Many women in Thoroughbred racing have stories of rooting for “the girls” in the annual Kentucky Oaks, “Run for the Lilies” or “Lilies for the Fillies.” Colloquially called “the Kentucky Derby for fillies,” the Kentucky Oaks takes place at Churchill Downs the day before the Derby itself.
With racing fans and casual fans packed into Louisville for the marquee event, there are usually plenty on hand for the most famous race in North America for three-year-old fillies.
The $1.25 million Grade One stakes race, with the prize of a blanket of lilies, the silver Kentucky Oaks Trophy, and good positioning for end of the year Eclipse Awards honors, is one of the highest attended Thoroughbred race in the United States after the Triple Crown races (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and usually the Belmont Stakes.) It runs for 1 1/8 miles on dirt. Each filly carries 121 pounds, and the field is open for 14 entrants.
2021 Kentucky Oaks
The Kentucky Derby, which always takes place on the first Saturday in May, is the earliest it can be in 2021. As the first Saturday in May is May 1, that pushes the Oaks’ traditional date back to April 30, 2021.
Hopefully, COVID 19 restrictions will have eased enough to allow fans back in the stands of Churchill Downs by next spring. Tickets are distributed in the previous fall of each year. An online portal at KentuckyDerby.com allows over 10,000 an opportunity to sign up for an invitation to Churchill Downs’ Oaks and Derby ticket sales.
Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Oaks Racetrack of 2021
Even if a casual sports fan or general news consumer doesn’t know anything about horse racing, he or she can probably name Churchill Downs as the home of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky as synonymous with Thoroughbred racing.
The history of the Kentucky Oaks is directly tied to the iconic Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY. As long as there has been a Churchill Downs (then called the Louisville Jockey Club), there has been a Kentucky Oaks.
Opened in 1875 and named for Samuel Churchill, whose family was a significant force in Kentucky racing and elsewhere, Churchill Downs is the home of the Triple Crown’s first jewel. Its infield and its grandstand together can hold 170,000 fans. Churchill Downs has a footprint of almost 150 acres and boasts a one-mile dirt track with a 7/8 mile turf oval.
Instantly identifiable by its grandstand’s distinctive twin spires, Churchill Downs currently hosts three meets a year. It houses the Kentucky Derby Museum, as well as an impressive list of graded races. Churchill Downs has hosted the Breeders’ Cup World Championships nine times.
Understanding the Kentucky Oaks
The Triple Crown is typically understood as one three-year-old colt winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes. While it is technically possible for a filly to win a Triple Crown, none have come close. The Thoroughbred world instead focuses on counterpart races for fillies. Together, these are generally known as “The Filly Triple Crown.”
The first is the Kentucky Oaks, run before the Derby. At Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, fillies take part in the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes before the Preakness. Finally, the Grade I Acorn Stakes is considered the distaff counterpart of the Belmont Stakes. It’s run at Belmont Park in New York.
The flower of the Kentucky Oaks, the stargazer lily of the winner’s blanket, inspires those in the luxury boxes’ pink fashion choices. In recent years, with breast cancer and ovarian cancer awareness becoming fashionable, Churchill Downs began incorporating the color pink with the track’s decorations and began encouraging all guests to dress in the same shade.
Churchill Downs keeps breast and ovarian cancer fundraising local, donating the proceeds of the money raised during its “Pink Out” events to Norton Cancer Institute’s Breast Health Program, which offers free cancer screening services to potential patients 40 and older in Jefferson County, as well as other areas of Kentucky.
Today’s Kentucky Oaks also involves a Survivor’s Parade, a procession on the racetrack of women battling or survived breast or ovarian cancer. Participants in the Survivor’s Parade are nominated online and selected via a virtual vote. The number of participants in the Survivor’s Parade corresponds with the running number of the Oaks. For example, the 146th Kentucky Oaks featured 146 women. In 2020, the parade took place virtually.
It wouldn’t be a major horse race without an “official drink,” and the Kentucky Oaks is no different. The buzz of the Oaks is the Finaldia Oaks Lilly, and a dollar from the proceeds of each drink goes to the Norton Cancer Institute.
Kentucky Oaks Qualifiers and Why It Matters
The “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” is patterned after the qualifying races for the Kentucky Derby. It’s a complex, two-part series consisting of about 30 stakes races, which begin the September before the Oaks in question when the fillies are two. Formerly, invitations were issued based on how much fillies earned in graded stakes. The points system has been in place since 2013.
Fourteen entrants are allowed into the Kentucky Oaks. If more than 14 attempts to enter, four additional fillies are listed as “also eligible” and may take the place of another filly if she is scratched. Tiebreakers consist of earnings in non-restricted stakes races regardless of grade.
Qualifying for the Kentucky Oaks is a two-phase process. The first begins when the fillies are two and runs between September and February of the year of the Oaks. Fillies earn points based on their finishes in the stakes races, which are designated as part of the Road to the Kentucky Oaks. The second half of qualification begins with the Kentucky Oaks Championship Series, which occurs in the spring and includes a “wild card” round.
