Photo: Coady Photography
Juddmonte Farms’ Azeri Stakes (G2) winner Close Hatches returned to Hot Springs Tuesday in advance of her next start in Friday’s $600,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1). The 4-year-old First Defense filly drew the rail against four other fillies and mares entered Tuesday for the 1 1/16-mile race.
Close Hatches made her first start since a runner-up effort behind champion Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff last November in the Azeri Stakes, but proved more than ready with her front-running 1 ½ length victory. Last year, as a 3-year-old, she proved among the best of her generation with victories in the Grade 1 Mother Goose and Cotillion Stakes and appears poised for another solid campaign in 2014. She will carry top weight of 121 pounds, including jockey Joel Rosario, and will concede between four and nine pounds to her rivals.
“She passed the first test and she’s doing well, so we decided to send her back,” said Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. “I have no complaints about the weights. I hope she travels well and settles in well, and if she does that, I’m sure she’ll run her race. We respect all of the fillies in there. On Fire Baby has had her race back now and the other fillies are also going to be competitive. We respect them all.”
Tommy Towns Thoroughbred’s Let Faith Arise will also be looking to make a name for herself with her second straight Grade 1 victory in the Apple Blossom. After running second in both the La Canada (G2) and Santa Maria (G2) Stakes, the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained filly enjoyed a break through win in the Santa Margarita Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita Park March 15, the same day as the Azeri.
Both Close Hatches and Let Faith Arise will need to be on the lookout for defending Apple Blossom winner On Fire Baby, who was fourth last out in the Azeri. The gray daughter of Smoke Glacken, trained by Gary “Reddog” Hartlage, has shown an affinity for Oaklawn. In 2012, she won the Honeybee Stakes (G3) and then returned from nearly a year off to win last year’s Apple Blossom in front running fashion.
Another Oaklawn-loving filly, making her first appearance of the race meet, is Rose to Gold, who arrived last week from her South Florida base and will be looking to add the Apple Blossom to her resume. Last year, she won both the Honeybee (G3) and Fantasy (G3) stakes over the local surface before going to the sidelines after a poor run in the Kentucky Oaks. Although, winless in three starts in her home state since last December, she did have an impressive victory in the $400,000 Houston Ladies Classic Jan. 25.
Stanwyck, who enters the Apple Blossom off of two third-place finishes behind Let Faith Arise, may not be all that familiar to the local Oaklawn fans, but her connections sure are. The 5-year-old Empire Maker mare is owned by Jerry and Ann Moss and trained by John Shirreffs, the same connections as 2008 and 2010 Apple Blossom winner Zenyatta, who earned year-end honors as Champion Older Mare in 2008 and Horse of the Year in 2010.
The complete field for the $600,000 Apple Blossom Handicap from the rail out with riders and weights: Close Hatches, Joel Rosario, 121; Rose to Gold, Calvin Borel, 115; Stanwyck, Gary Stevens, 115; On Fire Baby, Joe Johnson, 115, and Let Faith Arise, Corey Nakatani, 117.