Secret Oath Completes Major Apple Blossom Work

Oaklawn Barn Notes by Robert Yates

Contact: Jennifer Hoyt, or (501) 363-4305

Friday, April 07, 2023

Secret Oath

Photo Credit: Coady Photography

Secret Oath Completes Major Apple Blossom Work

Secret Oath completed major preparations for the $1 million Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) April 15 at Oaklawn with a 5-furlong bullet workout Friday morning for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas and breeder/owner Briland Farm (Robert and Stacy Mitchell).

Breezing over a fast surface immediately after Oaklawn opened for training, Secret Oath covered the distance in 1:00 under her regular breeze rider, jockey Mickaelle Michel. It was the fastest of 23 works recorded at the distance. Secret Oath recorded splits of :12.40 for her opening eighth of a mile, :25.20 for a quarter mile, :37.20 for 3 furlongs and :48.20 for a half-mile before galloping out 6 furlongs in 1:14.80, according to lead clocker Jim Hamilton.

Friday’s work was the third for Secret Oath since her 2 ¾-length victory in the $350,000 Azeri Stakes (G2) for older fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles March 11. The Azeri was Oaklawn’s final major prep for the 1 1/16-mile Apple Blossom, among the country’s biggest two-turn prize for older females.

“She did just everything perfect,” Michel said, noting the target time for the work was 1:00. “It was easy for her.”

Secret Oath was a finalist for an Eclipse Award as the country’s champion 3-year-old filly of 2022 after winning Oaklawn’s $200,000 Martha Washington Stakes and $300,000 Honeybee Stakes (G3) and the $1.25 million Kentucky Oaks (G1) at Churchill Downs. The Azeri marked the 4-year-old debut for Secret Oath, who has a 6-2-3 record from 14 lifetime starts and earnings of $1,982,267.

Also working toward the Apple Blossom Friday morning at Oaklawn was Hot and Sultry for trainer Norm Casse and prominent Arkansas owners Alex and JoAnn Lieblong. Hot Sultry, fourth in the Azeri, breezed a half-mile in :47.80. She galloped out 5 furlongs in :59.80 and 6 furlongs in 1:13. The Azeri was the two-turn debut for Hot and Sultry, who won the $150,000 American Beauty Stakes for older fillies and mares at 6 furlongs Jan. 21 at Oaklawn.

Millionaire Grade 1 winner Clairiere, also pointing for the Apple Blossom, galloped Friday morning at Oaklawn for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen and breeder/owner Stonestreet Stables (Barbara Banke). Clairiere finished second in last year’s Apple Blossom and second in the Azeri, which was her 5-year-old debut.

Post positions for the Apple Blossom and the $500,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3) April 15 will be drawn Monday. The Count Fleet is for older horses at 6 furlongs.

Combs Small Stable Shines

Trainer Bentley Combs may be saving the best for last. Again.

Combs’ small claiming operation has produced the winner of the Trail’s End, traditionally the final race of the Oaklawn meeting, the last two years and he may have the 2023 favorite in Hellorhighwater, who held off Tiger Moon by 1 ¾ lengths to win a 1 3/16-mile starter-allowance prep March 31.

Hellorhighwater and Tiger Moon are both owned by Ten Strike Racing (founding partners Marshall Gramm and Arkansas native Clay Sanders), which also campaigned 2021 and 2022 Trail’s End winner Original Intent with Combs.

“Lindsay’s horse was the one that gave me the scare,” Combs said, referring to Tiger Moon’s trainer, Lindsay Schultz. “Turning for home, I thought he moved a little early and then we kept the margin about the same. I said, ‘We’re OK.’ Lindsay’s horse is the one that scared me, so it’s kind of interesting that Marshall’s got two horses that are (pointing for the Trail’s End). We’ll see.”

A victory in the Trail’s End would make Combs, 35, just the second trainer to win three consecutive runnings of the 1 ¾-mile starter-allowance marathon. David Vance won the first three editions (1972, 1973 and 1974) and has a record seven Trail’s End victories overall.

Maybe no trainer at the 2022-2023 Oaklawn meeting has done more with less than Combs, who has an eye-catching 39 percent strike rate (7 of 18) despite having only seven stalls. Hellorhighwater, a 7-year-old Ghostzapper gelding Combs claimed for $10,000 Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs, is among five three-time winners at the meeting. All three victories have been around two turns in starter-allowance company. Combs, with 13 fewer starts, has already more than doubled his victory total from the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting, his first season in Hot Springs.

