(Travel Column / Coady Photography & Courtesy of Churchill Downs)

From the Fair Grounds Media Team:

The score is tied at one apiece. Something will have to give when Clairiere and Travel Column meet for the third time in a row, this time with a lot more than the $400,000 that’s on the line in Saturday’s TwinSpires.com Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) at Fair Ground Race Course & Slots. The tremendously talented 3-year-old fillies meet again, with a berth into Churchill Downs’ April 30 Kentucky Oaks Presented by Longines waiting in the balance, along with 170 qualifying points for the race, on a 100-40-20-10 scale.

The Oaks is a deserving supporting feature to the $1 million TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) and adds plenty of intrigue to a 14-race card that features eight stakes. Long on history, six of the last 16 winners of the Fair Grounds Oaks have gone on to double at Churchill Downs, with the last being Untapable in 2014.

Run at 1 1/16 miles, the Oaks drew a field of eight, though all eyes will be on Stonestreet Stables’ homebred Clairiere (post 6 at 5-2 on Mike Diliberto’s morning line, with Joe Talamo to ride) and OXO Equine’s Travel Column (post 8 at 2-1 with Florent Geroux).

Clairiere pulled off a slight upset when she beat Travel Column in the local February 13 Rachel Alexandra (G2), winning a stretch duel by a neck for trainer Steve Asmussen, who has won the local Oaks three time and has pulled off the Oaks double twice, with Summerly in in 2005 and again with Untapable. Clairiere, a regally-bred daughter of Curlin out of the multiple grade 1 winner Cavorting, was making her seasonal debut and first start since running second to Travel Column in Churchill’s Golden Road (G2) in November, in what was just her second lifetime start. Clairiere has closed from at or near the back in all three career starts, and in an Oaks without a lot of early pace, she will once again have to make up ground on Travel Column. Regardless, Asmussen is looking forward to renewing the rivalry.

“Rubber match, right, with two qualities fillies,” Asmussen said. “The trip worked out perfectly for us in the Rachel Alexandra. At a mile-and-a-sixteenth, I think the fillies are competitive. It’s the same distance on Saturday. We feel really good about our prospects going forward.”

Travel Column lost nothing in defeat as the even-money favorite in the Rachel Alexandra for trainer Brad Cox, who won his first local Oaks last year with Bonny South and has won two of the last three Kentucky Oaks as well. Travel Column has every right to turn the tables on Clairiere, as she was forced to make first run and tired only slightly in what was also her first start since the Golden Road. It was in that 1-length win at Churchill that the Frosted filly came to national attention, as she encountered plenty of trouble early and late yet won going away in what was clearly a coming-out performance. Travel Column is 2-for-4 lifetime and Cox is expecting another forward move with a filly who should have a tactical edge on her main rival.

“I think she should get a good stalking trip from our post,” Cox said. “There’s no pace in the race. We’re not going to sit back there and give someone the race. We didn’t win (the Rachel Alexandra) but we were very, very pleased with the comeback and we expect her to move forward off that return. She’s a very, very good work horse and she’s been training great since that race.”

Joel Politi’s Li’l Tootsie (post 4 at 4-1 with Luis Saez) is 2-for-3 in her career for trainer Tom Amoss, with all three starts coming at Fair Grounds. The daughter of Tapiture aired at 6 furlongs in her second start then stretched out to 1 1/16 miles and again looked good, settling early then finding room along the rail to win a February 21 optional-claimer in the slop. Amoss and Politi teamed in 2019 with Serengeti Empress, who starred locally and went on to win the Kentucky Oaks. Li’l Tootsie has yet to show she can play on a stage like that, but Amoss still enters with plenty of confidence.

“To say that we are in deep water is probably true, but at the same time this is a filly who can handle deep water; she might be in the deep end of the pool but she’s doing the backstroke,” Amoss said. “She’s a good horse and she’s one that can hold her own with any of the fillies in this country. That’s not only a trainer’s opinion, but it shows in the speed figures. The Ragozin number is very, very good.”

