If Serengeti Empress did not turn in a top performance when sixth out of 11 three-year-old fillies in Parx Racing's $1 million Cotillion Stakes, keep in mind that she followed up a seventh-place drubbing in the Fair Grounds Oaks with triumph in the Kentucky Oaks.
Now trainer Tom Amoss and owner Joel Politi are hoping for a similar result as Serengeti Empress takes on older fillies and mares in either the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff or the $1 million Filly & Mare Sprint on Nov. 2 at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.
Serengeti Empress has been beaten in her three Grade 1 starts since taking the Oaks in wire to wire fashion from post 13. Since then, she was second in Belmont's mile Acorn after being pushed through a torrid pace, second by a half-length after battling victorious Covfefe in Saratoga's seven-furlong Test and then struggling home in the 1 1/16-mile Cotillion.
“Serengeti Empress is a deserving entry into the Breeders' Cup,” Amoss said recently at Churchill Downs. “She's a Kentucky Oaks winner. She's a Grade 1 stakes winner. She's run some really, really good races in defeat. The Acorn comes to mind, as well as her race at Saratoga against Covfefe when they battled all the way to the wire in the Test. Her last race wasn't her best at Parx. But there were ingredients in that race that led to that. No. 1, it was crazy on the front end that day, and she got challenged in a pace scenario that was suicidal. Rightfully so, we decided not to go with that pace-setter and it ended up costing us.
“When you look at the Breeders' Cup fields and you look at the Distaff as well as the Filly & Mare Sprint, which is a seven-eighths of a mile race, you can see there are pluses and minuses to both races. In the Distaff, you face a horse who has a legitimate chance to be Horse of the Year in Midnight Bisou. But also in that race you see a lack of pace. So getting to run our style of race with Serengeti Empress is inviting as far as the Distaff goes. In the sprint, it's logical to think a horse like Covfefe is going to be the favorite and we were a neck off of her in a scenario where … maybe (with a different) post position — we were inside on a track notoriously bad to the inside horses thought the meet — the result could have been different.
“We're going to cross-enter in both races Oct. 21, and we'll make the decision when that deadline comes.”
Though next Monday is the deadline to pre-enter the Breeders' Cup, the names and selection order in the races that get more than 14 horses will be announced Oct. 23, with the fields set Oct. 28 with entries taken and the post-position draw for all 14 races.
“When it comes to one-turn races (such as the F&M Sprint) with Serengeti Empress, I don't think she's married to the lead,” Amoss said. “But when it comes to two-turn races, I think her best weapon is her speed, as she used in the Kentucky Oaks. If we decide to go in there, we need to feel like we can make the lead and use that weapon going two turns.”
Serengeti Empress has had a pair of easy half-mile workouts since the Cotillion. That race was won by the late-running Street Band, another Churchill Downs-based filly who also won the Fair Grounds Oaks. That's the race in which Serengeti Empress experienced a pulmonary bleeding episode and stopped badly to last of seven. The bleeding has not been an issue since.
“We have to decide if she's the same horse or has she had enough?” Amoss said. “Looking at her back here at Churchill Downs, she's been a horse who has been a lot like her old self. She's had two breezes since then and went well. Her weight has maintained. Her overall brightness of coat, her color, has been good. Her appetite has been good. We're seeing the things we want to see before making a decision to go out to Santa Anita.”
Whichever race she ultimately is entered, Amoss just hopes not to draw the rail for the fourth straight race, the No. 1 post being a disadvantage tactically for a horse with Serengeti Empress' running style.
“We'd be interested in getting a post that's maybe more toward the middle of the pack in either race,” he said.
Serengeti Empress signaled her future stardom with a 13 1/2-length victory in the 2018 Ellis Park Debutante, which she followed up by taking Churchill Downs' Grade 2 Pocahontas by 19 1/2 lengths. After finishing seventh in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last fall, she started her 2019 campaign with a dominating victory in the Fair Grounds' Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra Stakes in New Orleans before the Fair Grounds Oaks debacle.
Since the Fair Grounds Oaks, she has been ridden by Jose Ortiz or his brother, Irad.
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