While the Arkansas Derby will always get the most attention at Oaklawn, the Apple Blossom Handicap actually may be the most productive race of the entire meet. 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 Close Hatches won the race on her way to what is most likely an Older Female of the Year Award later this month. The Apple Blossom is one of only two Grade 1 races that Oaklawn has, and will be running on Friday April 10th this year, which is the day before the Arkansas Derby.
The headliner of this year’s quest for the Apple Blossom is a mare that Oaklawn fan’s have come to love: Don’t Tell Sophia. She comes in to Oaklawn as the back to back winner of both the Pippin and Bayokoa Stakes, and she also finished third in the Apple Blossom in 2013 and an second and third in the Grade 3 Azeri Stakes in 2013 and 2014. However, it was after Oaklawn in 2014 when she raised her game to a whole new level. She won the Grade 1 Spinster at Keeneland in October, and went on to finish a close second to Untapable in the Breeders Cup Distaff three weeks later. Don’t Tell Sophia has had steady works since arriving at Oaklawn and is pointing for the Pippin Stakes once again to kick off her 2o15.
Another locally based filly that should warrant plenty of attention is Sugar Shock, who won the biggest race of the meet for three year old fillies last year: The Fantasy. She also won a maiden special weight and allowance at Oaklawn, and finished a solid second in the Honeybee Stakes. Sugar Shock went on to finish a tough eighth in the Kentucky Oaks, but bounced back with a win at Prairie Meadows in the Panthers Stakes. After she did not finish in the Iowa Oaks she was put on the shelf for the year, but has had steady works since arriving at Oaklawn. She could be pointing for the Pippin, or perhaps the Sam Houston Ladies Classic to kick off her year. She’ll need to progress to compete with the top class fillies, but all signs suggest she might be able to do just that.
A sleeper in this division that could end up being a big factor is Gold Medal Dancer for the Donnie K Von Hemel barn. Gold Medal Dancer has had a career of ups and downs, but her recent Oaklawn workouts tell me she’s rounding into form in a big way. She’s a perfect two for two at Oaklawn Park, and has a couple of recent stakes wins at Canterbury to add to her resume. Obviously there are horses on the ground that are more accomplished than her, but with improvement and love for the track she could be flying under the radar and ready for a big race right out of the gate.
Of course for the most part the shippers have dominated the Apple Blossom. 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 soon to be 3 Year Old Filly of the Year and reining Breeders Cup Distaff winner Untapable. No plans are set for her as of yet, but there has been discussion that she could start her 2015 campaign at Oaklawn in the Apple Blossom. Her presence would certainly add to the already prestigious race, and it’s never out of the question for the race to also attract solid shippers from California. 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.