Overlooked after her fifth-place finish in the Darley Alcibiades Stakes (gr. I), On Fire Baby registered a 9-1 upset in a wide-open renewal of the $173,400 Pocahontas Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO) to highlight opening day of the fall meet at Churchill Downs Oct. 30.
A sizzling pace set up the surprising finish in the one-turn mile event for 2-year-old fillies. On Fire Baby won by three-quarters of a length over the fast-closing And Why Not in 1:37.17 for one mile.
The Pocahontas was the late feature on Churchill's "Stars of Tomorrow" program that included the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) for colts for geldings.
Joe Johnson guided the winning homebred daughter of Smoke Glacken to victory for owner Anita Cauley and trainer Gary Hartlage. The striking gray/roan filly is out of the Gilded Time mare Ornate.
Twelve contested this year's Pocohontas, with Alcibiades runner-up Heart of Destiny sent off as the soft 3-1 favorite.
On Fire Baby was able to tuck in and save ground while racing off the pace in fifth. She angled outside of the leading Aubby K inside the furlong marker to get the lead approaching the sixteenth pole.
After getting clear, On Fire Baby dug in and held off second choice And Why Not, who had circled the field seven-wide for Garrett Gomez. And Why Not was charging furiously in the middle of the track before running out of time.
“We were hoping to lay off the pace, save some ground and hope things opened up," the veteran rider Johnson said. "We’ve known she has been a good one since the day she stepped off the van. It’s nice when you work hard and things come together.”
Another closer, Glinda the Good, gained the show spot with Julien Leparoux aboard, edging Aubby K by a neck. Aubby K, a 15 1/2-length maiden winner in her debut at Belmont Park Sept. 10, was part of a grueling early pace duel with My Due Process and Bet to Win.
My Due Process, along the inside, stepped the opening quarter-mile in :22.54 before Aubby K, three-wide on the outside, put her head in front, reaching the half-mile point in :45.56 and three-quarters in 1:10.58. Aubby K turned back the stalking Georgie's Angel and Believe You Can on the outside when they challenged rounding the turn, and continued to battle before giving way in the final furlong.
Heart of Destiny was never a factor and finished ninth. Trainer Jim Baker said afterward that he would not race Heart of Destiny on the dirt anymore.
"We might run her on the turf here later in the meet or we might freshen her up for next year," he said. "She’s a nice horse and we have a lot of options with her.”
On Fire Baby returned to dirt in the Pocahontas after breaking her maiden in her debut going 5 1/2 furlongs at Ellis Park Aug. 19. Her effort in the Alcibiades in just her second start was not that bad. Sent off at 40-1, she weakened to finish 6 1/2 lengths behind the victorious Stephanie's Kitten after being forced by her 13-post to gun for the early lead and set the pace.
“This feels good," Hartlage said. "She has always showed me she was a good horse from the day she stepped in the barn, and that’s why I ran her in a grade I and today a grade II.
"I’ve trained a lot of good horses and some graded stakes winners, and she’s right up there with them. She’ll be even better next year when she really figures out what’s going on."
Hartlage said he would consider running her one more time this year in the Golden Rod (gr. II) at Churchill Nov. 26.
On Fire Baby earned $99,982 for her second win in three starts, pushing her career total to $127,582. On Fire Baby paid $20.20, $9.40, and $4.80 while keying a $112.40 exacta.
Helen Groves' And Why Not also came out of the Alcibiades, in which she closed from last to finish sixth for trainer Michael Matz. The Street Cry filly returned $6.60 and $4.40 for her Pocahontas effort.
Glinda the Good, from the Steve Asmussen barn for Stonestreet Stables, paid $6.60 in her first start since running second in Delaware Park's Blue Hen Stakes Oct. 1.