Hung out wide in post 13 and relatively dismissed at odds of 13-1, Joel Politi's Serengeti Empress rebounded from an episode of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage she suffered in the Fair Grounds Oaks to capture Friday's crown jewel for sophomore fillies in North America, the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks. Sired by Alternation, the Tom Amoss trainee flew out of the gate, crossed over a dozen of her rivals and took the lead. All the way around the Churchill Downs oval, jockey Jose Ortiz rationed the filly's speed, and the pair came to the finish line 1 3/4 lengths better than Liora. En route to the Lillies before a crowd of 105,719, Serengeti Empress completed nine furlongs over the fast main track in 1:50.17.
“How about that! I've never won a race this big,” gushed Amoss. “I've won a lot of races, but not one like this. I've heard it said that when it happens, it's just a different experience. Today, for me, it was just a rush of emotions. I thought about my mom and dad who are 93 and 94. They're at home watching. I know they saw this today. I can't wait to speak to them. My extended family. I have five brothers and their families. My wife and kids are here. Colleen, my wife, Ashley my oldest daughter and Hailey my youngest daughter. I think, as a team, us four have seen quite a bit as a trainer has. They put up with a lot. I thought about the people along the way.”
It was another 5 1/2 lengths back to Lady Apple in third, while Champagne Anyone nosed out 9-5 favorite Bellafina for fourth.
A stewards' inquiry into the start was held, as Positive Spirit clipped heels and fell shortly after leaving the starting gate. The filly got up under her own power and was corralled by outriders in the first turn, and trainer Rodolphe Brisset Tweeted that she seemed “to be fine and walking normal in the barn” after the race. Jockey Manny Franco also escaped without major injury.
As a result of the inquiry, sixth-place finisher Jaywalk was disqualified and placed last for causing the interference with Positive Spirit.
Avoiding the trouble in the center of the 14-horse field, Serengeti Empress was laying on the speed from her outside post. She managed to clear her rivals and get all the way over to the rail in the first turn, taking a two-length lead into the backstretch. Motion Emotion tracked from second with Lady Apple up close on the rail in third. Liora, Jaywalk, and Street Band were also up close, tracking the early fractions of :23.25 and :46.65.
Serengeti Empress continued to hold her advantage heading into the far turn, but Liora was winding up with a three-wide bid about three lengths behind the leader.
After six furlongs in 1:11.26, Ortiz shook up Serengeti Empress and the filly responded. Liora reached the tip of her tail, but Serengeti Empress changed leads and bounded away once again.
“When she put her head down and took off, I said, 'Man, she's going to run big today,'” Ortiz said. “Past the 1/8 pole, I hit her left‑handed. She gave me that second gear, and from that point on, I know I had her. That filly was never going to go by her. She pinned her ears down, and she was going to keep going.”
Serengeti Empress hit the wire 1 3/4-lengths ahead of the 38-1 chance Liora.
“Man, that was just heartbreaking,” said Channing Hill, the jockey aboard Liora. “She ran so good. I thought we had it. That was an amazing race. (Trainer) Wayne (Catalano) had her so ready to run and we almost got there.”
Lady Apple stayed on well to finish third, while Champagne Anyone came flying from the back of the field to gain fourth. Bellafina was unable to do better than fifth.
“I think that it was the distance that did her in today,” said Simon Callaghan, trainer of Bellafina. “I think she wants to run in one-turn races. We'll give her a break now and refocus on one-turn races. We may look at the Test next (Test Stakes, 7 furlongs, Aug. 3 at Saratoga).”
The remaining order of finish was as follows: Jaywalk, Street Band, Chocolate Kisses, Motion Emotion, Jeltrin, Out for a Spin, Flor de la Mar, Restless Rider, and Positive Spirit (DNF).
You go girl!
Serengeti Empress wins the 145th running of the Kentucky Oaks! pic.twitter.com/9eo6PDKl6M
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) May 3, 2019
Bred in Kentucky by Tri Eques Bloodstock, Serengeti Empress was a $25,000 weanling at the Keeneland November sale. At the 2017 Keeneland September sale the filly commanded a final bid of $70,000, and she responded with a win at first asking in the fastest maiden special weight event run at Indiana Grand in 2018. Serengeti Empress won the Ellis Park Debutante and the G2 Pocahontas before finishing seventh in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
In 2019, she began the season with a dominating win in the G2 Rachel Alexandra Stakes at the Fair Grounds but faded badly in the stretch of the Fair Grounds Oaks in her subsequent start. Amoss discovered that she had suffered bleeding in the lungs during that race and rehabbed her accordingly, leading to a front-running triumph in the Kentucky Oaks. Overall, Serengeti Empress has won five of her eight starts for earnings of over $1 million.
Throughout the process of rehabbing Serengeti Empress from her EIPH episode, Amoss felt it was important to document her progress on his social media accounts.
“Look, it's no secret that our industry is facing at least what I consider a moment, a big moment, that can go one of two ways,' the trainer said. “And as far as I'm concerned with my horses and the racing public as well as the general public, I want to give as much information as I can out there. I want everyone to know what I'm doing, why I'm doing it.
“And certainly there were some naysayers after the Fairgrounds Oaks that thought Serengeti Empress shouldn't run in the Kentucky Oaks after a bleeding episode. So I thought it was very important to document everything that we did.
“And I think that's the new world of racing. I think that we're going to see more and more of that. There's nothing wrong with being transparent. I'm all for it.”
Serengeti Empress worked 5/8 today in company at 58.2. Cooled out well and showed no evidence of bleeding on the endoscope exam. Assuming she continues to train well, we will be pointing her to the @ChurchillDowns KY Oaks. pic.twitter.com/Rhjl2hUHWZ
— TomAmossRacing (@TomAmossRacing) April 23, 2019
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