Anita Cauley's On Fire Baby hadn't raced since May 28 of last year. On April 12 she came back with a vengeance, holding off Tiz Miz Sue to win the $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) at Oaklawn Park by half a length (VIDEO).
"I'm really, really proud," Cauley said. "I needed her to act like a racehorse today. I didn't necessarily need the win. This was icing on the cake. We want to have her around for a while."
Trained by Gary "Red Dog" Hartlage and ridden by jockey Joe Johnson, both of whom earned their first grade I stakes scores, the 4-year-old Smoke Glacken filly covered 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.13, rolling wire-to-wire for the victory over six others. She returned $26.40 on a $2 ticket at 12-1 odds.
"This is the best she's ever looked in her life," Hartlage remarked. "She's picked up 150 pounds since last year. She's so relaxed. She's really matured. She's the best horse I've ever had and I've been training 40 years. She's something special. Joe rode one hell of a race. It doesn't get much better than that. He's the most underrated rider there is."
"We always thought she had potential, now she is running to it," Johnson said. "This win today gave me a thrill, not so much for me but for Anita and Red Dog."
On Fire Baby was hustled to the front to clear the field at the start, causing even-money favorite Grace Hall to steady going into the first turn. The eventual winner led through early fractions of :24.03 and :48.10 with Summer Applause, She's All In, and Grace Hall applying moderate pressure. Johnson rationed out her speed for three-quarters in 1:12.62, but when the field turned for home it looked as though the leader might succumb as there were four strung across the track on seemingly even terms.
On Fire Baby responded when challenged, however, shook clear when straightened for home, and had enough left to hold sway in the final strides after running a mile in 1:37.84. Tiz Miz Sue closed strongly from sixth at the first point of call under jockey Joe Rocco Jr. but could not get to the winner. Don't Tell Sophia finished third.
"It was a good trip," Rocco said. "I was able to sit on her and wait to angle out. It seems like the rail's been dead, so I didn't want to drop her over there. She gave me a good run."
Tiz Miz Sue and Don't Tell Sophia came off a 1-2 finish in the March 16 Azeri Stakes (gr. III), Oaklawn's prep race for the Apple Blossom. They were sent off in the wagering at 5-1 and 7-2.
The remaining payouts for On Fire Baby were $10 to place and $4.80 to show. Tiz Miz Sue brought $6.20 and $3.60, while Don't Tell Sophia returned $3.20. Following the top three home were Summer Applause, Bryan's Jewel, She's All In, and Grace Hall. The last-place finisher left her connections perplexed.
"I thought we were home free around the turn, but it looks like she isn't trying like the Grace Hall we know," said Carol Fisher, assistant to trainer Anthony Dutrow. "We've just got to go back and regroup."
"I tried to keep her in the clear after what happened on the first turn," said Joel Rosario, jockey on Grace Hall. "She didn't try after that. It was not her best day."
Bred by Cauley in Kentucky out of the Gilded Time mare Ornate, On Fire Baby improved her record to five victories and a third from nine starts, with earnings of $654,629. As a juvenile, On Fire Baby won the Pocahontas (gr. II) and Golden Rod (gr. II) Stakes at Churchill Downs. Last year she won the Honeybee Stakes (gr. III) in March en route to a fifth-place finish in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) before running fourth in the May 28 TVG Acorn Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park, her most recent previous start.