Traditionally one of the top early season races for older fillies and mares in the country, the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap achieved additional notoriety last year when Oaklawn Park attempted to lure Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta to the same race for the first time. Their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful but the buzz never diminished until after Zenyatta won her second Apple Blossom in three years in front of a huge crowd against a small and over-matched field.
The field for this year's Apple Blossom is once again on the small side, (just five fillies and mares are expected to enter the starting gate), but the race should be a competitive event between a couple of the best older female horses in the country.
The Apple Blossom, a race open to fillies and mares four-years-old and up, is run at a mile and a sixteenth over the dirt track at Oakawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and features a $500,000 purse. Prior winners of the Apple Blossom includes such great fillies and mares as the aforementioned Zenyatta, along with Azeri (three straight wins from 2002 to 2004), Bayakoa, Bold ‘n Determined and Paseana.
Below is a filly-by-filly look at this year's field:
1-Absinthe Minded: Third in last month's Grade 3 Azeri at Oaklawn, this filly has run competitively at the graded stakes level but has yet to actually win a race of this quality. The small field size should allow her to maximize her gate speed and she could be dangerous on the front-end if the others in the field let her all to herself early on.
2-Miss Match (ARG): This filly struggled to do anything of note against graded stakes competition in 2010 and then came out of nowhere to stun the field in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita at Santa Anita at odds of 45/1. That race was by far the best of her career and it remains to be seen whether she can put up back-to-back efforts of that quality. There's also a question as to whether this is her best distance as her previous tries at a mile and a sixteenth were less than successful (3-0-0-2).
3-Havre de Grace: One of the top fillies in training today, Havre de Grace won the Azeri last time out in her initial start in 2011. Last season, she won the Grade 2 Fitz Dixon Cotillion at Parx (formerly Philadelphia Park), finished second in the Grade 1 Alabama and the Grade 2 Delaware Oaks, and finished third to Unrivalled Belle and Blind Luck in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic at Churchill Downs. A hard-knocking filly that seems to run a big race each and every time she steps on the track; Havre de Grace is the class of this field.
4-Belle Waiting (CHI): The mystery mare in this year's Apple Blossom is Belle Waiting, a Chilean-bred five-year-old mare that has only made two starts in North America after a career of dominance in her native country. Her initial North American start in the Grade 3 Very One at Gulfstream was a decent effort but nothing on the impressive side. Trainer Patrick Biancone dropped her into a bit of a softer race next time out and she responded with the same so-so effort as her first. It's possible she needed those two races to get into better form, but it's also possible that she's just not a high-class mare in this country.
5-Switch: Beaten as the 4/5 favorite in the Santa Margarita last time out, Switch has already won two Grade 1 races and finished second a host of other times. She won the G1-Santa Monica and the G1-La Brea this winter after finishing second to Dubai Majesty in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint and second to Zenyatta in the Grade 1 Lady's Secret. As a filly that possesses a lot of natural speed, jockey Joel Rosario will have to decide whether he wants to try and take this filly to the lead early on or give her a stalking trip right behind Absinthe Minded.
Despite Miss Match's huge upset in the Santa Margarita, both Switch and Havre de Grace remain the clear class of the Apple Blossom field. Each filly possesses the tactical speed to stay close in the early stages and both have repeatedly displayed an ability to run big races against top competition. Havre de Grace appears to be in the best form of her life right now and she's already proven herself over the Oaklawn main track, something no other filly in the field can match. If she runs her race, Havre de Grace should find herself in the winner's circle in a Grade 1 for the first time in her career.