To illustrate the depth of this year’s Kentucky Oaks, we re-introduce Echo Zulu, your reigning 2-Year-Old Champion Filly. She’s undefeated in five races, three of those Grade 1s and one of those, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. At the beginning of 2022, Echo Zulu was being discussed as a superhorse.

Nest-Kentucky Oaks
In an incredibly deep and talented field, Nest is the 5/2 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks. (Image: Churchill Downs/Coady Photography)

And yet, she’s the third-favorite on the morning line in the 14-filly race.

The reason Echo Zulu is 4/1 is two-fold. First, we had to re-introduce her because she’s raced only once in the past six months. That came in the Fair Grounds Oaks where she barely held off a rampaging Hidden Connection at the wire as the 1/9 favorite.

The second reason? This is a freakishly deep Oaks field chasing spots alongside past Oaks winners such as last year’s Malathaat, Monomoy Girl (2018), Untapable (2014), Rachel Alexandra (2009), Ashado (2004), Silverbulletday (1999), Princess Rooney (1983), and Davona Dale (1979). The winner of Friday’s 1 1/8-mile Oaks takes a giant step toward being the Champion 3-Year-Old of 2022.

And no, it’s not too early to say that.

Echo Zulu has her hooves full

What Echo Zulu has in front of her is easily the biggest test of her career. She’s stretching out to her longest race yet at nine furlongs. She’ll also face pace pressure from 5/2 morning-line favorite Nest and long shots Turnerloose and Yuugirl, among others. She’ll also face questions about that surprisingly close Fair Grounds Oaks shave, where she barely held off Hidden Connection, a filly she beat by 13 ½ lengths in the Breeders’ Cup.

Two horses who won’t face many questions are the morning-line favorites, Nest and the “It Girl,” 7/2 Kathleen O. One of three Todd Pletcher fillies in the field, Nest looks to be the opposite of Echo Zulu in terms of improving from age 2 to 3. It’s hard to argue about her favored status here in this deep field when you watch her commanding 8 ¼-length romp in the Ashland Oaks last month at Keeneland.

That romp, coming when she seized the lead at the stretch and ran away from the field, was her third consecutive victory and fourth in five races. Her only loss came in the Tempted Stakes, a one-turn mile last November at Belmont Park. As the daughter of Curlin, distance isn’t an issue; in fact, it’s probably welcomed. This is a filly coming into the Kentucky Oaks at the top of her game, who would give Pletcher his fifth Oaks title and second in a row.

Does the ‘O’ in Kathleen O stand for Oaks champion?

That, however, isn’t a gimme here. Shug McGaughey sends out the filly who’s brought all the buzz to Churchill Downs — Kathleen O. You get that buzz around you when you come in 4-for-4 and bring a powerful closing kick to the proceedings. And you get that buzz when every race has been better than the previous one.

After breaking her maiden last November at Aqueduct, Kathleen O spent the winter destroying her rivals at Gulfstream Park. She won a Black-Type stakes by 8 ½ lengths, the Grade 2 Davona Dale by two, and the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks by 2 ¼. That came with a 98 Beyer Speed Figure that left room for improvement, which has happened in every race.

Oh, and there’s this little factor; there’s a 90% chance of rain Friday afternoon, and Kathleen O ticks off the box labeled “Owns a win in the mud.”

Where did all the Kentucky Oaks love go for Secret Oath?

Kathleen O stole much of that buzz from the fourth member of this race’s “Big Four,” Secret Oath (6/1). Apparently, enduring a troubled trip against the boys – yet still finishing third – in the Arkansas Derby takes the luster off in many circles.

It shouldn’t. Getting this filly at 6/1 is an absolute steal based on her speed figures and ability to dictate the pace, which she should enjoy being on the rail. The daughter of Arrogate went into that Arkansas Derby as the favorite coming out of three dominating victories.

Two questions remain about this D. Wayne Lukas filly: how much will the mud affect her and what effect did the Arkansas Derby have on her? Did it season her to handle rough trips? Or did it sap her in terms of energy?

Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks/Churchill Downs

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Secret Oath, 6/1 (Luis Saez/D. Wayne Lukas)
  2. Nostalgic, 15/1 (Jose Ortiz/Bill Mott)
  3. Hidden Connection, 20/1 (Reylu Gutierrez/Bret Calhoun)
  4. Nest, 5/2 (Irad Ortiz Jr./Todd Pletcher)
  5. Goddess of Fire, 15/1 (John Velazquez/Todd Pletcher
  6. Yuugirl, 30/1 (Florent Geroux/Rodolphe Brisset)
  7. Echo Zulu, 4/1 (Joel Rosario/Steve Asmussen)
  8. Venti Valentine, 20/1 (Tyler Gaffalione/Jorge Abreu)
  9. Desert Dawn, 20/1 (Umberto Rispoli/Phil D’Amato)
  10. Kathleen O., 7/2 (Javier Castellano/Shug McGaughey)
  11. Cocktail Moments, 30/1 (Corey Lanerie/Kenny McPeek)
  12. Candy Raid, 30/1 (Rafael Bejarano/Keith Desormeaux)
  13. Shahama 15/1 (Flavien Prat/Todd Pletcher)
  14. Turnerloose, 20/1 (Manny Franco/Brad Cox)

One of those four should win this race, given their talent. But two others bear mention here as down-ticket exotics. The first is Desert Dawn (20/1) who upset Adare Manor in the Santa Anita Oaks. That this race came out of the clouds against the West Coast’s dominant 3-year-old filly is cause for pause, given the fact she finished fourth, fourth, and sixth in her previous three races. Bouncing back is possible, but that it came at all with a career-best 100 Equibase Speed Figure puts her immediately in the mix.

The second is Goddess of Fire (15/1), who finished a strong second to Kathleen O in the Gulfstream Park Oaks. That came with a 94 Beyer and illustrated that there may be more here to see from this Pletcher filly.