Serengeti Empress went wire-to-wire to take the $1.25 million Longines Kentucky Oaks on Friday before a crowd of 105,719 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Trained by Tom Amoss for owner Joel Politi, jockey Jose Ortiz and Serengeti Empress absolutely dominated the 1 1/8 mile route restricted to 3-year-old fillies. It was the first Kentucky Oaks win for all connections.
“I’ve never won a race this big in my entire life and I’ve been training since 1987,” said winning trainer Tom Amoss. “I’ve won a lot of races, but not like this. I’ve heard it said that when it happens, it’s just a different experience. Today, for me, it’s was a rush of emotions.”
When the field of 14 broke from the gates over a track rated fast, Serengeti Empress came out cleanly and made the lead. Setting sharp fractions of 23.25 for the first quarter and 46.65 for the half, Serengeti Empress had the race all to herself. The plan all along was for Jose Ortiz to get the filly to the lead, but no one thought she would be allowed to keep it so easily.
“Tom gave me a lot of confidence on her,” said Ortiz. “I’ve never been on her and he told me, ‘ride her like you own her.’ That’s what I did. I went out of there—I know her best races are on the lead—and I just tried to get her comfortable. I didn’t care if I was going a little bit too fast, if she was comfortable, I was comfortable with it.”
Motion Emotion sat just off the pace of Serengeti Empress until the field turned for home and she tired, allowing Lady Apple and Liora to move forward. Liora closed more quickly and was able to grab second place, 1 ¾ lengths behind Serengeti Empress. Lady Apple was another 5 ½ lengths back in third and a neck in front of fourth-place finisher Champagne Anyone.
Going into the Kentucky Oaks, the big question in how Serengeti Empress would perform, and likely the reason she was allowed to go off at odds of 13-1, was due to a bad episode of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage that she suffered in the Fair Grounds Oaks (gr. II), despite the use of anti-bleeding medication. It resulted in a last-place finish, but prior to that race, she won the Rachel Alexandra (gr. II) by 4 ½ lengths.
After that episode, Amoss was cautious with the filly and transparent with a judging public, and had pretty much ruled out an appearance in the Kentucky Oaks. He planned to record a short video of the filly galloping five-eighths of a mile to show that she was not injured after the race. But fortunately, his exercise rider misunderstood the trainer’s instructions and took the filly beyond the instructed five-eighths, going an extra mile.
“Look, horses talk,” said Amoss. “And she talked to me that morning and said, you know, ‘I'm going to be okay.’ And if he hadn't have made that mistake that day — if my exercise rider hadn't made that mistake that day, I was getting ready to call Joel and say, ‘Let's just leave the race alone.’ But when she came back around and looked as good as she did, I went back to the barn and I changed my mind, and we took it day-to-day from there.”
Owner Joel Politi, a first generation American of Egyptian parents, is not new to the horse business. His father, a physician, owned and bred horses and built a 12-horse barn in the backyard. As kids, Politi and his siblings earned 25 cents a day to feed the horses in the morning. As an owner himself, Politi has 55 starts and 12 wins and now a Kentucky Oaks winner in Serengeti Empress.
“So it was a passion of my dad's that I loved, and so it was a joy, a treat for me to go to the track,” said Politi. “I have been going since forever, and here we are.”
Bellafina, the favorite for trainer Simon Callaghan, was three-for-three this year going into Friday’s race and tends to run on the front-end. But she was ninth early and unable to finish better than fifth place.
“She broke a little slow but she always does,” said jockey Flavien Prat. “In California, with a five-horse field, you are not that far back after [a slow] break. The break was not the issue. I thought I was in a good spot, but when it was time to fire, she just didn’t.”
Positive Spirit clipped heels at the start of the race and unseated rider Manny Franco. Outriders were able to catch the loose filly and she was taken to the barn with a probable soft tissue injury. Franco was unharmed and on his feet shortly thereafter.
Jaywalk, who finished sixth for trainer John Servis, was disqualified and placed 13th for interference with Positive Spirit at the start and causing the filly to clip heels.
Sent off at odds of 13-1, Serengeti Empress returned $28, $14.80 and $9.60. Liora paid $32.60 and $17.00 for second and completed the $2 exacta of $878.40. Lady Apple returned $7.00 for third and completed the $0.50 trifecta of $3,510.90. Champagne Anyone finished fourth and completed the $1 superfecta of $67,087.40. The final time in the 1 1/8 mile race over a track rated fast was 1:50.17.