LOUISVILLE -- It's been a lousy week to be a Yankee. After losing three in a row to the wretched Devil Rays in furious George Steinbrenner's backyard, Joe Torre was a strong favorite to turn things around Friday in the 131st Kentucky Oaks.
The Yankee manager owns about 5 percent of Sis City, who on paper looked unbeatable in the 3-year-old fillies' Derby. Her trainer, Richard Dutrow Jr., all but guaranteed victory the day before. "All these other horses are going to have to show that they belong running against her," Dutrow said. "They haven't shown that yet."
Sis City was coming off a 10_-length romp against three of the fillies she faced Friday, so what could go wrong for the embattled manager and his arrogant trainer?
Everything, as it turned out. Not only did the front-runner never make the lead, she didn't even finish in the money behind Summerly, who was 19_ lengths behind Sis City last month in the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland. Summerly surprised her rider, Jerry Bailey, by taking the lead out of the gate and she stayed in front, leaving Sis City gasping in midstretch before drawing off to a two-length victory over In The Gold. The 3-5 favorite staggered in fourth, 4_ lengths behind Summerly.
It didn't take Sis City's jockey, Edgar Prado, long to figure out that he had problems. "She never felt right to me," Prado said. "I knew I was in trouble on the backstretch."
Dutrow was concerned even before that. "When she didn't break sharp, I started to worry a little," Dutrow said. "She just broke flat-footed. But I thought she was going to win it on the far turn. Once Edgar got her clear on the outside, we just couldn't keep up."
Like Torre, bad karma continued to dog Dutrow, who on Monday was suspended 60 days starting June 1 because two of his horses tested positive for prohibited medication after races.
Bailey won his third Oaks before a record crowd of 111,243 on a sunny afternoon at the new-look Churchill Downs, which has been spruced up dramatically with a $121-million renovation. It was the first Oaks win for trainer Steve Asmussen, and it came at the expense of a filly who began her career with him. Sis City was in Asmussen's barn for her first three races last summer, and he didn't think much of her. After she lost twice in maiden-special weight events, he put her into $50,000 maiden claimer at Saratoga, where Dutrow put in a bid for her and took her home. It turned out to be one of the few bad decisions Asmussen made in a year when he set a world record with 555 victories.
Asmussen didn't want to look back or gloat after the race, only to savor the glory.
"The only thing better than winning the Kentucky Oaks would be winning the Kentucky Derby," Asmussen said after high-fiving anyone in his immediate vicinity who had a free hand. "This is the Derby for the fillies. This is the filly we had all winter, who showed her speed and ran on.
"At Keeneland, we knew we were in trouble from the start. The Ashland just wasn't her day. Today she was away cleanly and showed her ability. She showed who she is today."
When asked which felt better, the wins record or the Oaks, Asmussen said, "Definitely the Oaks, because it happened right now."
Bailey, who has been the best big-race rider in the world for 10 years, brilliantly adjusted on the fly and pulled off the upset.
"I was kind of surprised to be on the lead," he said. "My plan was to lay second and put some pressure on Sis City, but the way the break went, Sis City didn't have her usual zip. So I made the decision to go to the front. On the backstretch, I slowed the pace as much as I could, and I was pretty confident by the middle of the turn."
Summerly was outside Sis City going to the first turn, where Bailey cleared Sis City and moved to the inside, forcing Prado to check. "I couldn't keep up with the other horse early," Prado said.
Sis City did put up a fight, stalking the winner from the outside down the backstretch, and Sis City even poked her head in front with about five-sixteenths of a mile to run. Bailey had her measured, though, and he had far more horse than Prado in the stretch.
"She didn't have it today," Prado said. "Today I had to ride her. I put her in the clear to put pressure on the winner at the three-eighths, but she was flat today, which was very unusual for her."
Summerly paid $11.20 for her fifth win in eight career starts and her fourth in five tries this year. She ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.23 and earned $343,728, raising her bankroll to more than $700,000 for Winchell Thoroughbreds.
"If I had to pick between the Ashland and the Oaks, '' Asmussen said, "this is definitely the one I would rather win."