Three-year-old fillies are aimed at Louisville and the first week in May at Churchill Downs. Not the first Saturday in May. But the first Friday in May and the annual running of the Kentucky Oaks.
The “Oaks” is the female equivalent of the Kentucky Derby, a much-anointed race won only three times in nearly 150 years by a filly.
One of those hundreds of fillies nominated for this year’s Kentucky Oaks is Summer Applause, a rangy bay with a wide white blaze cascading down her face . . . making it look like a bucket of white paint slipped off a ladder and spilled full onto her head.
In formulating a schedule that would land her in the Kentucky Oaks, Summer Applause has followed the familiar trails taken by hundreds before her. Her mapped career has included only five races so far.
That “mapping” has been done by two different owners and two different trainers. Current trainer Bret Calhoun has been around for only the last two races. He inherited Summer Applause when Greenwood Lodge Farm purchased her after she had already been to the races three times.
Five races in the hopper with one more scheduled in front of the Kentucky Oaks is a common way for trainers to ready their charges for that race.
Summer Applause has won three of those five races.
In her last test, she showed her managable side. In her previous races, she has pushed for the lead and had never been behind more than two rivals.
However, in winning on the last Saturday in February in the $200,000 Grade III Rachel Alexandra Stakes at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, she was no better than fourth in a six-horse field in the first six furlongs of the one-mile-and-a-sixteenth event.
The Rachel Alexandra was her graded stakes debut.
Her jockey, Robby Albarado, eased her forward as the backstretch was ending. She was second as the stretch loomed ahead. Through the stretch, pace-setting Avie’s Sense was a grim competitor and refused, at first, to yield to the fortified energy of Summer Applause. Only in the final 100 yards did Summer Applause move away to a length victory.
One of those trailing the first two finishers to the wire was Believe You Can.
Said Calhoun: “I was a little nervous when I saw the other horse out there loping on the lead. I got a little nervous down the backstretch.
“Obviously, the ultimate goal is the Kentucky Oaks. We need to figure out the best way to get there.”
When trainer Calhoun handled her for the first time, she moved smartly toward the lead of the now-familiar Believe You Can. Believe You Can kept the lead despite efforts from just behind her from Summer Applause. That loss was one of the two stings she has experienced.
With the success from the Rachel Alexandra still lifting the room, trainer Calhoun will take a long look ahead at the $500,000 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland and its dogwood blossoms on Saturday, April 7. The Ashland Stakes is at one-mile-and-one sixteenth and is a logical stepping stone to the May 4 Kentucky Oaks.
From the Fair Grounds and the remnants of the just-ended Mardis Gras to Keeneland in Kentucky and its three weeks of daily stakes races amid the pink and white-blossomed dogwoods, Summer Applause would be only a month in front of the Kentucky Oaks.
Summer Applause is the daughter of Harlans Holiday, a Winstar Farm favorite whose sire fee is $25,000 and whose own pedigree has shining stars Storm Cat, Triple Crown champion Affirmed, Storm Bird, Exclusive Native, Honest Pleasure, Northern Dancer, Secretariat, Hail to Reason, Gun Bow, Raise A Native, and Princequillo on his family tree.
Summer Exhibition is Summer Applause’s mother. In Summer Exhibition’s lineage are Nijinsky, Northern Dancer, and Bold Ruler.
At this time of year, the rush is on. The colts are being readied for a possible Kentucky Derby start. The fillies are being prepped for the Kentucky Oaks. No early-spring races compare with the attention, notoriety, and publicity generated by those two afternoons at Churchill Downs.
And the graceful Summer Applause is a probable starter in the Kentucky Oaks.