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Azeri Stakes 2024 | Oaklawn Park Picks
Comparative (Sue Kawczynski/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM)

Azeri Stakes 2024 | Oaklawn Park Picks

Aaron previews the 2024 Azeri Stakes (G2) from Oaklawn Park, then gives his top win pick from this prep for the Apple Blossom Handicap (G1).

Will Comparative keep to her winning ways after conquering the Bayakoa Stakes (G3) last time out? Tell us YOUR thoughts in the Comments section!

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The press release:

Trainer Brittany Russell enters Wednesday with 445 career victories, a geographically slanted total because all are east of the Mississippi River.

That could change Saturday at Oaklawn when Russell starts Saddle Up Jessie in the $400,000 G2-Azeri Stakes for older fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles.

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Saddle Up Jessie (4-1 on the morning line) will mark just the third career starter west of the Mississippi River for Russell, a dominant figure in the Mid-Atlantic region, specifically, Maryland, where she became the first female trainer to lead the state’s annual standings in 2023.

“I hope this works out,” Russell said Tuesday afternoon. “Maybe, we’ll come back.”

Although Russell has only one career start at Oaklawn – Benintendi shipped in for a May 2020 allowance race after racing in Maryland was suspended because of the coronavirus – she’s familiar with the Hot Springs landscape.

Before going out on her own in 2018, Russell worked under trainers Brad Cox and Ron Moquett, both Oaklawn regulars.

“I spent a lot of time down there and I loved it,” Russell said. “I miss it, actually.”

Russell looks to improve on Benintendi’s seventh-place finish with Saddle Up Jessie, a 5-year-old daughter of More Than Ready who has blossomed under the trainer’s care. Saddle Up Jessie, a $270,000 yearling purchase, began her racing career in Southern California, but failed to break her maiden in six starts.

Claimed for $20,000 in January 2023 at Santa Anita, Saddle Up Jessie resurfaced with Russell last June at Delaware Park and romped in a 1 1/16-mile off-the-turf event for $32,000 maiden claimers.

Save a fourth-place finish in a Sept. 1 allowance turf sprint at Delaware Park, Saddle Up Jessie has finished first or second in all seven other starts for Russell and owner Michael J. Ryan. The stretch includes victories in Laurel Park’s nine-furlong $100,000 Carousel Stakes Dec. 23 and the one-mile $150,000 Heavenly Prize Invitational Stakes Feb. 10 at Aqueduct in her last start.

“He (Ryan) called me and I took her and everything and we’re getting this filly ready to go and I’m like: ‘I don’t know what to do with this horse,’ ” Russell said. “I’m looking at the form and I just don’t know if I should sprint her on the dirt, run her on the grass. Literally, her form was just so confusing for all of us. But I knew one thing: She was working really good on the dirt. So, needless to say, what did I do? I entered her on the grass and guess we just got lucky and it came off that day.”

Moved to dirt because of rain, Saddle Up Jessie broke her maiden by 17 ½ front-running lengths. Saddle Up Jessie’s only loss in her last four starts was a runner-up finish, beaten a neck by Comparative, in the $150,000 Ladies Stakes at 1 1/8 miles Jan. 6 at Aqueduct.

Comparative, a Cox trainee, returned to win the $250,000 G3-Bayakoa Stakes Feb. 2 at Oaklawn and is entered in the Azeri. Saddle Up Jessie was also nominated to the 1 1/16-mile Bayakoa, but Russell used the Heavenly Prize as a prep for the Azeri.

“That race (Heavenly Prize) kind of had her name written all over it,” Russell said. “Luckily, it worked out. She ran great and handled the one turn. She made herself a multiple stakes winner, right? We had the idea of Oaklawn. The money’s good. It’s a long ship. I think there’s a lot of pros and cons. Now, she’s a multiple stakes winner. She seems to be kind of on the up. She got good. Certainly, going to have to continue to step forward and improve.

“Brad’s filly’s is in this race and she ran hard against her. She wasn’t embarrassed by that filly by any means. When you’re looking, yeah, there’s quality fillies, but we think our filly is quality, too. The Grade 2 and the money, it seemed appealing.”

The Azeri is the final major local prep for the $1.25 G1-Apple Blossom Handicap April 13.