That’s a question to be answered Friday with the 85th running of the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland.
Horsemen involved in the $600,000 Ashland are hoping their fillies will show themselves worthy of joining the likes of Echo Zulu, Secret Oath, Kathleen O., and Adare Manor in heading what appears to be an outstanding crop. The collective destiny of those budding equine stars is the May 6 Kentucky Oaks, for which the Ashland offers qualifying points on a 100-40-20-10 basis.
“This is a legit field of fillies,” said Aron Wellman, whose Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners co-owns the Ashland favorite, Nest, with Repole Stable. “Whoever is posing for photos on the Keeneland turf course afterward will have earned it.”
Nest, with Irad Ortiz Jr. riding for trainer Todd Pletcher, is one of eight fillies in the 1 1/16-mile Ashland, the ninth of 10 races on a Friday spring-meet opener that also includes the Lafayette (race 7) and Transylvania (race 8), both for 3-year-olds.
Nest, a bay daughter of Curlin, has been somewhat under the radar for much of this winter after ending what Wellman termed “an ideal 2-year-old season” with a victory in the Grade 2 Demoiselle at Aqueduct in early December. Nest has raced just once at 3, easily winning the Feb. 12 Suncoast at Tampa Bay Downs, while otherwise tucked away at the Palm Beach Downs training center that Pletcher uses as his winter base.
“By all accounts, she’s making the necessary progression in terms of her mental maturity and physical strength,” said Wellman. “We’ve had our sights set on the Ashland since the Suncoast. She’s trained very well in the eight weeks since then and we’re anticipating her taking another step forward Friday.”
Pletcher swept the Ashland and the Oaks last year with the eventual divisional champion, Malathaat, and has an identical agenda with Nest, a hard-closing filly who will break from post 4 with an overall record of three wins from four starts. Ortiz, who will ride regularly here throughout the 15-day meet, was aboard for all three wins but not for her lone defeat in the Nov. 5 Tempted at Belmont Park.
Surely the horse to catch will be Happy Soul (post 6, John Velazquez), who also has raced just once this year, winning the six-furlong Dixie Belle on Feb. 19 at Oaklawn Park for trainer Wesley Ward. Happy Soul, by Runhappy, will be trying two turns for the first time and will need to settle kindly for Velazquez while two of the other top contenders, Interstatedaydream and Awake At Midnyte, figure to give closest chase.
Interstatedaydream (post 2, Florent Geroux) earned an 89 Beyer Speed Figure in an 8 1/4-length allowance romp at Oaklawn Park last month for Brad Cox, whose career trajectory as the reigning two-time champion trainer reached a key point in the 2018 Ashland when Monomoy Girl became his first-ever Grade 1 winner. Interstatedaydream, owned by Flurry Racing, hinted at her potential when second in the Grade 2 Adirondack last summer at Saratoga in her second career try.
Awake At Midnyte (post 3, Mario Gutierrez) can claim the top Beyer in the field, having earned a 90 when second in the Grade 2 Santa Ynez in early January at her home track, Santa Anita. The Doug O’Neill trainee was an okay third behind the Cox-trained Turnerloose when beaten 3 3/4 lengths in her only interim start, the Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra at Fair Grounds on Feb. 19.
Maybe the sleeper of the group is Cocktail Moments (post 7, Corey Lanerie), who has shown herself capable of closing stoutly and would stand to benefit from a rapid pace unfolding ahead of her. Kenny McPeek, who won the Ashland 20 years ago with Take Charge Lady, trains the Uncle Mo filly for Dixiana Farms.
Rounding out the lineup are Miss Mattie B, Sterling Silver, and Heavenly Hellos, all of them looking to emulate recent longshot Ashland winners Weep No More (30-1 in 2016), Sailor’s Valentine (22-1 in 2017), and Out for a Spin (52-1 in 2019).
The Ashland purse includes $100,000 from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund. Interstatedaydream, an Ontario-bred, and Sterling Silver, a New York-bred, are the only fillies ineligible for the bonus money.
Lasix usage is not permitted in stakes at Keeneland. Happy Soul and Interstatedaydream are the only Ashland starters who raced on Lasix in their latest starts.
Main-track races at 1 1/16 miles at Keeneland begin and end at what otherwise is the sixteenth pole.
First post Friday is 1 p.m. Eastern, with the Ashland going at 5:16