A pair of Gulfstream Park invaders add to the depth of what is the best Oaks prep to date. Shadwell Stable’s homebred Zaajel (post 1 at 8-1 with Irad Ortiz Jr.) in undefeated in two starts for Todd Pletcher. The daughter of Street Sense won twice at 7 furlongs at Gulfstream, including the January 30 Forward Gal (G3), though she’ll clearly have to improve in what will be her two-turn debut. Zaajel has settled just off a quick pace in both her runs, and with an inside draw in what is a paceless Oaks, could find herself on the lead in an attempt to give Pletcher his third Oaks win, to go with Unlimited Budget (2013) and Ashado (2004), who also went on to win at Churchill.

Juddmonte Farms’ homebred Obligatory (post 5 at 5-1 with Jose Ortiz) is another who should be close in her two-turn debut for trainer Bill Mott. The Curlin filly didn’t fire when a troubled fourth on debut at Belmont Park in October but put it all together in her next start February 7 at Gulfstream, when she stretched out to a one-turn mile and drew off with ease.

Franco Meli’s homebred Il Malocchio (post 7 at 15-1 with Brian Hernandez Jr.) was third in Tampa Bay Downs’ February 6 Suncoast in her seasonal debut and first start for trainer Kenny McPeek, while Brad King, Jim Cone, Scott Bryant, and Stan and Suzanne Kirby’s Moon Swag (post 2 at 20-1 with Adam Beschizza) was a distant third in the Rachel Alexandra but is on the improve for trainer Brendan Walsh, and Live Oak Plantation’s Souper Sensational (post 3 at 15-1 with John Velazquez) was second in the local Silverbulletday in February for trainer Mark Casse but will try to bounce back from a well-beaten sixth in the Rachel Alexandra.

Additional Fair Grounds Oaks Quotes:

Amoss, Li’l Tootsie: Looking the field over, the one thing that captures your attention, there’s no real pacesetter in the race. These horses are all stalk and jump on the lead twice. If you look at our last route race, which is a complete contradiction to the two sprints in terms of style, you have to ask yourself ‘What are you going to get this time around from Li’l Tootsie?’ I strongly believe she’s going to be much sharper out of the gate and much more involved with what’s going on early in the race. I’m not here to tell you that she’s going to be the pacemaker, because that’s not really that important to me, I think she’s very capable of running well from anywhere on the track, I just believe that she’s going to break sharper and be a part of that first wave of horses. I think her God-given athleticism will come into play.

I have a very good relationship with (Luis) Saez and his agent Kiaran McLaughlin, a former trainer, and we’ve had a lot of success with them. Luis won two grade 1’s for me last year with Serengeti Empress and No Parole and when I found out he was coming into town, I told them I would support them all I can. I think he’s one of the best riders in the entire country and I’m honored to have him on my horses.

She’s got three races and a route under her belt. When you look at her in the paddock, she’s a very good looking, athletic filly. She is also more feminine-looking than say, Serengeti Empress, so she doesn’t need as much. She gets a lot out of her gallops, she’s very enthusiastic in the morning, she loves to train. With what we’ve got coming ahead, I just don’t feel like she needs to be set down hard anymore. We did that. We got to where we wanted to be. I’m very comfortable with how we’ve trained coming into the race and the time between races.

Walsh, Moon Swag: She runs well at Fair Grounds. She hasn’t done anything wrong this winter and it’s another chance to get some valuable black type. Realistically we are looking at running for a placing, but who knows. She’ll be running at them at the end, and if there is a pace meltdown, we might get lucky. She’s tricky temperamentally, but she’s gotten better all the time. Three or four months ago you wouldn’t have believed that she is where she is now with a live shot at a race like this. Since we’ve gotten to know her, she’s found consistency through her routine. She just needs to keep progressing in her races and I can’t see why she’d stop now.