“Right now, we have four horses,” Combs said Tuesday morning. “We have seven stalls for the meet and consistently had about five horses. Kind of a revolving door. That’s what you need for this. You look down the shedrow and see four horses and go, ‘Oh, My God, we’re about ready to go out of business.’ Frankly, that is the feeling we get every two months with our size of stable. But here you have to have those owners and last year we didn’t come in with as many owners like that. But this year we’ve come in with owners that as soon as they get one claimed, it’s, ‘Let’s go find another one and put it in the right spot.’ That’s what you need for this.”

A former assistant under trainer Dallas Stewart, Combs recorded his first career victory in the fall of 2017. Combs was raised in the heart of Thoroughbred country, Lexington, Ky., but he took a circuitous route to the winner’s circle.

After graduating high school in 2006, Combs enrolled in the University of Louisville’s Equine Industry Program. Combs’ classmates at Louisville included Schultz, another future trainer, Jason Barkley; Liz Crow, now a noted bloodstock agent and Ten Strike’s racing manager; and Gary Palmisano Jr., who was named Churchill Downs Incorporated’s executive director of racing last fall. Combs graduated from Louisville in 2010 and took a job with locally based health insurance giant Humana.

“Very boring cubicle work,” Combs said. “I wasn’t very happy with it, so I said I was going to shoot for my MBA. Wound up going go to Ole Miss. Kind of wanted to get out of Louisville for a little bit and I had a buddy, Jim Hanauer, who was an assistant athletic director down there and he was like, ‘Why don’t you come live with me and do the MBA thing down there?’ Gave it a shot and it was a lot of fun.”

Combs received his Master of Business Administration degree in 2012 and then returned to Lexington to work as a BETologist at Keeneland, helping fans handicap races, understand betting, read Daily Racing Form, etc. He also had a similar role at Churchill Downs.

“I’ll be completely honest,” Combs said. “I was looking for a resume booster, as far as getting a frontside job. So, I talked to Palmisano. He said, ‘Why don’t you go hot walk for Dallas Stewart?’ I wound up hot walking for Dallas in the mornings and then going over and working on the front side. I guess that was 2013. It was kind of an interesting deal because Dallas didn’t have many horses at the time because I got the opportunity to climb the ranks real fast, from hot walker to, ‘We need a groom. Get in there.’ After grooming for probably a year, kind of needed like a foreman kind of gig. Then, I gradually moved up to an assistant and off we go.”

Combs, as a traveling assistant for Stewart, recorded his first victory Nov. 2, 2017, at Churchill Downs, but considers early 2018 the actual start of his training career. Combs, then based at Fair Grounds, was 2 for 2 at the 2021 Oaklawn meeting and wintered in Hot Springs for the first time in 2021-2022, winning three races. Combs said Gramm, fond of giving Louisville EIP graduates a career push, steered him to Oaklawn.

“That was Marshall kind of wanting to make a change,” Combs said. “Plus, Marshall made the comment: ‘You can meet more people and pick up owners and stuff like that coming to Oaklawn,’ which is true because, honestly, I’ve picked up more owners coming to Oaklawn than I ever did at the Fair Grounds. I don’t know what it is. That’s just the way Oaklawn is. It seems to be that way so far for us.”

In addition to Hellorhighwater, Combs has had two other first-off-the-claim winners this season at Oaklawn – Dr. Forman (won for a $10,000 tag) Dec. 10 and Wobberjod ($8,000) March 4. Other clients for Combs include Clyde Mann and Quien Sabe Racing Stable of former trainer Ellis Naifeh.

“We’ve gotten very lucky this year,” Combs said. “Again, it goes back to the owners. Last year, I want to say we were kind of fighting city hall a little bit, in the sense of new place, new condition book, what’s going to go, what’s not going to go, that kind of thing. This year, we’ve got a better handle on that and we’ve got owners that aren’t afraid to put one in and aren’t afraid to get another one.”

Combs, who has 51 career victories, will be based in Kentucky later this spring and summer. Combs said he would eventually like to have a stable of 40 or 50 horses.

The Far East

Japanese-bred Komorebino Omoide is scheduled to make his career debut in Saturday’s seventh race at Oaklawn, a $90,000 maiden special weight for 3-year-olds at 6 furlongs, for Robertino Diodoro, Oaklawn’s leading trainer this season, and breeder/owner Perry Martin.

Komorebino Omoide is by California Chrome, the flashy chestnut and two-time Horse of the Year (2014 and 2016) who now stands stud in Japan. Diodoro said Komorebino Omoide, also chestnut, is the first horse he’s trained for Martin, who, in partnership, bred and raced California Chrome.

