LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Secret Oath had the best finish from the worst possible starting spot and reminded trainer D. Wayne Lukas what it’s like to win the Kentucky Oaks after a long drought.
The filly charged from a five-wide pack to grab the lead from Yuugiri and held off favorite Nest by two lengths Friday in the 148th Oaks at Churchill Downs, giving the 86-year-old Lukas his fifth Oaks win and first since 1990.
Coming off a third-place run behind colts Cyberknife and Barber Road in the Arkansas Derby, the chestnut filly started the 14-horse race from the rail and was in the middle as Yuugiri and Echo Zulu set the pace through the final turn. Secret Oath steadily worked forward into contention by the far turn before surging outside Echo Zulu and eventually into the lead as Yuugiri faded to 13th.
“Being in the one hole (post position), we didn’t have much choice on what to do,” said Lukas, who tied Woody Stephens for the most Oaks wins by a trainer. “I told (jockey) Luis (Saez) not to get too creative on the turn and make his move if he was going to get in position on the backside. When I saw him moving around the turn, I turned and hugged my wife and said, ‘here we go.’ It feels great.”
Nest, the 2-1 favorite, made a push down the stretch but couldn’t catch Secret Oath at the finish. As she earned her fifth career win in eight starts, the Hall of Fame trainer got his first Grade 1 stakes win since the 2017 Hopeful Stakes with Sporting Chance at Saratoga.
Lukas, who last won the Oaks in 1990 with Seaside Attraction, also triumphed in 1989 (Open Mind), 1984 (Lucky Lucky Lucky) and 1982 (Blush With Pride). The milestone victory offset colt Ethereal Road’s defection from the Kentucky Derby earlier Friday.
“After you win one and you think it a little while, the real satisfaction is when you can put these people that work with these horses and raise them and so forth in that position,” Lukas said.
With Saez aboard, Secret Oath covered the 1 1/8th mile on a good track in 1:49.44 and paid $10.80, $5.60 and $4.60. She took $767,250 for the win.
“We just tried to have a good break and let her try to go to the lead and just follow the speed,” Saez said. “We looked for the number 4 horse (Nest) and just followed her because we know she’s going to take us there. That was the best part because at that point we know we have a good chance to win the race.”
Nest returned $4.20 and $3.20 to place, and Desert Dawn paid $15.40 to show.
A crowd of 100,188 came to Churchill Downs, which was back at full capacity for the first time since 2019 after two years of schedule changes with limited spectators because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Race fans — many of whom ditched the face masks required the past two runnings — enthusiastically partied beneath the Twin Spires and in the infield with women in big, colorful hats and men puffing cigars while wearing bright suits. Kentucky’s trademark bourbon flowed, much of it in mint juleps.
Not even a cool, cloudy afternoon with periodic showers spoiled the scene after the restrictions. Later races were delayed slightly and fans retreated beneath the grandstands after storms moved over the historic track.
Much of the attention in the Oaks was on Nest, the 5-2 morning line favorite who dominated the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland by 8 1/4 lengths nearly a month ago. The filly had won her past three starts by nearly 15 lengths combined and aimed to give trainer Todd Pletcher consecutive victories in the premier race for fillies.
Nest stayed close to the leaders and mounted a strong run in the stretch, but not enough to catch Secret Oath.
“She did everything right and ended up pretty well,” jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. said. “She just got beat and was trying hard late.”