If someone told you that Todd Pletcher won the Longines Kentucky Oaks, you probably wouldn't be that surprised and you'd probably be thinking he won it with the undefeated Unlimited Budget or the favorite, Dreaming of Julia. However, it was the overlooked Grade 2 Gazelle runner-up, Princess of Sylmar with jockey Mike Smith, that gave Pletcher his third Kentucky Oaks victory, having won with Ashado in 2004 and Rags to Riches in 2007.
As Princess of Sylmar was making her way to the winner's circle to be adorned with the garland of lillies, many of the 113,820 fans at Churchill Downs were watching the exuberant crowd gathering on the turf and wondering just who was Princess of Sylmar.
Princess of Sylmar is the Pennsylvania homebred daughter of Majestic Warrior out of Storm Dixie, owned by King of Prussia Stable and Ed Stanco. She finished second in the Grade 2 Gazelle at Aqueduct behind Close Hatches. Prior to that, Princess of Sylmar was on a four-race win streak, which included two ungraded stakes.
"We're pleasantly surprised with her effort and her win," said Pletcher. "We didn't much like her first breeze (:48.60 April 20), but her second one (:49.20 April 27) was much better done. She's a good filly; we knew that all along. And we took her out of her natural running style last time. This time she made that good run and got it done."
The jubilant winning owners jumped and cheered as they crossed the track to the Oaks Day winner's circle. The celebration continued as the group made their way through the Churchill Downs press-box later, with sons of owner Ed Stanco carrying the garland of lillies on their shoulders. The joy this group of unknowns exhibited, winning with an unlikely winner, demonstrates the beauty and honor felt by winning the Kentucky Oaks.
Richard Mandella's Beholder sat just behind the front-running Midnight Lucky and had the lead at the top of the stretch, but was unable to hang onto it when Princess of Sylmar came running, and lost by a half-length.
"She ran great and I'm proud of her," said Mandella. "But she might have lost this race in the post parade. She was so full of herself and so wanting to go, that she was a handful in the parade and gave the pony a heck of a time."
Sent off as the third choice among the bettors, Pletcher's Unlimited Budget overcame a bump at the start, settled in behind the leaders, but had nothing left at the finish.
"It was a really good race for her," said Pletcher. "She was in a good spot and looked like she might be able to be right there at the finish."
Favored at 8-5, Dreaming of Julia broke poorly and was able to close sharply into the stretch, but was unable to get up in time and finished fourth.
"That did it all, right from the start," said jockey John Velazquez, aboard Dreaming of Julia. "She got pinched out of there and the race was over. She still ran a great race. I saved all the ground I could and try to give myself a chance to win the race. She made a nice run, but it was too much ground to make up."
Princess of Sylmar returned $76.90, $29.40, and $14. Beholder paid $9 and $5.60 and completed the $2 exacta for $727. Unlimited Budget paid $3.80 and completed the $2 trifecta for $3,470.80. Favored Dreaming of Julia completed the $2 superfecta for $12,445. The final time for the 1 1/8 mile race over the fast dirt was 1:47:28. The winning payout was the second highest in Kentucky Oaks history. A win wager on Lemons Forever paid $96.20 in 2006.
Photo: J. Oswald