Serengeti Empress owner: ‘Zero doubt … that she’s a great filly’

By Jennie Rees

Serengeti Empress has lost her three races since winning Churchill Downs’ $1 million Longines Kentucky Oaks, but owner Dr. Joel Politi says he has “zero doubt in confidence that she’s a great filly.”

Serengeti Empress is at her best on the lead, as she was on the first turn of the Kentucky Oaks. Coady Photography

The Oaks winner will get a chance to show that on the world’s largest stage for international horse racing. Serengeti Empress
was pre-entered in both the $2 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff and the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. The plan is to run the 3-year-old filly in the 1 1/8-mile Distaff, with burgeoning California star Flavien Prat to ride, Politi said.

Serengeti Empress has had a workout originally scheduled for last Friday postponed as trainer Tom Amoss recovers from an emergency appendectomy. Amoss’ daughter, Hayley, posted on Twitter Monday: “Everything is fine, but it looks like @TomAmossRacing
has to stay a couple more nights in the hospital for recovery.”

The delay means the Oaks winner will have one final workout instead of the two originally penciled in before the Breeders’ Cup. She has a pair of half-mile works in 49 seconds since her last race, when she struggled home sixth in Parx Racing’s $1 million, Grade 1 Cotillion won by Distaff contender Street Band.

Joel Politi’s Serengeti Empress winning the Kentucky Oaks. Coady Photography

“I’m more worried about Tom getting better than how this affects her race training,” said Politi, who is an orthopedic surgeon. “Tom has a staff that has been with him the longest amount of time. So I have the utmost trust in her training. Everything is fine, and she’s training great.

“Tom and I have talked. She’s going to have one good work before the race. We’re both very confident in her fitness. He said this since before the Breeders’ Cup last year that she gets a lot out of her training, gets a lot out of her gallops. He has never felt like he has had to work her that hard that much.”

Politi said the preference for the Distaff is “really just a pace-scenario based decision. She’s a ‘need-the-lead’ horse, and her last race, the pace scenario was insurmountable. If there is a reasonable pace scenario, then the preference would be the Distaff.”

Still, he said they were leaving options open. “If a couple of favorites in the Sprint scratched, we might change our minds,” Politi said. “We’re leaving ourselves the luxury of making that decision.”

Serengeti Empress appeared compromised tactically in her past three Grade 1 races by drawing the rail, perhaps the law of averages coming into play after she had post 13 in the Kentucky Oaks. She was second in Belmont’s mile Acorn and second again by a half-length to likely Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint favorite Covfefe in Saratoga’s seven-furlong Test, a pair of races in which she dueled through a blazing pace before giving way late. In the 1 1/16-mile Cotillion, which shaped up with another grueling pace scenario, she was not sent to the lead and languished home sixth.

“The 1 hole in those one-turn races was really bad for her,” Politi said, adding of the filly’s 19 1/2-length victory in Churchill Downs’ Grade 2 Pocahontas last year, “The 1 hole in distance races, she’s done fine with that. I don’t think post matters too much in two-turn races for her.

“… In the Acorn, we got on the rail and Cookie Dough made us go. She ran a faster three-quarters (of a mile) than Mitole (in the Metropolitan Mile), a faster two, four and six furlongs than Mitole did going the same distance on the same track within an hour of each other. I mean, just unsustainable.

“She ran a great race in the Test. She was pinned in on the rail. That makes you the stalkee rather than the stalker.”

In assessing the Cotillion, Politi points to Serengeti Empress in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, which she came into off a 19 1/2-length victory in Churchill Downs’ Grade 2, 1 1/16-mile Pocahontas, which had followed a 13 1/2-length romp in the seven-furlong Ellis Park Debutante.

“If you look at her form on two-turn races, the Breeders’ Cup and the Cotillion, she wants nothing to do with getting behind horses,” Politi said. “Both races, she just lost interest.”

He noted that Serengeti Empress spotted victorious Guarana eight pounds in the Acorn and Covfefe four in the Test.

“I’m very biased, but I think she had enough things stacked against her in the Acorn and the Test that she ran great races,” Politi said. “… None of that is sour grapes. It’s just realistic handicapping. For me, the Cotillion is a complete throwout. I’ve watched her train in the mornings enough times that there’s zero doubt in confidence that she’s a great filly. The Oaks was not a fluke race.

“It’s obviously the first time she’s stepping up against older fillies and mares. That’s the biggest question. How do those 3-year-olds compare when you put them against older horses for the first time? The truth is, a spring 3-year-old is not like a fall 3-year-old. But I don’t look back and think, ‘Wow, she won the Oaks and that was great. But that was a fluke.’ She’s a great horse. She’s had some unfavorable pace scenarios and post positions in her last couple of races. Hopefully she gets a chance to show how good she is in her next race.”

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Jennie Rees