Cox boasts Oaks duo of favorite Monomoy Girl, Sassy Sienna

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Kentucky Oaks favorite Monomoy Girl has been impressive, winning five of six starts by a combined 20 1/2 lengths.

Trainer Brad Cox believes the filly can run even better. Monomoy Girl isn’t the only horse in the field Cox will have an eye on.

He is just as excited about Sassy Sienna, who boasts a solid resume even with fewer victories. Sassy Sienna and Monomoy Girl will be bookend competitors with different prospects in Friday’s $1 million race for 3-year-old fillies at Churchill Downs.

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Monomoy Girl is the 2-1 favorite in the 1 1/8 mile race and will start from the outside post. Sassy Sienna will begin on the rail at 15-1 but could set the early pace in the 14-horse field that includes 5-2 second choice Midnight Bisou, winner of three in a row.

Cox is anxious to see how his inside-outside combination performs in a race that will go a long way toward determining the year’s top filly.

“Sassy will be close,” said Cox, who also has a third entrant in 30-1 longshot Kelly’s Humor. “Her and Monomoy have similar styles as far as where we would like for them to be placed in the race.

“Obviously, there’s going to be concern with one being caught wide in the first turn and the other one hopefully getting a clean run.”

So far, Monomoy Girl has done well separating from competitors in most situations with jockey Florent Geroux aboard.

The chestnut filly has started two 2018 races as the favorite and won both, taking last month’s Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland by 5 1/2 lengths after winning the Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra by 2 1/2 at Fair Grounds in Louisiana in February. Her lone setback was a second in the Grade 2 Golden Rod Stakes last November at Churchill Downs, which seems far from where she is now.

“I’m looking for a big effort from her,” Cox said of Monomoy Girl. “She’s showing the signs that she’s definitely ready to run with her breezes, her gallops, her energy level. We’re extremely happy with where she as far as fitness and health and coat.”

Sassy Sienna earned her second victory as a 3-year-old on April 13 in the Grade 3 Fantasy at Oaklawn Park with Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens aboard. Cox hopes the dark brown filly can use her speed entering the first turn to avoid being crowded against the rail.

Despite Cox’s optimistic outlook for those horses, most of the attention in the Oaks will likely focus on Monomoy Girl and Midnight Bisou, the race’s only entrants with single-digit odds.

Midnight Bisou will start from the No. 10 post. Her 160 Oaks qualifying points were just six more than Monomoy Girl, and the filly won last month’s Santa Anita Oaks by 3 1/2 lengths.

Trainer William Spawr’s pupil has won by a combined 10 1/4 lengths during its surge and will enter its next challenge with Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, 52, making his fourth straight start aboard the horse. Smith won last year’s Oaks aboard Abel Tasman and seeks to become the first rider since Eddie Arcaro (1951-53) to win in consecutive years.

Bob Baffert prepared filly Rayya for the Oaks, but isn’t sure how the Kentucky-bred horse will perform stateside after running primarily in the United Arab Emirates. The trainer believes the guidance of Smith – who will ride Kentucky Derby favorite Justify for Baffert on Saturday – and Midnight Bisou’s streak might provide a slight advantage against Monomoy Girl.

“She has the right style to just sit out there, and Mike Smith is on her,” Baffert said. “I just see two horses there.”

369 horses nominated to compete in Triple Crown series

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – A total of 369 3-year-olds were made eligible to compete in this year’s Triple Crown series during the early nomination period.

Each of the horses was nominated through a $600 payment to compete in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont stakes. The Triple Crown opens May 6 with the Derby.

The number of nominated horses increased by 57 from last year’s total of 312. They include a record 37 horses based in Japan.

Among the notable horses is Forte, last year’s 2-year-old champion trained by Todd Pletcher.

Also among the predominantly male horses nominated was a filly named Hoosier Philly.

Brad Cox led all trainers with 38 horses nominated to the series. Pletcher was second with 36 horses, followed by Steve Asmussen and Ken McPeek with 13 each. Chad Brown and Hideyuki Mori had 12 each.

Others nominated include Arabian Knight, Cave Rock and Newgate, all trained by Bob Baffert. He is currently banned by Churchill Downs Inc. through this year’s Derby, although Baffert is challenging his two-year punishment in federal court.

For the Derby, horses under the care of any suspended trainer may be transferred to another trainer and become eligible to earn Derby qualifying points as long as the transfer is done by Feb. 28.

Last year, Baffert transferred two horses to another trainer and both ran in the Derby, although neither was highly placed.

Horses that were not nominated to the Triple Crown series by the early deadline of Jan. 28 can make a late payment of $6,000 through March 27 to become eligible.

Newgate wins Robert B. Lewis Stakes; Baffert runs 1-2-3-4

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Newgate won the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes by a neck, with Bob Baffert as the trainer of all four horses in the Kentucky Derby prep race at Santa Anita.

Ridden by Frankie Dettori, Newgate ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.11 and paid $4 and $2.60 as the even-money favorite. There was no show wagering because of the field size.

Hard to Figure returned $5.20 at 12-1 odds. Worcester was another 1 3/4 lengths back in third. Arabian Lion was fourth.

“So much improvement in all these horses,” Baffert said. “I was actually nervous before the race, worried that something weird might happen, but I can relax now.”

The Lewis was a Kentucky Derby prep race, but no points were awarded because Baffert has been banned for two years by Churchill Downs Inc. The Hall of Fame trainer was in Louisville to testify in federal court as he seeks a temporary injunction to end the suspension, which runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet. It was meted out following a failed drug test by Medina Spirit after the colt finished first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

Newgate earned his first graded stakes victory. The colt was second, beaten by a neck in the Sham Stakes last month in his previous start.

“Frankie Dettori has been teaching him how to just sit back, relax and come with a punch and that’s what he did today,” Baffert said.

The victory, worth $120,000, increased Newgate’s career earnings to $241,975, with two wins in six starts.