While the Arkansas Derby will always get the most attention at Oaklawn, the Apple Blossom Handicap actually has been just as productive over the years. It serves as the main objective for older fillies and mares at Oaklawn, and also brings in quite the competition from around the country. Horse of the Year winners Zenyatta and Havre De Grace have won this race in recent years, and last year it was Forever Unbridled that put her name next to those greats, and went on to have a fantastic year in 2016. The Apple Blossom is one of only two Grade 1 races that Oaklawn has, and will be ran on Friday April 14th, which as always is the day before the Arkansas Derby.
The headliner of this year’s quest for the Apple Blossom would have been obvious if it weren’t for an injury: the previously mentioned defending champion Forever Unbridled. The reigning Apple Blossom Champion will most likely not make it to Oaklawn Park, but it would have been only logical to think that she would have come back to Oaklawn to defend her title. Last year she also won the Grade 3 Houston Ladies Classic as well as the Grade 1 Beldame Stakes. She also finished third in the amazing Breeders’ Cup Distaff behind super stars Beholder and Songbird. In all she ran six times in 2017 and won three of those efforts while finishing second in one of them and third in the other two. However, because of an injury they are in no rush to push her which most likely means no Oaklawn for her this year. With her absence there is no clear favorite heading into the 2017 Apple Blossom.
The second place finisher from last years Apple Blossom is also still in training this year and could point towards Hot Springs once again. Runner up finisher Streamline is who I’m referring to, and recently she finished second in the Grade 2 Falls City Handicap. She has posted several workouts at Hawthorne Race Course since that strong effort, and looks as though she is ready to defend her title in the Pippin Stakes on opening weekend. With question marks this year in the older female division she could be a force. Also, Include Betty, a previous 3 year old standout at Oaklawn in 2015 seems to be rounding back into form after a hit and miss 2016. She’s a Grade 1 winner that could add spice to the Oaklawn Park mix if she indeed points this direction. She recently finished second in a small stakes at Fair Grounds, but with the current outbreak of equine herpes virus she may have to stay in Louisiana for awhile as Oaklawn is not allowing horses to ship in from the Fair Ground at this time.
A big factor in this division will be the newly turned four-year olds that will now be asked to step up in class and compete against the older mares. Last year Oaklawn had one of it’s weakest years as far as production goes from their three year filly stakes series, as Fantasy Stakes winner Terra Promessa went on to do very little in the Kentucky Oaks, and then went on a long break before returning to run seventh in a small stakes at Remington Park last time out in early December. Since then she’s settled into Hot Springs with a couple of local works over the track as she prepares for what you would assume to be a race like the Pippin Stakes on opening weekend. Her presence adds intrigue to the division, but there is no doubt she’ll have to step her game up in a big way to compete in what could be a very wide open division.
Of course as with any Oaklawn graded stakes race the shippers have dominated the Apple Blossom for the most part. It’s always hard to speculate this early about who might show up for the Racing Festival of the South, but you can bet that there will be plenty of big time horses pointing towards those races. Oaklawn is always hopeful to attract top horses such as super stars Songbird or Stellar Wind, and it’s never out of the question considering the success California shippers usually have here. In regards to the shippers Songbird would obviously be the main draw, and Hollendorfer has not been shy about shipping horses to Oaklawn in the past so the local fans in Hot Springs will certainly have their fingers crossed. Who ends up coming is an unknown factor, but what is not unknown to anyone is how strong and entertaining this division has been over the last few years. With the class and potential of this year’s group I see that tradition carrying on once again.