“He just called me and introduced himself before the meet started, back in November,” Diodoro said. “The horse has been here for a while. He’s actually not the prettiest horse, but his works have been solid.”

Komorebino Omoide has 10 published workouts since late January at Oaklawn, the last a 5-furlong bullet (:59.60) March 31. He is 9-2 on the morning line for his debut.

“California Chrome stands in Japan and he (Martin) wanted to run him there, but he said it was so hard to get a license,” Diodoro said. “It was like a two, three-year process, which I’ve heard before.”

Probable post time for Saturday’s seventh race is 3:50 p.m. (Central).

Bolting to Kentucky

The speedy Corona Bolt, who beat older horses in a March 5 allowance sprint at Oaklawn, is the 5-2 second choice in the program for the $400,000 Lafayette Stakes for 3-year-olds at 7 furlongs Friday at Keeneland.

Trained by Brad Cox, Corona Bolt scored his sharp allowance victory last month after finishing sixth in the $750,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) at 1 1/16 miles Jan. 28 at Oaklawn. The Southwest marked the first start around two turns for Corona Bolt, who is perfect in his other three races. He was a 1 ¼-length winner of the allowance race at Oaklawn, covering 6 furlongs in 1:09.41.

“He ran huge,” Cox said. “Obviously, he was able to beat older horses. The plan right now is to keep him around one turn.”

Cox will also send out unbeaten Oaklawn maiden and entry-level allowance winner Punchbowl in the $600,000 Ashland Stakes (G1) for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles Friday at Keeneland. Punchbowl (2 for 2) is the 2-1 second choice in the program. Also entered in the Ashland are Defining Purpose, who won the inaugural $150,000 Year’s End Stakes for 2-year-old fillies at 1 mile Dec. 31 at Oaklawn for trainer Kenny McPeek, and Effortlesslyelgant for trainer Norm Casse. Effortlesslyelgant is a two-time winner at the 2022-2023 Oaklawn meeting.

Finish Lines

Jockey Rocco Bowen, who suffered a broken pelvis in an accident in the starting gate before a March 25 race at Oaklawn, was released from the hospital March 31, according to his agent at the 2022-2023 Oaklawn meeting, Gene Short of Hot Springs. Short said Bowen is still expected to miss six weeks. … Cindy Murphy, the winningest female jockey in Oaklawn history, had her first two mounts of the 2022-2023 meeting last weekend. Murphy (183 Oaklawn victories) hadn’t ridden since June 18 at Prairie Meadows. She suffered rib and pelvic fractures the following day in an accident at the starting gate before a race. Murphy has 1,993 career Thoroughbred victories, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. …Tyler’s Tribe is pointing for the $150,000 Bachelor Stakes for 3-year-olds at 6 furlongs April 29 at Oaklawn, said Tim Martin of Hot Springs, who trains and co-owns the multiple stakes winner. Tyler’s Tribe, in his 3-year-old and two-turn debut, finished sixth in a March 30 allowance race. Martin said Tyler’s Tribe scoped clean following his comeback race. He bled in his previous two starts. … Oaklawn will race two days this week (Friday and Saturday). There is no live racing Sunday in observance of Easter. … Millionaire multiple Grade 2 winner Lone Rock will be pointed to the $175,000 Isaac Murphy Overnight Marathon Stakes for older horses at 1 ½ miles May 3 at Churchill Downs, trainer Robertino Diodoro said. Lone Rock won the Isaac Murphy the last two years. Lone Rock, in his 8-year-old debut, finished second the $150,000 Temperence Hill Stakes for older horses at 1 ½ miles last Sunday at Oaklawn. … Giant Mischief, unraced since a sixth-place finish in the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 25 at Oaklawn, is receiving a break, trainer Brad Cox said. “No surgery or anything,” Cox said. “Just needs some time.” … Oaklawn-raced Verifying, Sun Thunder, Major Blue and Mendelssohns March are entered in the $1 million Blue Grass Stakes (G1) for 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles Saturday at Keeneland. … Multiple Oaklawn stakes winner Yuugiri is entered in the $600,000 Madison Stakes (G1) for older fillies and mares at 7 furlongs Saturday at Keeneland for trainer Rodolphe Brisset. …“Oaklawn Raceday,” featuring David Longinotti, director of Oaklawn Anywhere, and Equibase representative Jeff Taylor, can be heard Saturdays 11 a.m.-11:30 a.m. (Central) during the 2022-2023 meeting on Little Rock, Ark., radio station KABZ-FM 103.7 and Chris Hartman, Oaklawn’s leading trainer in 2015, is this week’s special guest.