Helen Alexander and Helen Groves’ homebred filly Acoma, who bagged consecutive graded stakes on the turf to close out her sophomore season, makes her 4-year-old debut against seven rivals in the $150,000 Azeri Stakes (gr. III) March 8 at Oaklawn Park.
Giving five-to-seven pounds to the rest of the field, Acoma’s main competition figures to come from either multiple graded stakes winner Bear Now, or Smart Surprise, a 5-year-old mare who took 11 tries to break her maiden but has since won consecutive stakes. Three of the top four finishers of the local Pippen Stakes on Feb. 14 have also been entered, including the winner, French Kiss.
The Azeri, a 1 1/16-mile main track contest for older fillies and mares, is the feature of Oaklawn’s 10-race program.
A daughter of Empire Maker—Aurora, by Danzig, Acoma didn’t do much wrong in 2008, her first year of racing. After finishing third in her debut last March, the bay won three consecutive starts, including the Dogwood Stakes (gr. III) May 31 at Churchill Downs in her first graded stakes try.
The second half of her 3-year-old season began with an off-the-board finish in the grade I Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont and a runner-up to Maren's Meadow in the Monmouth Oaks (gr. III). But Acoma reeled of consecutive scores in the Oct. 17 Valley View (gr. IIIT) at Keeneland and Nov. 8 Mrs. Revere (gr. IIT) at Churchill – her first two starts on grass.
Trainer David Carroll brings Acoma back off four months of rest, but a string of solid works at Fair Grounds this winter indicates that she will be ready to go for her season debut. Julien Leparoux, aboard for four of her five wins, comes in from Florida to ride. They will break from post 1.
Town and Country Farm’s Bear Now is the lone millionaire in the field. The 5-year-old Tiznow mare hit the milestone last year during a three-win campaign, which included a victory in the Kentucky Cup Distaff (gr. III) on Turfway Park’s Polytrack. An eighth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic (gr. I) at Santa Anita closed out her season.
Bear Now, who also has graded stakes scores in the Selene (gr. III) and Fitz Dixon Cotillion (gr. II) on her nine-win résumé, finished a distant runner-up in the Truly Bound Handicap at Fair Grounds on Jan. 17 in her 2009 debut. Trainer Al Stall Jr. gives a leg up to Fair Grounds’ leading rider Jamie Theriot, who flies in for the ride.
Smart Surprise, a $235,000 yearling, had been largely a disappointment until John Sikura bought the Smart Strike filly last summer and turned her over to trainer Josie Carroll in Canada. On Aug. 24 at Woodbine – her first start for the new connections – Smart Surprise broke her maiden in her eleventh try. She seemed to like the Polytrack too, reeling off two wins and a runner-up in her next three starts in Toronto to close out the year.
Smart Surprise has continued her new-found success into 2009, romping by more than six lengths in the Feb. 14 Chou Croute Handicap on the slop at Fair Grounds. Robby Albarado, aboard for the latest triumph, has the return mount for her graded stakes debut.
“I’m excited for her," said Leparoux, who flies in from Florida to ride. "Josie has done a great job with her. It will be a true test for her with the likes of Bear Now and Acoma. They are nice fillies in their own right.”
Anita Cauley’s French Kiss was on the winning end of a three-way photo in the Pippen, which is run at the same distance as the Azeri. The 4-year-old Hussonet filly, who finished fourth to Eight Belles in the Fantasy Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn last year, is 2-for-2 this season.
Color Me Up, a half-length back in third in the Pippen, and Maren’s Meadow, who was fourth in the same race but only a length from victory, are also entered. Maren’s Meadow, a Larry Jones trainee, defeated Acoma by 4 1/2 lengths in the Aug. 9 Monmouth Oaks. She is 0-for-4 since then.