LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Serengeti Empress dispelled questions about her health and ability with a signature performance in the biggest race of her career.
The filly went wire-to-wire to win the US$1.25 million Kentucky Oaks by 1 3/4 lengths over Liora on Friday at Churchill Downs.
The start featured a scary moment when Positive Spirit fell down and threw jockey Manny Franco after clipping heels as the 14-horse field squeezed together from the gate. Both were able to get up and walk off the track. Serengeti Empress started from the No. 13 post to lead by the first turn and kept it up despite 38-1 shot Liora's late attempt to close the gap.
The dark brown filly rebounded from a seventh-place run in the Fair Grounds Oaks — a race in which she was vanned off the track with external bleeding — to win the 145th running of the premier race for 3-year-old fillies. Serengeti Empress earned her second graded win in three starts this year and third overall in eight career races, and gave trainer Tom Amoss his first Kentucky Oaks victory.
"I have had all the sacrifices all trainers have," Amoss said immediately afterward. "I got to taste the sweet, sweet drink of the Kentucky Oaks and I want more. This is awesome."
Ridden by Jose Ortiz, Serengeti Empress covered 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.17. Liora finished and Lady Apple third.
Bellafina, who began as the Oaks' 2-1 morning line favorite, finished fifth.
As the Oaks field quickly pulled away from Positive Spirit and Franco, the horse and jockey walked off the track without serious injury. Stewards later disqualified Jaywalk — last year's 2-year-old champion — from sixth place after an inquiry into the start determined that she took the Positive Spirit's path and forced her into heels.
"She got stepped on a little bit coming out of the gate and pulled a little bit of her quarter," said Tyler Servis, Jaywalk's assistant trainer. "I'm sure that compromised her race a little bit."
On-call veterinarian Al Ruggles said after the race that Positive Spirit was able to walk back to her barn under her own power without an ambulance. She will be examined further by private vets but indicated that the horse sustained a soft-tissue injury.
"The good news is there didn't seem to be any significant problems with her," Ruggles said, "and all the reports, as she walked off the track, were very positive."
Positive Spirit's spill and Serengeti Empress' recovery for an easy victory comes soon after the industry enacted a raft of medication and safety rules changes following the deaths of 23 horses over three months at California's Santa Anita Park.
The daughter of Alternation and Havisham by Bernardini underwent scrutiny after failing to finish her previous start at Fair Grounds on March 23 because of external bleeding. Serengeti Empress responded by turning in strong workouts at Churchill Downs, including five furlongs in 58 seconds on April 23 that Amoss called a "wow" workout.
She was eventually cleared medically to run in the Oaks, but Amoss said the decision-making process included frequent discussions with owner Joel Politi.
"Most importantly on that particular day, we treated her therapeutically just as we were going to treat her for the Kentucky Oaks," Amoss said. "So it was important that not only she worked well but that she didn't have a bleeding episode. So we scoped her afterward, and she was clean."
Running the Oaks on the anti-bleeding medication Lasix as most North American horses, Serengeti Empress left no doubt after breaking inside from the gate. The question from there was whether she'd be challenged, something Liora gamely attempted in the stretch before falling short.
Though less dominant than September's 19-length domination of the Grade 2 Pocahontas here, Serengeti Empress posted a victory memorable for her resilience and assertiveness.
"She's such a fast filly," Ortiz said. "She took me to the front and she fought the entire way around there. ... This is an incredible win."