Horse racing continues to go on as scheduled at a handful of tracks around the United States and that includes the Apple Blossom Handicap on Saturday at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The race for fillies and mares that are four years of age or older is the spotlight event on the Saturday April 18 card.
Race 10 has a post time of 5:16 p.m. and features several familiar names from last year’s premier three-year-old races like the Kentucky Oaks, the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, and the Acorn Stakes, which is part of New York’s Triple Tiara along with the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Alabama Stakes.
With no fans allowed in attendance, the purse has come down from $1 million to $600,000, but we still have an excellent field and a strong set of fillies and mares vying for the title in the 56th running of this race.
We’ll break this one down with some suggested bets and some nuggets to know about each of the 14 horses in the field.
|1||Ollie’s Candy||J. Sadler||J. Rosario||12/1|
|2||Coldwater||P. Eurton||W. De La Cruz||50/1|
|3||Awe Emma||D. Stewart||C. Lanerie||30/1|
|4||Come Dancing||D. Lukas||F. Geroux||3/1|
|5||Point of Honor||G. Weaver||D. Van Dyke||12/1|
|6||Street Band||JL Jones||S. Doyle||12/1|
|7||Queen Nekia||S. Joseph Jr.||D. Cohen||20/1|
|8||Saracosa||C. Contreras||M. Garcia||30/1|
|9||Horologist||R. Baltas||T. Baze||20/1|
|10||Cookie Dough||S. Joseph Jr.||A. Cedillo||12/1|
|11||Serengeti Empress||T. Amoss||J. Talamo||4/1|
|12||Go Google Yourself||P. McGee||B. Hernandez Jr.||15/1|
|13||Lady Apple||S. Asmussen||R. Santana Jr.||12/1|
|14||Ce Ce||M. McCarthy||V. Espinoza||7/2|
This is an excellent field. Serengeti Empress was the winner of last year’s Kentucky Oaks and she recently won the Azeri Stakes here at Oaklawn last month. Point of Honor took down the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes. The only huge name missing is Guarana, the winner of both the Acorn Stakes and the Coaching Club American Oaks.
Guarana missed some time last year and did not run in the Breeders’ Cup. Between the quarantine for trainer Chad Brown and Guarana’s injury, she is bypassing this race and will hopefully make her 2020 debut sometime later in the spring.
The absence of Guarana only slightly weakens the field. The morning line odds upon post draw listed Serengeti Empress as the favorite at 3/1 and Ce Ce at 9/2 with the far outside post. Come Dancing was 6/1, with no other horse is in single digits with the early odds.
Opinions changed as of Thursday, as Come Dancing was the 3/1 favorite, with Ce Ce at 7/2 and Serengeti Empress at 4/1.
Looking first at the favorites, Serengeti Empress’s win in the Azeri Stakes came over Saracosa, who was third, Street Band, who was fourth, Lady Apple, who was fifth, and Awe Emma, who was seventh after losing the rider right out of the gate. Serengeti Empress was the favorite at the post draw, but the form now shows her at 4/1, just behind Ce Ce at 7/2 and Come Dancing at 3/1.
Her win came on a very sloppy and muddy track as a 9/5 favorite and she went gate to wire to do it. Drawing the 11 post is tricky here for Serengeti Empress. She’s a front-runner and a pace-setter. Getting jostled a little bit or spending energy early in the race could be to her detriment here in a very strong field of 14.
She was 13/1 in the Kentucky Oaks, got to the front of the pack, and hung on against a hard-charging long shot in Liora. That was with Jose Ortiz in the irons, but Joe Talamo had the mount for the Azeri. He knows what he has to do and that is get to the front of the pack without spending too much energy. If that happens, this race could very well be over.
If not, Serengeti Empress was bothered by Guarana pulling alongside her in the Acorn Stakes at Belmont last June and she eased up a little bit. With that opening, Guarana, the 9/5 favorite, blew past. It was a similar story in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff when Blue Prize and Midnight Bisou came alongside. Staying out of traffic is big for Talamo and Serengeti Empress.
Ce Ce is riding a bit of a wave into this race, having just won back-to-back at Santa Anita in the Beholder Mile Stakes and an allowance optional claiming (AlwOC). The concern here is that we don’t know how much she’ll like the distance, going an extra 1/16 of a mile on an unfamiliar track.
