Alex and JoAnn Lieblong have 10 career stakes victories at Oaklawn, but none in Grade 1 company. The Arkansas owners will have another chance to change that Saturday with Hot and Sultry, the expected pacesetter in the $1 million Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) for older fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles.
Trained by Norm Casse, Hot and Sultry exits a fourth-place finish in the $350,000 Azeri Stakes (G2) on March 11 at Oaklawn, a 1 1/16-mile race that marked her two-turn debut. Hot and Sultry was beaten 3 1/4 lengths that day by Secret Oath and finished a half-length behind runner-up Clairiere.
Both millionaire Grade 1 winners return in the Apple Blossom, but Hot and Sultry, on paper, has a tactical advantage because she figures to control the pace. The only other Apple Blossom entrant is late-running long shot I Feel the Need.
“Those two are fabulous horses,” Alex Lieblong said Wednesday afternoon of Hot and Sultry's high-profile competition. “Who are we kidding? Our filly is doing well and the first time she went around two turns, didn’t embarrass herself. So, we’ll just see what happens. It’s a tough little field.”
Hot and Sultry is already a stakes winner, having claimed the $150,000 American Beauty for older female sprinters on Jan. 21. The American Beauty marked the ninth career Oaklawn stakes victory as sole owners for the Lieblongs, who reside about 50 miles northeast of Hot Springs in Conway (Faulkner County). The couple, in partnership, also won the $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) in 2010 at Oaklawn with Duke of Mischief and finished fourth, as sole owners, in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) in 2019 at Oaklawn with Laughing Fox.
Hot and Sultry, a daughter of deceased Grade 3 winner Speightster, was purchased for $475,000 at the 2020 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. Hot and Sultry is a half-sister to stakes winning Tracksmith and her third dam is champion Xtra Heat, a 2015 inductee into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
Lieblong said he was immediately drawn to the bay filly at the Keeneland sale.
“She was Marilyn Monroe in a (small town) beauty contest,” Lieblong said.
Hot and Sultry began her racing career with Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen and finished second in her Dec. 18, 2021, debut at Oaklawn after drawing the rail. After breaking her maiden sprinting last January at Oaklawn, Hot and Sultry stretched out to win an entry-level allowance race at 1 mile July 1 at Churchill Downs. Hot and Sultry has made three starts at the 2022-2023 Oaklawn meeting for Casse, who began training for the Lieblongs last year.
Although she had never raced around two turns, Casse said the Apple Blossom was the major spring objective for Hot and Sultry when the Oaklawn meeting began Dec. 9.
“Alex is from there,” Casse said Tuesday afternoon. “Other than the Arkansas Derby, we feel like the Apple Blossom is Oaklawn’s marquee race. We feel like we have a horse that is really talented and deserves to be in there and literally from day one, this was the idea. And we knew all along, you could follow what was going on all winter with their work patterns, who was going to show up in the Azeri and then who was going to be in the Apple Blossom. It’s a Grade 1, it’s a million-dollar race. You know what you were getting yourself into.”
Hot and Sultry would boost her broodmare value by simply hitting the board Saturday, but it would go through the roof with a Grade 1 victory against Secret Oath and Clairiere, both finalists for an Eclipse Award in 2022 in the 3-year-old filly and older dirt female category, respectively.
Hot and Sultry has a 3-2-0 mark from six lifetime starts and earnings of $272,845. She’s the 5-1 third choice on the morning line for the Apple Blossom.
“She’s a nice horse,” Lieblong said. “But Lord, you’re certainly jumping into the deep water with those two.”
The Lieblongs entered Friday with 131 career Oaklawn victories as sole owners, their first coming in 1999. In addition to Casse, the Lieblongs employ trainers David Fawkes, Steve Hobby, Riley Mott and Chris Hartman. Alex Lieblong is chairman of the Arkansas Racing Commission.