The excitement is building for trainer Rob Atras and his wife Brittney, their 3-year-old filly Maracuja and jockey Kendrick Carmouche. The Kentucky Oaks (G1) is Friday, and there are high hopes all around for a breakthrough victory in one of the most prestigious races for females.
Maracuja is Portuguese for passionflower, said to be a plant so powerful it can cure everything from deep wrinkles to high anxiety. And she just might be so talented that she can transport her connections into the winner’s circle while draped in lilies.
Atras is an up-and-coming, New York-based trainer. The 36-year-old started on his own in 2019 when former boss Robertino Diodoro decided to leave New York and asked his assistant to take over a handful of horses.
The goal was to build a successful stable in New York. Mission accomplished. Atras, who used to train mostly low-level claimers at small tracks like Assiniboia Downs in Canada and Turf Paradise in Arizona, won with five of his first nine starters at Aqueduct.
This year, he won a pair of Grade 3 races, the Tom Fool with Chateau and the Toboggan with American Power.
“When I started, I had seven or eight horses. Now I have fifty,” said Atras. “It’s pretty cool to have some nice horses like this and these opportunities.”
Beach Haven Thoroughbreds’ Maracuja is his first starter in the Oaks and just his second starter in a Grade 1 race. The filly is 20-1 on the morning-line.
“I don’t know if it’s all sunken in yet. I tend to downplay everything but it’s definitely exciting,’’ said Atras. “Her groom, her exercise rider, and Brittney are with her at Churchill Downs and they’re all excited.”
Atras arrives late in the week because he has a bunch of 2-year-olds coming into the stable. “It’s nice everyone can share in the experience,’’ he said.
Carmouche, meanwhile, gets his first Oaks mount, and on Saturday his first Kentucky Derby 2021 (G1) mount aboard Wood Memorial (G2) winner Bourbonic for trainer Todd Pletcher.
“Kendrick is the most excited of anyone,” said Atras.
“It’s so exciting. It’s overwhelming. It started kicking in the last two days. I can feel it now,” said Carmouche, who won the first Grade 1 of his 21-year career and his first riding title at a NYRA track last December.
Maracuja’s connections have every reason to be enthused. In making her fourth start in the Gazelle Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct last time out, she was asked to do three things she’s never done before: go around two turns, run 1 1/8 miles (the same distance as the Oaks), and handle the big jump from a maiden special weight win to graded stakes competition.
“She did it. She did it all and very well. I think she probably got a little tired later in that race. It was a very deep, tiring track that day, but she never stopped trying right to the wire. She was game,” said Atras. “It wasn’t a win; she came in second. But it was a win in a sense because she just ran so well and stepped up. She made a big leap into the higher ranks.”
Carmouche said, “She was doing it all for the first time. Everything I asked of her she gave me. She pulled up out of that race really happy and joyful, acting like that’s what she wanted. Rob talked to me about a week and a half later and asked for my thoughts. I felt highly about her in the Gazelle, so going forward, she’d just run well in that big race, so the Oaks had to be within reach.”
Both the filly’s trainer and rider know they’re asking a lot of her again, taking on a full field of 14 of the best sophomore fillies in the nation in the most prestigious race for their gender and age. Nonetheless, they believe in her chances.
“I was a little nervous going into the Gazelle and now we’re jumping into the real deep end of the pool. But she’s there, and she’s good. There’s no turning back now. We’re going for it,” said Atras. “This is a very competitive race. It’s wide open. If you’re looking at numbers and where the horses came from, the horse that beat her (Search Results) is one of the morning-line favorites. That doesn’t really put her out of it. If she steps forward it’s a possibility.”
Malathaat is the 5-2 favorite, with Travel Column and Search Results each at 3-1.
Said Carmouche, “I have a wonderful shot. She’s doing well. This is her second time going a mile-and-an-eighth. Rob will have her in top shape and top condition. I’m thrilled that she’s going. I really love her. She impressed me last time. She’s my girl.”
Even so, neither trainer nor rider is getting too dreamy. Atras might have only had his shingle out for two years but he’s been around the game long enough to know how it’s played. Carmouche, a member of the Parx Hall of Fame and the winner of multiple riding titles, will have a steady hand on the reins.
“I know it’s a horse race and even when you’re 1-9 there are a million ways you can lose, and they’re going to happen more likely than not, and there’s only way to win,’’ said Atras. “So, I try not to get too far ahead of myself. Even if she were to hit the board and finish one, two, or three it would be a huge accomplishment.”