Close Hatches (Photo courtesy Kentucky Derby.)

Disclaimer: I’m not a hardboot who has inspected horseflesh since Man O’ War was a yearling.

But I’ve spent 40 years watching and later covering great athletes, and this much I know: Power, grace and beauty are qualities that transcend genus and species.

In other words, I know a good horse when I see one.

So would you.

There’s an internal tuning fork in every human mind that vibrates at a giddy pitch when it sees uncommon physical form.

The strength.

The rhythm.

The symmetry.

The effortless, oiled fashion of the way it moves. The controlled violence its muscles exude.

Close Hatches, a filly entered in the Kentucky Oaks today, is the most extraordinary animal on the backside of Churchill Downs right now. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Bill Mott sure thinks so, and he’s not easily moved. Mott knows from good horses. The Hall of Famer trained the legendary Cigar, he of the record-tying 16 consecutive wins, among other equine greats.

Mott might be lovestruck, like the guys around the backside press center on Wednesday when Miss America came around. But good luck getting him to say so.

Mott is a terse fellow who measures his words like Oppenheimer measured uranium. His words never explode.

But he says Close Hatches will win the Oaks.

That’s good enough for me, even though I didn’t hear it with my own ears or read it with my own eyes. Mott supposedly made his bold prediction during an interview with HRTV, and frankly I’d consider the rumor garbage if it didn’t make so much sense.

This girl is special – on paper and in person.

Better still, at 6-1, Close Hatches is the fifth choice in today’s featured race. It’s the best and deepest Oaks field since who-knows-when? Seven of the 10 fillies could win without causing the least surprise.

It takes great confidence or great foolishness to declare a certain winner before such a contentious race. The contenders include a bona fide freak in Dreaming of Julia, who in the March 30 Gulfstream Park Oaks earned the fastest speed figures ever awarded to a spring 3-year-old filly.

It also includes the 2-year-old champion, Beholder, and a pair of undefeated starlets from the august barns of Todd Pletcher (Unlimited Budget) and Bob Baffert (Midnight Lucky).

But unless she throws a clunker that belies her flawless morning workouts, Close Hatches will beat them all. She’s a beastie, pure and simple. Dreaming of Julia is too, but she probably ran her beastie race five weeks ago.

Close Hatches’ best effort is on tap today. Or so it seems.

Her last race was imperfect but extraordinary.

In the Grade 2 Gazelle on April 6, she ran the first two thirds of that 1 1/8-mile race faster than elite horses of any age. Such fillies normally vaporize into a mist of hair and lactic acid down the stretch, but Close Hatches, despite decelerating markedly, widened her lead to win by three lengths.

It’s the kind of effort that sets ordinary fillies back in a big way. Close Hatches, however, looks stronger than ever. She looks like one of those rare horses who thrives off demanding races.

She looks like a winner, just like Mott said.

It won’t be easy. Close Hatches is a speedster in a race dripping with high-class early speed. The Ferrari grrrls might empty each other’s tanks and open the door for closers like Unlimited Budget (7-2) and Princess of Sylmar (20-1).

The latter is one of the best long shots of the entire weekend.

She finished second to Close Hatches in the Gazelle in a superb performance that hints at improving form that could match the improved pace set-up she will receive.

Princess of Sylmar is a bold filly who will bull her way through crowds like a bargain-hunting mom shopping Toys R Us on Black Friday.

You’ll be able to buy Junior half the store if this is the order of finish:

1. Close Hatches; 2. Princess of Sylmar; 3. Unlimited Budget; 4. Dreaming of Julia.

Unlike Toys R Us, we accept no returns. This is a brutally tough race that no sane person could confidently predict.

Except Bill Mott, I suppose.

Mark Coomes
Mark Coomes covered sports and a dilettantish mix of other topics great and small in 20 years at The Courier-Journal, The (Monroe, La.) News-Star, USA Today, Florida Today and The Cats' Pause.