumping into graded stakes company for the first time, has any history of being a front-runner.
“It looks like Steve’s filly is the main speed of the race,” Pletcher said. “It’s going to kind of be up to Irad and Luis on how it goes from there.
“That’s always a concern with these short fields, especially when you have two horses that are going to be eyeballing each other. It can get tricky. Irad’s riding great, and he’s got a lot of confidence in the filly, so he’s going to have to make a couple of decisions in the key parts of the race.”
“The thing about it is she’s very, very professional,” Lukas said of Secret Oath. “You can put her just about where you want. We’ve developed a style of her being back and making a sweeping run and everything, but she doesn’t necessarily have to be there.
“The thing about it is, she’s so responsive. If you ask her to run a little bit, she’ll respond right there. And she’s got a strong turn of foot. So Luis will be able to put her where he wants regardless of the pace. Even if there were some speed in there, he doesn’t have to be dictated by those around him. He can dictate the race if he wants to.”
Pletcher said that if Nest doesn’t win, he’d be happy to see Lukas win with Secret Oath.
In fact, he was one of the first to offer a congratulatory hug to Lukas immediately after the Kentucky Oaks, despite the fact that Nest had just lost.
The two legendary trainers have been too busy this week to converse, but Lukas said he expects perhaps a little joking around when they see each other in the paddock.
Then it’s all business.
“He’ll have her ready, and will enjoy taking on Secret Oath with us,” Lukas said. “So it’ll be a fun deal all the way. But we’re pretty close, so we’ll lead them over there, and whoever doesn’t win I’m sure will feel good about the other guy.
“If we don’t get upset by one of the others.”
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Categories: At The Track, Sports