APPLE BLOSSOM HANDICAP | PURSE: $500,000 | 4-YEAR-OLDS & UP | GRADE 1 | 1 1/16 MILES
Anita Cauley's homebred On Fire Baby closed out her sophomore campaign with a fourth-placing in the Acorn at Belmont Park in late May, but on Friday the Smoke Glacken miss returned to competition with a hard-fought half-length victory in the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park.
With jockey Joe Johnson aboard, the Gary Hartlage trainee withstood a late run from last year's Apple Blossom third Tiz Miz Sue to return $26.40, $10 and $4.80 as the 12-1 fifth choice in the seven-distaffer field.
On Fire Baby gunned for the front when the gates opened, but was briefly joined by Grace Hall to her inside rounding the first turn. That even-money favorite backed up entering the backstretch and angled to the outside of Summer Applause and She's All In as they took up a tracking position just off On Fire Baby's flank through splits of :24, :48 and 1:12 3/5.
She's All In faded as the leaders neared the final turn, but Don't Tell Sophia quickly moved up to take her spot. On Fire Baby, Summer Applause, Grace Hall and Don't Tell Sophia raced in tandem rounding the turn and into the lane. The longtime leader gradually shook loose from her rivals but found a new challenge in the form of Tiz Miz Sue rallying strongly from the rear of the field down the center of the track.
Tiz Miz Sue dug deep but just could not catch the tenacious On Fire Baby, who completed 1 1/16 miles on Oaklawn's fast main track in 1:44.
Tiz Miz Sue captured the local prep for the Apple Blossom for a second straight year when scoring in the Azeri on March 16, but was once again denied the winner's circle in the main event. The six-year-old mare was easily best of the rest, though, four lengths clear of Don't Tell Sophia, who took third by a neck over Summer Applause. Bryan's Jewel, She's All In and Grace Hall completed the order under the wire.
On Fire Baby opened her career in 2011 at Ellis Park with a four-length maiden score and was immediately stepped up to face Grade 1 competition in the Alcibiades at Keeneland. The gray miss ran fifth that day before rounding out her juvenile season with a pair of Grade 2 wins at Churchill Downs in the Pocahontas and Golden Rod.
Based on those efforts, On Fire Baby was an early favorite for the 2012 Kentucky Oaks, and briefly under consideration for the Kentucky Derby, and solidified that status when running third against the boys in the Smarty Jones in her sophomore debut at Oaklawn. She returned to the filly ranks to take the Honeybee, but was a one-paced fifth when trying the Kentucky Oaks two months later.
The Kentucky-bred lass returned 24 days later to be fourth in the Acorn, and now owns a 5-0-1 mark from nine starts. She nearly doubled her career earnings to $654,629 with the winner's share from the Apple Blossom.
On Fire Baby is out of the stakes-winning Gilded Time mare Ornate, making her a half-sister to 2007 Fantasy victress High Heels, who ran third in that year's Kentucky Oaks, as well as Grade 3-placed stakes heroine French Kiss, who was fourth in the 2009 Apple Blossom.
This female line has been very productive, boasting the likes of Grade 1-winning sires Olympio, Pyro, Paddy O'Prado and Cuvee as well as last year's Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile upsetter Tapizar.