HOT SPRINGS, AR – Bo Hirsch homebred Ce Ce gunned down a very game Ollie’s Candy in the final stages to win Saturday’s $600,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) at Oaklawn Park.

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Breaking from the far outside post 14 under Victor Espinoza as the 7/2 second choice, Ce Ce cleared many of her foes to her inside and safely crossed over to run two-wide in fifth heading into the clubhouse turn. Up front, the 5/2 favorite Serengeti Empress failed to get an uncontested early lead from the 11 post and was forced to run outside of the rail-breaking Ollie’s Candy and the sandwiched Cookie Dough.

Serengeti Empress backed off slightly as the top trio straightened out on the backstretch, allowing Ollie’s Candy and Cookie Dough to duel through swift opening fractions of :22.20 and :45.51. Cookie Dough hit a wall heading into the far turn and began giving way, allowing Ollie’s Candy to take a breather through the turn and emerge onto the front stretch with a multiple-length lead.

After Espinoza guided her three-wide through the far turn past Serengeti Empress and Come Dancing, Ce Ce straightened for home with a clear shot at the pacesetter. Ollie’s Candy ran tough, not giving in as Ce Ce gradually ranged up alongside, but her quick early times appeared to pay the price late.

Inching ahead in the final two jumps, Ce Ce squeaked past to win by a head. The Michael McCarthy trainee completed the 1 1/16-mile event over the fast main track in a final time of 1:43.14.

Credit: Coady Photography

“The idea was to break sharp,” Espinoza said. “I had to use my brains a little to not go into the first turn too wide. I thought if I could hit the turn four- or five-wide, then I’m in good shape. I knew if she was good enough, she’d win the race, so I encouraged her out of the gate and put her in a good position. I was smiling because it was exactly what I wanted. Down the backside, I had to put her in the race because I didn’t want the speed to get away from me. At the 3/8 (pole), I put her behind the speed and just waited. Turning for home, I was just loaded. It’s always fun to ride horses like Ce Ce. She’s an amazing filly.”

Point of Honor was squeezed back to the rear shortly after exiting the gate, but jockey Drayden Van Dyke managed to pilot her up late to nip Street Band for third by a head. Saracosa took fifth, while Horologist finished a tight sixth while running between Go Google Yourself and Lady Apple.

Awe EmmaQueen Nekia, Serengeti Empress, Come Dancing, Coldwater, and a jogging Cookie Dough completed the order of finish.

Ce Ce’s win was her third straight and second at the top level, having won the Beholder Mile Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita Park last out. The 4-year-old daughter of Elusive Quality, whose half-brother Papa Clem won the Arkansas Derby (G1) for Hirsch here in 2009, improved her record to 6-4-1-0 with $726,600 earned.

“That was great,” McCarthy said. “It was little hard for me to see through the shadows and stuff. I couldn’t tell if she was actually gaining on horses or what. They were rolling up front. We were in a great spot. … The horses I thought we had to beat were all directly inside of us and I thought best laid plans would have been if Serengeti Empress would go ahead and be the controlling speed. Things didn’t work out that way, obviously. The complexion of the race totally changed after that. We were able to sit in a perfect spot, 3-4 lengths off of them. I’m OK with it now. Had the photo been the other way, I probably wouldn’t have been OK with it.”

Ce Ce returned $9.80 to win, $5.80 to place, and $4.60 to show. Ollie’s Candy brought back $7.60 to place and $4.60 to show, while Point of Honor paid $5.20 to show.