A small, but select six-horse field is entered in the $750,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) Sunday at Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Ark. The 1 1/16-event for older fillies and mares highlights the first day of the track's new “Stay Until May” racing calendar.
Probable post time for the Apple Blossom, which goes as the eighth of nine races, is 4:42 p.m. CT. Also on the card is the $150,000 Fifth Season Stakes for older horses at 1 1/16 miles. Doors open Sunday at 11 a.m., with first post 1:30 p.m. The day is also highlighted by the track's popular $54,000 Progressive Cash Giveaway. One lucky fan will win $2,000 after the first race and prize amount will continue to go up by $1,000 until the $10,000 Grand Prize is awarded after the ninth race.
The Apple Blossom brings back the 1-2 finishers from the $350,000 Azeri Stakes (G2) March 16. Multiple Grade 1 winner Midnight Bisou edged multiple Grade 1 winner Elate in the 1 1/16-mile Azeri, the final major local prep for the Apple Blossom.
“I've been in this game my whole life and there's a few races, for whatever reason, that are bucket list-type races and the Apple Blossom, in particular, has been one of those for me,” said Jeff Bloom, co-owner of Midnight Bisou, the 122-pound high weight. “I've never run in the race. To be able to point to the Apple Blossom with a filly as special as Midnight Bisou is pretty cool.”
Midnight Bisou's trainer, Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, won the Apple Blossom in 2015 with champion Untapable. Midnight Bisou's jockey, Hall of Famer Mike Smith, has won the Apple Blossom a record six times, including three consecutive years (2002-'04) with Azeri and again in 2008 and 2010 with Zenyatta. Both horses are also members of the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame.
In the five-horse Azeri, Midnight Bisou was behind a wall of horses turning for home, used a burst to split two rivals in midstretch and held off Elate to win by a length.
Campaigned by Bloom Racing, LLC, Madaket Stables LLC (Jason Monteleone & Sol Kumin) and Allen Racing LLC (Charles and Lori Allen), Midnight Bisou was coming off a three-quarter length victory in the $300,000 Houston Ladies Classic (G3) Jan. 27 at Sam Houston Race Park in her 4-year-old debut.
“Another race with some anxious moments,” Bloom said, referring to the Apple Blossom. “But it's like I always say: 'When Mike Smith's on the back of your horse, you can just sit back and know that he knows what he's doing.' I wasn't sure with that pace, and with where she was at, if she was going to be able to get out of there. In my opinion, it was just a brilliant ride by Mike. That filly, she's just special. And really, she ran just a sixteenth of a mile and that was it. It was that one kick.”
Midnight Bisou is trying to become the first horse to sweep the Azeri and Apple Blossom in the same year since Close Hatches in 2014. Close Hatches, the country's champion older female that year, was trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who sends out Elate in search of her third career Grade 1 victory. Elate, in her first start in more than 200 days, was the slight post-time favorite over Midnight Bisou in the Azeri and is the slight program favorite Sunday (6-5 to 7-5).
“It stands to reason that she'll move forward a little bit off of the race,” Mott said. “If she does, I think she'll be very competitive.”
The projected Apple Blossom field from the rail out: Elate, Jose Ortiz to ride, 120 pounds, 6-5 on the morning line; Chocolate Martini, Jermaine Bridgmohan, 116, 15-1; Escape Clause, Tyler Baze, 117, 5-1; Viva Forever, Walter De La Cruz, 114, 30-1; Wonder Gadot, David Cohen, 118, 6-1; and Midnight Bisou, Mike Smith, 122, 7-5.
Canadian star Escape Clause (20 for 30 in her career) will represent the first career Grade 1 starter in the 45-year career of trainer Don Schnell, who also co-owns the mare. Escape Clause exits a victory in the $100,000 Harry Henson Handicap March 24 at Sunland Park in which she set a track record (1:34) for a mile. Escape Clause is an 18-time stakes winner, owns track records for 6 ½ furlongs and 7 furlongs at Century Downs in Canada and finished second against males in the $75,000 Manitoba Derby in 2017 at Assiniboia Downs in Canada.
Baze, a recent addition to the Oaklawn jockey colony, has ridden Escape Clause in her last three starts, including a 5 ½-length victory in the $100,000 La Canada Stakes (G3) at 1 1/16 miles Jan. 12 at Santa Anita. Escape Clause won the Harry Henson by 7 ¼ lengths.
“We prefer to run from off it,” Schnell said. “She prefers to have a couple of targets in front of her. I'm going to have to see what the speed is and Tyler will have to judge the pace. Her preferred running style is from off the pace.”
Canadian champion Wonder Gadot – she won a Sovereign Award for 2-year-old fillies in 2017 – figures to improve off a runner-up finish her 4-year-old debut, a March 8 allowance at Oaklawn, for trainer Mark Casse. Wonder Gadot beat males in the first two legs of the Canadian Triple Crown last year and is a finalist for another Sovereign Award as that country's champion 3-year-old filly.
“I never ever suggested that she was at 100 percent,” Casse said of Wonder Gadot's comeback race. “I still was disappointed. I thought she could win, but she did well. I was proud of her.”
Grade 2 winner Chocolate Kisses opened her 4-year-old campaign with a Feb. 24 allowance victory at Oaklawn for trainer Tom Amoss, who won the 2000 Apple Blossom with Heritage of Gold.
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