Phil Sims and Jerry Namy's Don't Tell Sophia has sailed through the early part of 2014, acing the Bayakoa Stakes and Pippin Stakes over her home track of Oaklawn Park with the same ease she demonstrated when winning those races in 2013.
But the 6-year-old mare stands a stout test March 15 in the $200,000 Azeri Stakes (gr. II), when she'll be faced with multiple grade I winner Close Hatches and 2013 Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) victress On Fire Baby.
The 1 1/16-mile Azeri is where things start to get tough in Oaklawn's series for older fillies and mares, leading to the April 11 Apple Blossom for a $600,000 prize. Last year Don't Tell Sophia succumbed to now-retired millionaire Tiz Miz Sue in the Azeri, then was third while that rival finished second in the Apple Blossom, both of them closing behind On Fire Baby's front end theft.
Don't Tell Sophia went on to collect her first graded stakes score two starts later, acing the Chilukki (gr. II) in early November at Churchill Downs. She wound up her season second to Wine Princess in the Nov. 28 Falls City Handicap (gr. II) at the Louisville oval, and is 2-for-2 in 2014. Channing Hill will ride the Congaree mare as he has in her past two victories; Don't Tell Sophia carries high weight of 123.
Juddmonte Farms' Close Hatches is a powerful rival on class alone, although she could be vulnerable making her first start of the season in her first visit to the Arkansas track. The 4-year-old First Defence filly was second last time out, 4 1/4 lengths back of eventual champion Beholder, in the Nov. 2 Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) at Santa Anita Park.
She made that start for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott after back-to-back grade I victories in the Cotillion Stakes at Parx Racing and the Mother Goose at Belmont Park. She also won the Gazelle Stakes (gr. II) at the beginning of 2013, and was second in the Acorn (gr. I). Joel Rosario rides from the rail as part of a 120-pound impost.
Anita Cauley's homebred On Fire Baby needs to get back on track for trainer Gary Hartlage and will also make her season debut in the Azeri. The 5-year-old daughter of Smoke Glacken ended her season a dismal 11th in the Juddmonte Spinster Stakes (gr. I) on Polytrack last October at Keeneland, and has not won since her 12-1 Apple Blossom victory. Between those two outings she was second by a head to Authenticity in Churchill's La Troienne (gr. II) in May, missed the Fleur de Lis Handicap (gr. II) there after spiking a fever in June, and finished fourth in the Personal Ensign (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course in August. She carries 118, including regular rider Joe Johnson, from the outside.
Another talented contender making her first start of the year is Preston Stables' Flashy American, who was third in the Falls City behind Wine Princess and Don't Tell Sophia, and ran fourth in the Zenyatta Stakes (gr. I) at Santa Anita last September. Prior to those starts for trainer Ken McPeek, the 4-year-old Flashy Bull filly won back-to-back stakes in solid fashion—the Alada at Saratoga, and the Locust Grove at Churchill in which she defeated Wine Princess. She also won the Iowa Distaff earlier in the season. Terry Thompson rides from the 6 hole; Flashy American carries 118.
Rounding out the field are Hronis Racing's California allowance winner Magic Union from the barn of John Sadler, a 4-year-old Dixie Union filly who broke her maiden at Oaklawn last year when trained by Donnie Von Hemel for her former connections; John Oxley's Bayakoa runner-up Dixie Strike, an Ontario-bred grade III winner who is also by Dixie Union and is trained by Mark Casse; and Millennium Farms and Little Brother Farm's homebred Sister Ginger, a 4-year-old daughter of Student Council who was third in the Bayakoa and Pippin and won the 2013 Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn for trainer Steve Asmussen.