Tom Amoss knows what people say, hears the commentary and even understands the labels and how they got there.
He doesn’t play at the highest levels, doesn’t spend big dollars at the sales, doesn’t have a barn full of blue-blooded homebreds, doesn’t develop horses, doesn’t this, doesn’t that. Funny thing about labels. True or false, they often stick and shedding them isn’t easy.
Amoss went a long way toward doing that Friday at Churchill Downs, winning the 145th Kentucky Oaks in front of 105,719 along with the rest of the racing world watching from afar. And he did it with a modest-priced filly bought as a yearling who needed to overcome significant physical issues to even land a spot on the big stage.
“My label, maybe even up until today, has been ‘he’s a great claiming trainer. He knows how to work with horses well and do that,’ but I’ve never been known as someone that’s a developer of horses, although I think I’ve developed quite a few. Certainly not the likes of one like this,” Amoss said Friday of Serengeti Empress, winner of the Oaks by 1 3/4 lengths from Liora.
“And about four, five years ago, I made a committed effort to start going to the yearling sales and trying to change that and trying to be a trainer that people wouldn’t just say, “Hey, he’s just a claiming trainer. So she is one of maybe the second or third season we’ve done this, to go to the sale and actively buy, say, 10 horses, which I’ve never done. I usually get two or three a year and that’s it.”
Serengeti Empress cost owner Joel Politi $70,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale in 2017. The daughter of Alternation made a quick impression on her connections that always liked her athleticism and she won first out at Indiana Grand to earn a trip to Saratoga Race Course for the Opening Day Grade 3 Schuylerville. She finished fourth that day and went back to Kentucky, where she walloped back-to-back fields in the Ellis Park Debutante and Grade 2 Pocahontas to stamp herself first as a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and later a potential Kentucky Oaks contender.
The Breeders’ Cup didn’t work out on her home track last fall, but she rebounded to win the Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra at Fair Grounds, defeating Liora by 4 1/2 lengths in her 2019 debut. Thing went way wrong in her next start, the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks, where she bled through Lasix and needed a precautionary van ride back to Amoss’ barn.
Amoss said the filly “bled significantly” and started to think the Oaks would be off the table.
A broadcaster for TVG and tuned in and active on social media, Amoss started to read and hear comments about the filly being hurt. Those rumors, if they can be called that, put Amoss into action and he decided to bring the filly to the track in early Apri, record a video and post it to social media to show she wasn’t ailing.
“I’d also decided at that time that I did not think we were going to run in the Kentucky Oaks,” he said. “And when we made that decision, when we announced it, I was concerned people would again think that she was hurt from the Fair Grounds Oaks.
“So I told my exercise rider to back her up to the seven-eighths pole, which is literally three-eighths of a mile, and then gallop her behind me so I can film her on my phone at the half‑mile point, just pull her up. So we are talking about sending her to the track and going five-eighths of a mile in gallop, which no one ever does. I just did it because I wanted to get video of her so people could see that I wasn’t hiding anything from anybody about her health.”
The exercise rider misinterpreted the instructions and gave the filly another spin around the Churchill main track. Serengeti Empress zipped by a surprised Amoss a second time a few minutes later, her ears flicking. She clearly relished the work and Amoss changed his tune, again.
“It was fate, you know?” Amoss said. “Look, horses talk. And she talked to me that morning and said, you know, ‘I’m going to be OK.’ And if my exercise rider hadn’t made that mistake that day, I was getting ready to call Joel and say, ‘Let’s just leave the race alone.’
“When she came back around and looked as good as she did, I went back to the barn and I changed my mind, and we took it day-to-day from there.”
Day-to-day meant dealing with the filly’s bleeding incident in the Fair Grounds Oaks. Serengeti Empress breezed twice at Churchill before the Kentucky Oaks, the first work a bullet half in :47 April 16.
Serengeti Empress breezed again April 23 after being treated with the anti-bleeding medication Lasix, which again became a politically driven hot-button issue this spring in the wake of a spat of unrelated breakdowns at Santa Anita Park. Amoss said she received the treatment exactly under a race scenario and Tyler Gaffalione worked the filly 5 furlongs in a bullet :58.20 the Sunday before the Oaks.
The work convinced Amoss to press ahead to the Oaks, where he lined up Jose Ortiz to ride Serengeti Empress in what shaped up as an overflow field led by multiple Grade 1 winner Bellafina from California, Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks winner Champagne Anyone, champion Jaywalk and others.
Ortiz put Serengeti Empress on the lead from the start in a race widely pontificated to be filled with early speed. One of the race’s expected frontrunners or stalkers, Positive Spirit, was sandwiched shortly after the start, stumbled, tossed jockey Manny Franco and fell as the field charged toward the finish the first time. Franco popped up immediately and outriders corralled Positive Spirit near the clubhouse turn.
Serengeti Empress carved out fractions of :23.25, :46.65 and 1:11.26, alone on the lead, and looking well within herself around the far turn. Liora, second in the Rachel Alexandra and in the Fair Grounds Oaks, made a sustained run at the leader around the turn and into the lane. The run gave trainer Wayne Catalano and his son-in-law Channing Hill, riding the Candy Ride filly, a winning feeling until Serengeti Empress responded in the lane.
“Man, I thought I had it,” Catalano said walking back from the track.
Instead Serengeti Empress had it, winning in 1:50.17 to collect $705,250 for her connections and give Amoss the biggest victory in his career going back to 1987. He’s won 3,640 races during that span, including Grade 1s with Heritage Of Gold and Big World and graded stakes with the likes of Lone Sailor, Mo Tom, Delaunay and Chocolate Martini.
“Tom is amongst the elite in getting horses ready,” Politi said. “And then he went to the sale and bought Mo Tom a few years ago. Anybody remember Mo Tom? He went to the sale and bought Lone Sailor a few years ago? Anybody remember Lone Sailor? Right?
“So I talk to Tom all the time. One of my favorite things to do is go to the barn and look at all of his horses for fun. You can see what he’s got, and he has got an eye and he has proven it repetitively. And she is the empress of proving it, right?”
Oaks Day Notes: The Grade 3 Edgewood didn’t produce the largest win mutuel but arguably yielded the biggest upset as Concrete Rose spoiled the 2019 debut of former unbeaten Newspaperofrecord in the $250,000 turf stakes. Winner of the Grade 2 Jessamine last fall at Keeneland and eighth in Newspaperofrecord’s powerful score in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, Concrete Rose added the Edgewood to her prior victory in the Grade 3 Florida Oaks. The daughter of Twirling Candy returned $13.80 as the second choice to the 1-5 Newspaperofrecord. … Break Even stayed undefeated with a 5 1/2-length victory over longshot Belle’s The One in the Grade 2 Eight Belles to kick off the day’s stakes action. The 3-year-old Country Day filly, a homebred for Richard Klein trained by Brad Cox, improved to 4-for-4 with the win in the 7-furlong Eight Belles under Shaun Bridgmohan. … Favorites won two of the other three stakes on the undercard with McKinzie and Mike Smith rolling to victory in the Grade 2 Alysheba and World Of Trouble improving to 8-for-12 to win the Grade 2 Twin Spires Turf Sprint under Manny Franco. She’s A Julie, out of the path of stablemate and Grade 1 Apple Blossom winner Midnight Bisou, collected her own Grade 1 victory in the La Troienne under Ricardo Santana Jr. … Churchill reported record wagering on the Oaks Day card and Oaks itself. All-sources betting on the card totaled $60.2 million, up 8 percent from last year’s record and betting on the Oaks rose 10 percent to $19.4 million from $17.5 million last year.