APPLE BLOSSOM HANDICAP | PURSE: $500,000 | 4-YEAR-OLDS AND UP | GRADE 1 | 1 1/16 MILES
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- Havre de Grace does not enjoy the kind of rock-star status that Belle Watling has in her native Chile. Nor is she a Grade 1 winner like Miss Match or Switch. Havre de Grace, in fact, is one of the least decorated of the five fillies and mares who will meet Friday at Oaklawn in the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap.
But make no mistake -- she is the one to beat.
Havre de Grace has matured into a more aggressive racehorse at 4. She defeated champion Blind Luck by more than three lengths last month in the Grade 3, $150,000 Azeri at Oaklawn, her first start since finishing third to Unrivaled Belle and Blind Luck in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic last November. Havre de Grace now occupies the top spot in the filly and mare rankings compiled by Daily Racing Form national handicapper Mike Watchmaker. She comes into the Apple Blossom off an unprecedented work over the Oaklawn surface last Sunday.
The Apple Blossom is one of the nation's most important races for fillies and mares, having been won more than once by such greats as Azeri, Paseana, and Zenyatta. It will be run over 1 1/16 miles after having been lengthened to 1 1/8 miles last year in an attempt to stage a showdown between Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra. The Apple Blossom continues the $2.7 million Racing Festival of the South, when Oaklawn overloads its final week of the meet with major stakes.
Miss Match and Switch are in from Southern California for the Apple Blossom, while Belle Watling has shipped from Florida. The field is completed by Absinthe Minded, winner of the $100,000 Bayakoa at Oaklawn in February.
Havre de Grace looked like a world-beater returning from a more than four-month layoff in the Azeri. She stalked the pace in the 1 1/16-mile race and then took command of the field while covering the distance in a stakes-record time of 1:42. She earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 105.
"Hopefully, we're going to still see a move forward," said Larry Jones, who trains Havre de Grace for Fox Hill Farm. "I mean, she's sure acting like we're going to see an improved race off the last one if nothing else, at least see the same thing."
Havre de Grace's final dress rehearsal for the Apple Blossom came Sunday morning, and it indicated how outstanding she is right now. She breezed five furlongs, just after the track opened, in 57.80 seconds. Jim Hamilton, the head clocker at Oaklawn, said in his more than 20 years here he cannot recall another horse working a sub-58 over what is a sandier-type surface in Hot Springs.
"We didn't design to go that fast, but she acted like it's nothing to her," Jones said. "She came out of it good. She acted like that's what she needed. She thrived on it."
Jones, who all winter has worked to teach Havre de Grace to take command of her competition rather than run with the herd, had placed three gallopers strategically on the track for the work Sunday. Havre de Grace overtook each one, then hooked unplanned company during the last part of the drill.
If she runs back to the work, she figures to be tough to beat under jockey Ramon Dominguez. If she left her race on the track, a horse like Switch can take full advantage. Last year at 3, Switch came within a half-length of upsetting Zenyatta in the Grade 1 Lady's Secret during the Oak Tree meet at Hollywood Park. Switch has since gone on to win both the Grade 1 La Brea and Grade 1 Santa Monica.
"I think she's top class," said John Sadler, who trains Switch for C R K Stable. "She doesn't have a bad race on her form, and she's facing real horses all the time."
Switch last ran March 12 and was second by a head in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita at Santa Anita. The race was run over 1 1/8 miles, and she will be cutting back in distance for the Apple Blossom.
"We like the mile and a sixteenth," Sadler said.
He believes Switch, who will break from post 5, could sit just off the pace under Joel Rosario.
"It looks like there's some speed in there, so I imagine she'd be stalking in second or third," Sadler said. "She's quick enough where she can make the lead at anytime."
Miss Match won the Santa Margarita under Garrett Gomez, who will again be aboard in the Apple Blossom.
"She's a closing filly, and we just hope there will be quite a strong pace in front of her," said Neil Drysdale, who trains Miss Match for Matthew Cloros.
Absinthe Minded figures to be showing the way from her rail post, while Belle Watling will be reuniting with Hector Berrios, the jockey who guided her to five Group 1 wins in Chile.