Secret Oath follows historic hoofsteps as filly in Preakness

May 19th, 2022

The Preakness (G1) media guide lists six female winners from a total of 55 fillies who took on males in the classic. Yet the overall stat obscures the changing fortunes of fillies in the Preakness, and the recent trend is far more encouraging for 2022 contender Secret Oath.

The first segment of Preakness history, from its 1873 inaugural through 1889 at its original Pimlico home, is not very informative. Only three fillies ran in this span, with Emily F. posting the best result as the third-placer in 1880.

Turn-of-the-century version in New York

The Preakness was not held at Pimlico from 1890 through 1908. A race by that name was staged at New York’s Morris Park in 1890, then went on hiatus for the next three years (1891-93), until renewed at another old New York venue, Gravesend.

The 1894-1908 editions at Gravesend had a completely different character. Contested at a much shorter distance (one mile and 70 yards or 1 1/16 miles), the “Preakness” in most of those years was restricted to three-year-olds who had not won a race of a certain dollar amount. That amount varied, according to the race charts from 1895-1907.

Fillies were frequent competitors in the New York phase, and 42% of the 19 female runners cracked the top three. Two won, Flocarline (1903) and Whimsical (1906) (who topped an all-filly exacta). A total of six fillies placed, evenly split between three seconds and three thirds.

Because this version is so unlike the Preakness in its essence, I’ve argued that the New York runnings shouldn’t count on the honor roll. Indeed, contemporary sources didn’t recognize a relationship with the classic at Pimlico, and they weren’t lumped in with the properly defined Preakness until long afterward.

First fillies to win at Pimlico

Following its 1909 restoration at Pimlico, fillies added to their stats in the next couple of decades. Rhine Maiden defeated males in 1915, just nine days after Regret famously became the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby. Nellie Morse captured the 1924 Preakness, beating the eventual winners of the Belmont S. (Mad Play) and Travers S. (Sun Flag).

Overall in the 1909-1939 time frame, however, only 22% of the female runners managed to win or place. A total of 27 fillies tried, and aside from the two winners, just four other fillies placed. Notably, Snowflake finished third to Triple Crown legend Gallant Fox in 1930.

For the next four decades – 1940 through 1979 – not a single filly ran in the Preakness. That substantial gap in the record must be kept in mind when evaluating the raw numbers.

Derby heroines gallant in defeat

Since 1980, six fillies have competed in the Preakness with high-percentage results. Two winners and two placers add up to a 67% in-the-money rate, which would be even higher if you remove one outlier who shouldn’t have run.

The current era of Preakness fillies begins with Genuine Risk, the 1980 Kentucky Derby winner. The first female since Regret to star at Churchill Downs, Genuine Risk threw down a serious challenge in her bid to follow up at Pimlico. But she was floated wide off the far turn by Codex, under an aggressive Angel Cordero Jr. ride, and ended up 4 3/4 lengths adrift second.

Codex, a new shooter coming off a victory in the Hollywood Derby (G1), was the first of six Preakness winners trained by D. Wayne Lukas. The Hall of Famer now seeks a record-tying seventh trophy with Secret Oath, who’s not the first filly he’s taken to the Preakness.

Ironically, given the controversy over Genuine Risk’s loss, Lukas found himself in a similar position with a Derby-winning filly in 1988. The Lukas-trained Winning Colors wired the Kentucky Derby, holding on by a neck from the closing Forty Niner.

In their Preakness rematch, Forty Niner was intent on taking the lead, and his rider, Pat Day, made sure to push Winning Colors out wide. That left a gaping hole for Risen Star, the troubled third from the Derby, who shot through to win well. Winning Colors soldiered on gamely for third, while Forty Niner paid the price for his tactics and faded to seventh.

The last filly to attempt the Preakness after the Derby was Excellent Meeting in 1999. With her future Hall of Fame stablemate Silverbulletday set for the Kentucky Oaks (G1), the two were kept on separate paths throughout the spring. Excellent Meeting won her past six when avoiding Silverbulletday, and she came from the clouds in the Derby for a respectable fifth. Unfortunately, Excellent Meeting was pulled up in the Preakness due to a suspected breathing problem.

Kentucky Oaks angle

The past three fillies to try the Preakness were all exiting the Kentucky Oaks, like Secret Oath, and the two with stellar credentials both defeated the boys at Pimlico.

Hall of Famer Rachel Alexandra’s record 20 1/4-length rout of the 2009 Kentucky Oaks sparked thoughts that she could have won the Derby. The fact that the Derby went to a 50-1 longshot, Mine That Bird, only reinforced the idea. Also, Rachel Alexandra recorded a 111 Brisnet Speed rating in the Oaks, compared to Mine That Bird’s 110. And jockey Calvin Borel got off the Derby winner to stick with “Rachel.”

Despite breaking from the far outside post 13 at Pimlico, and vying with future sprint champion Big Drama early, the filly duly proved her superiority in the Preakness. She continued to do so for the rest of the season, culminating in Horse of the Year honors.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was Ria Antonia (2014), the promoted Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) winner via disqualification, who was ambitiously spotted here after losing three in a row. Ria Antonia’s distant sixth in the Kentucky Oaks underscored that she didn’t fit in the Preakness, and she accordingly reported home last behind California Chrome.

The pandemic-delayed Preakness of 2020 was a departure from chronological norms. Yet Swiss Skydiver’s epic victory over Derby winner Authentic did have one point in common with Rachel Alexandra’s Preakness.

Although Swiss Skydiver was improving from a runner-up effort in the Kentucky Oaks, she had registered a higher Brisnet Speed figure than Authentic. She earned a 109 two starts back in the Alabama (G1), while Authentic’s best, up to that point, was a 107 in the Haskell (G1). Authentic scored a 104 in the Derby, the same as Swiss Skydiver in her Oaks loss. As they dueled to the wire at Pimlico, Swiss Skydiver kept pulling out extra.

How Secret Oath stacks up

If Secret Oath doesn’t bring the same swagger as Rachel Alexandra, she did win the Kentucky Oaks handsomely, while an 80-1 shot stunned the Derby. And she recorded a better Brisnet Speed figure than the longshot Derby winner (103 versus Rich Strike’s 102). Two Preakness runners have scored higher, Early Voting (111) and Skippylongstocking (107), but both ratings are from the Wood Memorial (G2) that is orders of magnitude beyond their other races. 

Like Swiss Skydiver, Secret Oath had prior experience on the Triple Crown trail. Swiss Skydiver had finished second in the postponed Blue Grass (G2), where she argued a swift pace. Secret Oath was a better-than-appears third after a tough trip in the Arkansas Derby (G1), prompting a rider switch to Luis Saez who steered her perfectly in the Oaks.

Secret Oath therefore fits the recent pattern of fillies who excel in the Preakness.