Marquee races on the Road to the Kentucky Oaks include the Santa Anita Oaks (Grade I), the Ashland Stakes (Grade I) at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, and the Gulfstream Park Oaks (Grade II) in Florida. In addition to earning the requisite amount of point to enter the Oaks, owners must pay nomination, entry, and starter fees.
Kentucky Oaks History
The Kentucky Oaks was launched in 1875 by Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., the founder of Churchill Downs. Along with the Kentucky Derby, it is the oldest yearly contested sporting event in the United States.
Based on the Epsom Oaks of the UK, which has been run since 1779, the Oaks has taken place every year since, albeit later than usual, in 2020. The Oaks has run at various distances over time, including 1 ½ mile, 1 ¼ mile, and 1 1/16 mile. In 1982, the race was standardized to its current 1 1/8 miles.
Kentucky Oaks Historic Races
Perhaps the most famous Kentucky Oaks took place in 2009 when the legendary Rachel Alexandria set a record for the largest margin of victory by distance. She won by 20 ¼ lengths. More national media attention than usual was focused on the Oaks in 2012 and 2014 when female jockey Rosie Napravnik won it.
Kentucky Oaks Greatest Upsets
The 2020 Kentucky Oaks winner, Shedaresthedevil, was a longshot. The greatest Oaks upset took place in 2006 when Lemons Forever went off at 47-1 but grabbed the lilies.
2020 Kentucky Oaks Review
The 2020 Longines Kentucky Oaks, just like most other major events throughout the year, was deeply impacted by COVID 19 restrictions. The entire Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks event was moved from the first week in May to the first week in September. While both races were run to the relief of the betting and Thoroughbred racing community, they did so before empty grandstands and no one in the infield. Only trainers, owners, essential staff, and the horses themselves were present. The main sponsor Longines sponsored a virtual fashion contest.
While the relative quiet was eerie, the field of nine made plenty of noise on the dirt. The race was an exciting upset, with three of the four top finishers scheduled to run again in the Breeders’ Cup World Championship on November 7.
The winner was Shedaresthedevil, a daughter of Daredevil, who went off at 20-1. She set a stakes record for the fastest time for the Oaks so far. Shedaresthedevil is owned by the combination of Flurry Racing Stables LLC, Quatar Racing Limited, and Big Aut Farms. She dashed past the favorite, Gamine, to take the lilies on a fast track in 148:28. The Kentucky Oaks win was her third victory in a row and her third win a graded stakes. Ridden by Florent Geroux, Shedarestehdevil paid out a relatively handsome $32.30, $8.40, and $3.80.
A length and a half behind Shedaresthedevil was her half-sister, Swiss Skydiver, also out of Daredevil. Swiss Skydiver was piloted by Tyler Gaffaloine. She paid $3.80 and $2.60. If Swiss Skydiver’s name sounds familiar to you, that’s because she wasn’t nearly done wowing crowds this fall. She went on to win the 2020 Preakness and is pointing at the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Although she set the pace most of the trip around the Churchill Downs track, Gamine, who went off 1-1, finished third. John Velazquez was up. Coming in 1 ½ lengths behind, she paid $2.40 with a show bet. Gamine is slated for the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.
In fourth place, 5 ¾ lengths behind, was Speech, a filly out of Mr Speaker, who is scheduled to run again in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Her jockey was Javier Castellano.
Here’s the full order of finish for the 2020 Kentucky Oaks:
1) Shedaresthedevil, owned by Flurry Racing Stables LLC, Quatar Racing Limited, and Big Aut Farms, trained by B. Cox, jockey F. Geroux, 20-1
2) Swiss Skydiver, owned by Peter J. Callahan, trained by K. McPeek, jockey T. Gaffalione, 8-5
3) Gamine, owned by Michael Lund Peterson, trained by B. Baffert, jockey J. Velazquez, 1-1
4) Speech, owned by Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners/Madaket Stables LLC/Heider Fmaily Stables LLC, trained by M. McCarthy, jockey J. Castellano, 5-1
5) Tempers Rising, owned by Stanly/Mark H. and Stanley/Nancy W., trained by D. Stewart, jockey J. Leparoux, 50-1
6) Hopeful Growth, owned by St. Elias Stable, trained by A. Margotta, jockey M. Franco, 30-1
7) Bayerness, owned by Belladonna Racing LLC, trained by C. DeVaux, jockey M. Franco, 30-1
8) Donna Veloce, owned by Kaleem Shah, Inc./Magnier/Mrs. John/Tabor/Michael B. and Smith/ Derrick, trained by S. Callaghan, jockey R. Santana Jr, 15-1
9) Dream Marie, owned by Miracle’s International Trading, Inc., trained by M. Williams, jockey J. Talamo, 50-1
While fourteen entrants are permitted in the Kentucky Oaks, the scrambled schedule caused by COVID 19 contributed to only 9 in the gate.
Kentucky Oaks, Worth the Bet!
If you’re betting on or heading to the Kentucky Oaks, you are part of a significant aspect of Thoroughbred racing and a growing amount of general appreciation of the sport.
Rooting for “the girls of the Derby” is quickly becoming a tradition for families and friends as part of the weekend’s festivities. Put on your pink and join the girl power of the Oaks.