Since fueling high expectations with her smashing debut win, Elate has gone down as the favorite in a pair of stakes, but Saturday’s $500,000 Ashland (G1) might prove the turning point for the Bill Mott filly. Aside from its valuable Grade 1 laurel, the 1 1/16-mile test at Keeneland serves as a major Kentucky Oaks (G1) scoring race, offering points on a 100-40-20-10 scale to the top four finishers. In other words, now is the time for serious Oaks contenders to start peaking.
A Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider homebred, Elate elicited comparisons to another Mott trainee, three-time Eclipse Award champion Royal Delta, when trouncing her foes on debut at Aqueduct last November. Both ran off by about a dozen lengths in their sole juvenile start, around a one-turn mile, in New York. The parallel continued to her reappearance in the February 11 Suncoast at Tampa, where like Royal Delta, Elate was overturned. But while Royal Delta turned in a rare flop in ninth, Elate ran well in second after a wide trip in her first try around two turns.
Next time in the March 11 Honeybee (G3) at Oaklawn, Elate was shuffled back between rivals at the start and found herself much further behind than expected. She made eye-catching late headway, altering paths in the stretch, to get up for third. That experience should help her.
Another step forward in this third start of the season would put Elate in the top tier of Oaks contenders. Pegged as the co-second choice at 7-2 on the morning line, the beautifully bred daughter of Medaglia d’Oro will break from post 2 with Jose Ortiz.
The Ken McPeek-trained Daddys Lil Darling has been installed as the 5-2 morning line favorite. Among the notable juveniles of 2016, the Scat Daddy filly captured the Pocahontas (G2) and finished runner-up in the Alcibiades (G1) over this track and trip. But she was only fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1), and no match for Farrell when second in the Golden Rod (G2). Daddys Lil Darling warmed up with a sixth in the grassy Florida Oaks (G3) at Tampa March 11, and tries the turf-to-dirt angle here. Robby Albarado has the return call.
Pretty City Dancer, the 7-2 joint second choice with Elate, is another looking to regain her juvenile form for Mark Casse. Sidelined after her dead-heat victory in the Spinaway (G1), she returned with a close second in the February 4 Forward Gal (G2) at Gulfstream, only to wilt to sixth last time in the Davona Dale (G2). Perhaps new rider Joel Rosario will galvanize the $825,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase by Tapit. Note that Pretty City Dancer is also taking the blinkers off for this two-turn bow.
Casse is double-handed with Summer Luck, who was cross-entered to last Saturday’s Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2) and Fair Grounds Oaks (G2), and scratched from both in favor of the Ashland. The consistent filly has been knocking on the door in three straight Gulfstream stakes appearances, and comes off her best effort yet – a close third in the Davona Dale. She’s entitled to benefit from the stretch-out to two turns, and the 4-1 chance keeps Florent Geroux in the irons.
Tapped, initially mentioned as probable for Sunday’s Beaumont (G3), has popped up in the Ashland entries. The Jerry Hollendorfer pupil is twice stakes-placed on the Golden Gate Fields Tapeta, most recently in the California Oaks, but must improve off her tiring fourth in the Starlet (G1) to answer the two-turn question at this level. Both of her wins have come sprinting, which explains her Beaumont candidacy. Nevertheless, Tapped is listed at 4-1 with new jockey David Flores at the helm.
Rounding out the eight-filly field are a trio of outsiders – Sailor’s Valentine (12-1), winless since her debut score at Keeneland last October for Eddie Kenneally; Someday Soon (15-1) from the William Van Meter barn, up the track in her prior graded attempts in the Golden Rod and Honeybee; and Richard Baltas’ Meanie Irenie (30-1), a Santa Anita sprint maiden winner two back. They hadn’t been on the list of probables, but with the projected field coming up short on numbers, it’s understandable that connections would take a shot.