HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- For a filly who won a Grade 1 race and was second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at 2, R Heat Lightning was still a bit underappreciated entering her 3-year-old season.
That changed on Feb. 26, when R Heat Lightning rolled to a decisive 7 1/4-length victory in the Grade 2 Davona Dale Stakes, beating the highly-regarded Dancinginherdreams in the process.
That performance will most likely make R Heat Lightning the favorite in Saturday's Grade 2, $300,000 Gulfstream Oaks for 3-year-old fillies at Gulfstream Park. R Heat Lighting will face six opponents including the unbeaten, but untested It's Tricky and recent allowance winners Salary Drive and Beso Grande.
At 2, R Heat Lightning won the Grade 1 Spinaway at Saratoga, finished a troubled second in the Grade 1 Frizette and was runner-up to the undefeated Awesome Feather in the Juvenile Fillies. In her 3-year-old debut in the Forward Gal, R Heat Lightning had a difficult trip and faded to fourth behind Pomeroy's Pistol. Four weeks later, she won the Davonda Dale under a strong hand ride.
"It was a breakthrough performance for a filly that had already won a Grade 1 at 2 and was second in the Breeders' Cup but not too many people took note about," said Pletcher, who won this race last year with Devil May Care. "Now you look back at her body of work and it's much more impressive."
R Heat Lightning has yet to run 1 1/8 miles and was second in her only start around two turns.
"I think it's a question mark until she does it," Pletcher said. "She's pretty genuine. She shows up every time -- she will try hard. If she gets tired, she will dig down and find everything she has, she's that kind. She's very willing. The key will be how well she settles the first part."
While the Gulfstream Oaks is viewed as a stepping-stone to the Kentucky Oaks, a win by R Heat Lightning would make her eligible for a $2.2 million bonus owner Frank Stronach put up for horses who win certain races at his tracks of Gulfstream and/or Santa Anita and then the Black-Eyed Susan at Pimlico on May 20.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin believes It's Tricky, a daughter of Mineshaft, will relish the nine furlongs of the Gulfstream Oaks, which is why he chose this race for her. It's Tricky has won a pair of mile-and-70-yard races against suspect competition at Aqueduct, but did win the Busher Stakes by eight lengths.
"This race is going to tell us everything," McLaughlin said. "We knew she was a quality filly from the start. She was one of best fillies in August, September, October. We think she wants the mile and an eighth."
Trainer Shug McGaughey is also looking forward to running Island School a distance of ground around two turns. She finished third behind Beso Grande in her last start, a one-turn, one mile allowance race.
"Two turns is what I want to do," McGaughey said. "She's been begging to run long. I felt it would come up a short field and some might be suspect at a mile and one eighth. She'll go that far. Obviously, this is a great step forward."