She basically coasted to the win in the Beholder Mile over 3/5 favorite Hard Not to Love, as Victor Espinoza stalked the pace and then turned it on after 3/4 of a mile. He didn’t even have to raise the whip until the final straightaway when Ce Ce won by over three lengths.
That was a Grade 1 race, but with only six horses and a fairly weak field. The far outside post is fine for a stalker, but Ce Ce will face much better top-end and coasting speed than she saw in the Beholder Mile. She has the talent to keep up and she has the right kind of running style to come from the outside, so she has to be viewed as a serious contender despite the concerns.
Come Dancing is the oldest horse in the field, but has become the favorite. She also hasn’t run since a disappointing sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint over just seven furlongs in November. Her last three races have been well short of this distance and she has only run this distance or longer three times since the start of 2018. She was second, fifth, and first in those races.
The daughter of Malibu Moon has a terrific jockey and trainer combo, which is a contributing factor to the short line with Florent Geroux in the mount and D. Wayne Lukas as the trainer. The second turn in her first race with Lukas is a major question mark for her here.
Her win in the Ballerina Stakes at Saratoga came as a 4/5 favorite off of a bad break in a five-horse field. She also topped a five-horse field as a massive favorite in the Gallant Bloom Handicap at Belmont. This is a stronger field.
With that in mind, it sure seems like some of the double-digit prices have great shots to win this race. Cookie Dough was the morning line second favorite prior to her third-place finish in last year’s Black-Eyed Susan Stakes. She had a terrible trip at 6/1 in the Acorn Stakes and finished eighth. Maybe, just maybe, the Royal Delta Stakes was a turning point for her with a win at 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream Park in February. That was the first race with Saffie Joseph Jr. and it was a victorious effort on a very wet track as an 8/5 favorite.
It wasn’t the prettiest of runs for Paco Lopez, as Cookie Dough, who seems to be quite the temperamental filly, didn’t like the mud and didn’t settle down, but she was still the best of the pack.
This time around, the mount goes to Abel Cedillo, so we have some big questions here as well.
Ollie’s Candy could get some steam on race day. Joel Rosario always attracts money and the daughter of Candy Ride was game against Serengeti Empress’s speed in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff last year at Santa Anita. She only has one win since 2018 and didn’t run in any of the name-brand races as a three-year-old, but she’s hit the board a lot in her career. The question here is how much she gets squeezed out in the #1 post. With pace setters like Serengeti Empress, Awe Emma, and Cookie Dough, you have to wonder if she’ll wind up having to bob and weave through a big chunk of the field.
It was Flavien Prat last time out for Ollie’s Candy and she wasn’t a big factor. It was Rosario in the Distaff. The morning line of 12/1 is higher than what we are likely to see at post time, especially since she had a run of eight Equibase Speed figures over 100 snapped last time out with a third-place finish.
There is one horse that could be sitting on a big run and that is Point of Honor. The winner of the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes finished second to Guarana at the Coaching Club American Oaks and second to Dunbar Road, another of Chad Brown’s excellent fillies, in the Alabama Stakes. The daughter of Curlin hasn’t raced since that 1 1/4 mile run at Saratoga last August.
Perhaps the presence of jockey Drayden Van Dyke will scare some people away, but this is a horse with a strong bloodline. That Alabama Stakes race featured Lady Apple, Champagne Anyone, and the favorite and winner Dunbar Road, so it was a strong field. She was the second favorite at 2/1. To her credit, she’s been first or second in six of seven races. This is anything but a short price at 12/1.
In that Alabama Stakes, she was forced to take a wide trip around the final turn and had enough speed for second in a photo over Street Band, but Dunbar Road essentially followed her line and outran her to the finish. It was a good ride from Javier Castellano and that would be the worry here with a downgrade to Van Dyke. Recent workouts have also been uninspiring.
Speaking of Street Band, she is once again with Sophie Doyle, who really seemed to hold her back in the Alabama and came up a disappointing fourth in the Azeri. That was, however, her first run at Oaklawn Park and maybe a second trip and some workouts will benefit her. We know she has the upside after outrunning Guarana in the Cotillion at Parx last September in a race that also included Bellafina, Serengeti Empress, Jeltrin, and she came from second-last to win.
It was a seminal moment for Doyle, who got her first Grade 1 win and also became just the third female jockey to win the Cotillion. Street Band was shot out of a cannon at the end to best some better and more consistent horses. Does she have it in her to do it again?
