Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas had raved about how much Secret Oath was thriving ahead of her four-year-old bow in Saturday’s $350,000 Azeri (G2), and Briland Farm’s homebred backed up his assessment with a good-looking win at Oaklawn Park. Patiently handled by new pilot Tyler Gaffalione, the 7-5 chance swept down the outside while 11-10 favorite Clairiere was playing catch-up for second.
The odds reflected their most recent start, the Nov. 5 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1), where Clairiere just missed in third and the younger Secret Oath tired to fifth. But that had come at the end of a long sophomore campaign for last year’s Kentucky Oaks (G1) star.
With a winter’s break, growing physical maturity, and a change of venue to Oaklawn, Secret Oath turned the tables. Gaffalione inherited the mount when her hitherto regular rider, Luis Saez, wanted to stick with Kentucky Derby (G1) hopeful Tapit Trice in Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby (G2). The decision worked out for both jockeys on the day, as Saez galvanized Tapit Trice to a late-running victory, and Gaffalione appeared to fit Secret Oath like a glove.
“She’s got such a long stride,” Lukas said postrace, while reminding everyone that he also trained race honoree Azeri (in her final 2004 campaign). “She just kicks. When she kicks it in like that, her stride increases about four feet. She just eats that ground up. It’s impressive to watch it.
“I thought she would run a big one today,” Lukas added. “I have so much respect for Steve Asmussen’s filly (Clairiere). I was confident she would run a big one, but when you’ve got a field this tough, you’ve got to beat them. I just thought she would throw a real good one today because I did everything I wanted to do with her coming into it. I didn’t have to adjust a work or anything. I did it all when I wanted to. I thought I had her tuned.”
Another factor was Clairiere’s sluggish beginning. Off a beat slow, the five-year-old dropped several lengths behind in last. Secret Oath was in no hurry either in a penultimate seventh, but the Arrogate filly was traveling sweetly.
Up front, Lovely Ride, who was spotting the principals five pounds according to the race conditions, carved out the pace from a keen Hot and Sultry. The latter didn’t want to relax in her two-turn debut, and took a strong hold as she pressed through splits of :23.63, :48.39, and 1:13.51. Hot and Sultry played her hand swinging into the stretch, but the closers were about to descend.
Secret Oath had angled into the overland path, the clearest way to build up her momentum, and she telegraphed the result well in advance. Galloping ahead, yet unextended, Secret Oath rolled by 2 3/4 lengths in a final time of 1:43.26 for 1 1/16 miles. According to the chart, she ripped her final sixteenth in about 5.72 seconds.
“I didn’t want to rush her off her feet,” Gaffalione said. “I know what kind of kick she has, so I just let her kind of find herself in the place she wanted to be. Going into the (far turn), she tried to go about the three-eighths pole. Just took a little hold of her and she came right back to me. Swung her out coming down the stretch. Showed her the whip once and she finished the job well.”
Clairiere found her best stride by the far turn, when she launched a rail-skimming move, but found herself behind horses upon straightening. She then had room to rally for second, heading Interstatedaydream who speared through on the inside.
“She came running,” Clairiere’s rider, Joel Rosario, said. “The other filly (Secret Oath) ran a good race today. She came moving forward, but it looked like the winner got the jump in the clear outside. That’s how it goes.”
Hot and Sultry was another half-length away in fourth, a promising effort at this level, if she can settle better.
“I’m extremely pleased with the way that she ran,” trainer Norm Casse said of Hot and Sultry. “We’re trying to do something she hasn’t done before. Took her a little while to shut off. Got hung wide in the first turn and turning for home, we were in front of some really nice fillies, and it took a lot of nice fillies to run by us. I was very excited with the way that she ran.”
Le Da Vida, Lovely Ride, Hidden Connection, and Moon Swag rounded out the order under the wire.
Secret Oath’s scorecard stands at 14-6-2-3, $1,982,267. She is now 4-for-5 at Oaklawn; her only local loss was a troubled third versus males in the Arkansas Derby (G1). The strapping chestnut burst onto the Oaks trail with romps in the Martha Washington S. and Honeybee (G3), and she imposed her authority in the Kentucky Oaks.
Secret Oath lost her pro tem divisional leadership with a series of losses in the second half. After a fourth in the Preakness (G1), she was a distant second to eventual divisional champion Nest in the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) and Alabama (G1). Secret Oath was also a well-beaten third in the Cotillion (G1) before concluding 2022 in the Breeders’ Cup, where an arguably premature move might have contributed to her fifth-place finish.
Considering that her dam, multiple Oaklawn stakes vixen and Grade 1-placed Absinthe Minded, was best as an older distaffer for the same Briland/Lukas connections, Secret Oath is eligible to be better this term herself. Absinthe Minded placed to some heavyweights in Oaklawn’s marquee events in this division. Third to Havre de Grace and Blind Luck in the 2011 Azeri (G3), Absinthe Minded was third to the future Horse of the Year again in the Apple Blossom H. (G1). In the 2012 Apple Blossom, the Quiet American mare was runner-up to Plum Pretty.
Secret Oath has collected the Azeri trophy that eluded her dam, and she’ll bid for the April 15 Apple Blossom next.