The late Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens won his record fifth and final Kentucky Oaks (G1) in 1981. The following year a younger upstart named D. Wayne Lukas, well on his way to revolutionizing the Thoroughbred training game over the next decade-plus and to earning his own plaque in Saratoga Springs, won his first Oaks with a filly named Blush With Pride, who would became a matriarch of some distinction.
Forty years after that first taste of Oaks success, and 32 years on from his fourth win in the race, Lukas, 86, finally matched Stephens’ Oaks record on Friday when Secret Oath powered home under a confident ride from Luis Saez.
A full field of 14 lined up for the $1.25 million Oaks, contested over 1 1/8 miles on a track rated wet-fast. Since the field was drawn Monday, Secret Oath had been considered among the “big four” in the 148th edition of the Oaks. The wagering bore this out. Nest, coming off an explosive win in the Ashland (G1), started as the 2-1 favorite. The undefeated Kathleen O. was second choice at 4-1, with Secret Oath and last year’s juvenile champion Echo Zulu starting at 4.4-1. The others all started at double-digit odds.
Secret Oath was an explosive winner of her first two starts of the season at Oaklawn, winning the Martha Washington S. and Honeybee (G3) by a combined margin of 14 3/4 lengths. With her position in the Kentucky Oaks secure via the 60 qualifying points earned from those two wins, and with the Arkansas-based colts looking beatable, connections rolled the dice and next ran Secret Oath in the Arkansas Derby (G1).
“If the Fantasy (G3) were Grade 2, I might have gone in it. Or Grade 1, we might have gone in it,” said Robert Mitchell, who bred and owns Secret Oath with his wife, Stacy, under the Briland Farm moniker. “But you have the Arkansas Derby, which is a Grade 1 at $1.25 million, which is the same purse as the Oaks today.”
Although favored at 7-5, a rough trip derailed Secret Oath’s chances at victory in the Arkansas Derby, which was won by Cyberknife with the filly 3 1/2 lengths behind in third.
Perhaps receiving a little less attention than the other market leaders leading up to the Oaks, Secret Oath nonetheless turned in a patented performance reminiscent of the earlier form she displayed at Oaklawn. Breaking from post 1, Secret Oath dropped back to eighth entering the clubhouse turn. With no rival outside of her, Secret Oath was able to easily maneuver several paths out and in the clear entering the backside.
Set up perfectly by a hot pace of :22.45 and :46.51 ripped off by Yuugiri, Secret Oath made a strong middle move into third behind the tiring Yuugiri and the pace-tracking Echo Zulu around the far turn. Nest, meanwhile, was buried inside chasing the leaders and did not find adequate running room until well after Secret Oath had surged to the lead at the top of the stretch.
“Being in the one hole we didn’t have much choice on what to do,” Lukas said. “I told Luis that down the backside to get into position. When I saw him moving around the turn and I turned and hugged my wife and said ‘here we go.'”
Down the lane, Secret Oath gradually opened up her advantage, with Nest her closest pursuer but unable to seriously challenge. At the wire, Secret Oath was two lengths in front of Nest, who staved off 50-1 chance Desert Dawn for second by a half-length. Echo Zulu, who ran a terrific race after racing so close to the fast pace, was another half-length behind in fourth. The order of finish was rounded out by Kathleen O., Shahama, Turnerloose, Cocktail Moments, Candy Raid, Nostalgic, Goddess of Fire, Hidden Connection, Yuugiri, and Venti Valentine.
Secret Oath returned $10.80 after covering the Oaks course in 1:49.44. In addition to Blush With Pride, Secret Oath now joins Lucky Lucky Lucky (1984), Hall of Famer Open Mind (1989), and Seaside Attraction (1990) as Lukas-trained Oaks winners.
“It feels great,” Lukas said. “I’ve said all week, as trainers we think it’s us. After you win one, the real satisfaction is for the (owners) who raised her and let them have the opportunity to enjoy this and get the thrill.”
Secret Oath now possesses a record of 8-5-0-2, $1,295,167. A distant third on debut over one mile at Churchill last October, she rebounded at the end of that month to take a 1 1/16-mile maiden by 5 1/2 lengths. Her one poor effort in stakes company followed, a fifth-place finish in the Golden Rod (G2).
Secret Oath preceded her victories in the Martha Washington and Honeybee with an 8 1/4-length allowance win over a mile at Oaklawn on New Year’s Eve, an early sign this was a far different filly than the one that had been blown out in two of her first three starts.
From the first crop by the late champion Arrogate, North America’s all-time leading money winner, Secret Oath was produced by the multiple stakes-winning Absinthe Minded, a daughter of Quiet American who placed twice in the Apple Blossom H. (G1).