Lady Apple drew a tough post on the outside in 13th. She’ll have Ce Ce coming from the right and will have to fall in line behind the rest of the pack. It would be hard to count out the tandem of Steve Asmussen and Ricardo Santana Jr. in spite of the bad draw. Lady Apple outran this race favorite in Serengeti Empress in Houston back in January. But, she finished fifth in the Azeri in the slop.
There is a chance of rain late Friday into Saturday and then a bigger chance into Saturday night. She needs a fast track and a lane to break free. She may not get either and thus has to be left off the card or used underneath in exotics.
At 20/1, both Horologist and Queen Nekia could draw some interest in what looks like a pretty spread-out field. Horologist was pretty impressive with the breakneck pace of the Cotillion Stakes and finished third to Street Band and Guarana. She was second in the Nellie Morse at Laurel Park last month in her second race following a three-month layoff. For the most part, distance hasn’t bothered her too much. Pardon the pun, but she’s a workhorse in that she’s full of stamina and full of effort. If she passes enough horses that are slowing down late in the race, hitting the board is a possibility, though winning doesn’t appear to be.
Queen Nekia, like Horologist, can pass tiring racers at the tail end of the run. A recent trainer change to Saffie Joseph Jr. has worked out in her favor with an AlwOC win in January and a solid show finish in the Royal Delta Stakes won by Cookie Dough. She actually hit the gate and started a little slow, but finished third, less than a length behind the winner. It wouldn’t be a big shocker for her to win, especially with two excellent Equibase Speed figures in her last two races. David Cohen is also a 17% jockey at Oaklawn Park and has hit the board nearly 45% of the time.
The same can be said about Go Google Yourself at 15/1. She’s had some big speed numbers over her last four races and some good workouts of lat at Fair Grounds, but this is a far outside post and she doesn’t have much experience with those.
Coldwater, Awe Emma, and Saracosa just don’t have the ceiling to be factors.
If Serengeti Empress breaks free and runs from in front, she’ll probably win. But, we’ve seen her stumble in the face of a challenge when she is under duress. She’s a risky favorite. Similarly, Ce Ce is a risky second favorite with the far outside post, but she is one of the most consistent horses in the field per her speed figures and her stalking style fits well here with 1 1/16 and plenty of time to make a move to the front.
Ollie’s Candy has the shortest trip to the first turn and some excellent, consistent speed figures of her own and Joel Rosario in the mount doesn’t hurt. No familiarity with Oaklawn Park is the only real mark against her.
Come Dancing could be sitting on a monster race here. At 6, she is the oldest horse in the field, but she was running as good as ever before the slip-up at Santa Anita in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. This is a long layoff for her and her first race for D. Wayne Lukas after the trainer change, so there are questions and she is down to 3/1 as opposed to the morning line at post of 6/1.
But, Come Dancing could also struggle with the additional distance, a second turn, and a very strong field that will challenge her right out of the gate. She’s a front-runner as evidenced by her race splits. She may have to come from behind here and that’s a worry.
Along the same lines with trainer changes, here we have Cookie Dough running with Saffie Joseph Jr. for the second time off of a monster effort in the Royal Delta. Lightning strike twice? Does Joseph work magic with Queen Nekia again?
This is a hard race. You really can make a case for most of these fillies and mares. Though we haven’t seen Ce Ce at this length, she’s widened her lead late in her last two victories. The 14 is on my card.
I’m also going to take a long shot winner with Queen Nekia here. Cohen is a strong rider and this is a horse that seems to have excelled with a trainer change and still has won one-third of her races and has hit the board in 20 of 24, including 18 of 20 on dirt.
You can’t really leave Serengeti Empress out altogether. She’s cashed in 10 of 14, including six wins, and has some top-notch speed figures. If she sets the pace, she probably wins.
For exotics, Cookie Dough is 10/13 in hitting the board and has had some excellent workouts recently. Going from Lopez to Cedillo is a worry, but it sure seems like Joseph just might have gotten the most out of her. Cookie Dough has bounced to Stanley Gold, then Kiaran McLaughlin, and then back to Gold. Joseph just might have the Midas touch with this dynamic filly. She is a fast breaker. We just have to hope she maintains the pace.
Win/Place: 7, 11, 14
Exacta Box: 7/10/11/14