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 was local horse On Fire Baby that put her name next to those greats as she held off a determined Tiz Miz Sue. The Apple Blossom is one of only two Grade 1 races that Oaklawn has, and will be running on Friday April 11th, which is the day before the Arkansas Derby.
The headliner of this year’s quest for the Apple Blossom is obvious: the previously mentioned defending champion On Fire Baby. Last year was one of the more incredible performances of the meet as she was able to pull off the victory in wire to wire fashion off an ELEVEN month layoff. That long layoff had her going off at odds of 12-1 which rewarded her loyal local following greatly. However, the rest of her 2013 campaign was probably not what her connections had in mind, as she hit the board in just one of three other starts. The second place finisher of last year’s race Tiz Miz Sue went on to have big success after that narrow defeat, but is now retired so that will be one less horse On Fire Baby will have to worry about. As usual, On Fire Baby will be coming off another layoff when she arrives at Oaklawn this year. The now five-year old will probably run more than once this year at Oaklawn, but no specific plans are set.
Another locally based horse that should warrant plenty of attention is Don’t Tell Sophia. She created a tremendous amount of buzz early on in the meet last year when she dominated both the Pippin and Bayakoa Stakes. Those two races landed her in the Azeri and Apple Blossom, where she ran strongly again finishing second and third respectively. After Oaklawn she did not run again until October, but she did come back strong winning a Grade 2 at Churchill, and finishing second in another. She’s pointing towards the Pippin Stakes on January 18th as her opening race, and I expect her to dominate the early races once again.
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 what could have been their weakest three-year old filly crops in years, but there are still a couple worth mentioning. Marathon Lady probably went on to have the best three-year campaign out of the local group last year. Although she did not record a win, she did hit the board in three Graded races outside of Oaklawn Park. However, she has not recorded a workout yet at Oaklawn, so plans could be up in the air at this time. One sleeper we have in the back of minds is Hung the Moon, who ran well at Oaklawn Park in 2013 as a three-year old. She did not run well outside of Oaklawn, and has been off since June, but has had a lot of nice works since returning.
Of course other than last year 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 Beholder, and it’s never out of the question considering the success California shippers usually have here. 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.