The Grade 1, $600,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park drew a big field of 14 and although there are a number of horses with the qualifications to win, it appears there is only one who will be in front shortly after the gate opens. That one is Serengeti Empress, who drew the 11 post position and who has led from start to finish in all four of her stakes wins, including last month in the Grade 2 Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn.
Cookie Dough, who won the Grade 3 Royal Delta Stakes in February after stalking the pacesetter, draws just inside Serengeti Empress and will likely try to keep that one honest. Ce Ce enters the Apple Blossom off a win in the Grade 1 Beholder Mile last month and although she draws the extreme outside must be considered a legitimate contender to win her second Grade 1 race in a row. Horologist won the Grade 3 Monmouth Oaks last summer and enters the race off a win in the Nellie Morse Stakes so could be improving back to graded stakes-winning form. Street Band won the Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes last September before three poorer efforts but if able to reach back to last summer’s form could be a factor as well.
The talent in this year’s Apple Blossom doesn’t stop there as Point of Honor makes her second start following nearly seven months off and won the Grade 2 Black Eyed Susan Stakes last May before runner-up efforts in the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes and Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks. Come Dancing is another horse with the right credentials to be effective in this type of race as she won the Grade 1 Ballerina Stakes and the Grade 2 Gallant Bloom Stakes last summer. However, it must be noted that all eight of her career wins have come around one turn and the Apple Blossom is a two-turn race. Additionally, she is returning from 4 ½ months off while running in a route without a prep race. Go Google Yourself is a multiple stakes winner who has won three of her last four races including the Grade 3 Bayakoa Stakes at Oaklawn in February. Queen Nekia hopes to improve off a third-place finish behind Cookie Dough in the Royal Delta. Similarly, Saracosa may have improving to do off her third-place effort behind Serengeti Empress in the Azeri. Ollie’s Candy won the Grade 1 Clement Hirsch Stakes last July and makes her second start following a layoff, hoping to improve off a third-place effort behind Ce Ce in the Beholder Mile. Lady Apple won the Grade 3 Houston Ladies Classic in January to kick off her 4-year-old campaign before finishing 20 lengths behind Serengeti Empress in the Azeri. Coldwater and Awe Emma round out the full field.
Horologist gets slight preference as my top win contender in this year’s Apple Blossom Handicap. She won just one of five dirt sprints to start her career, then last spring when tried at a mile on the dirt she won to kick off four victories in succession. The last of those four came in the Monmouth Oaks in August with a then-career-best 103 Equibase Speed Figure. Following that, Horologist only managed third-, ninth-, and fifth-place finishes but may have turned a corner last month with a big effort in the Nellie Morse Stakes. In that race, Horologist moved up from third after a half-mile and battled head-and-head with the eventual winner. Although beaten a nose on the wire, Horologist was 9 ½ lengths in front of the next horse. With that effort, Horologist earned a new career-best 110 figure, which is the highest in the field and one point better than the 109 figure Ce Ce earned in the Beholder Mile. Considering Horologist is making her second start off two months away and her stalking style may put her right behind potential early leaders Serengeti Empress and Cookie Dough, she may get the lead in the stretch and hang on for the win in this very tough and talented field.
If not for having drawn the outside 14 post in the Apple Blossom, Ce Ce might be my top choice. As it is, I think she has just about as much probability to succeed as Horologist because she’s a lightly raced 4-year-old and has won two in a row since returning from an eight-month layoff in February. Following a sprint prep to begin her 2020 campaign, Ce Ce stretched out to a mile for the Beholder Mile Stakes last month in California and dominated by 3 ¼ lengths with a 109 figure. Victor Espinoza has been the only jockey she’s had in five races, including three wins, and rides her again. Given the pattern of layoff-sprint-route-route strongly suggests an even better effort than in the Beholder Mile, and with a good stalking style which is benefited by the early speed of Serengeti Empress, Cookie Dough, and perhaps others, Ce Ce could win her second Grade 1 stakes in a row.
Street Band doesn’t appear nearly as probable to win as the top two contenders, but she’s not entirely improbable either. Although Street Band has won five of 15 races, she’s been inconsistent as she’s never run two good races in a row, always regressing following wins with fifth-, fourth-, sixth-, third-, and eighth-place efforts. That historical record might actually bode well for her chances in the Apple Blossom as she has finished third and fourth in her two starts this year. Ignoring the fourth-place effort on a sloppy track last month in the Azeri Stakes, Street Band may have a say in the outcome of this race if she improves off her third-place effort prior to that in the Houston Ladies Classic when beaten just a neck for second by Serengeti Empress with a 103 figure. When winning the Cotillion Stakes last September, Street Band earned a career-best 114 figure so if able to run back to that effort she would be capable of winning the Apple Blossom.
Queen Nekia is an interesting longshot in the Apple Blossom, particularly when considering any exacta and/or trifecta bets as I think the potential for a faster than average early pace benefits her late running style. Claimed for $62,500 out of a winning effort in January with a 100 figure, Queen Nekia improved to a competitive 108 figure when third, beaten three-quarters of a length, in the Royal Delta Stakes last month. In that race, Queen Nekia brushed the gate at the start then was steadied in traffic in the first turn. Then, moving up from fourth to within a half-length of the leader with an eighth of a mile to go, Queen Nekia battled fiercely to miss second by a nose on the wire. Likely to be in fifth or sixth in the early stages of the Apple Blossom, if the pace is much faster than average Queen Nekia might sneak her way into the top three in the late stages.
Cookie Dough and Serengeti Empress are two horses I am on the fence about in terms of being win contenders. Cookie Dough earned a 109 figure winning the Royal Delta Stakes last month with a great trip stalking the early leader, but her 10 post may dictate a strategy to go for the lead and the rail from the start. She could get second in the early stages behind the more likely early leader Serengeti Empress, but the cost of doing so may make her vulnerable to the stalkers and closers in the late stages. Similarly, Serengeti Empress, who has only won when on the lead from the start in her route races, seems committed to go as hard as she can to get to the front early. Having to clear the 10 horses inside of her in the gate while saving enough for the late stages in a 14-horse field is likely to be a bit more problematic then it was last month when having to clear four horses to her inside in the Azeri Stakes. That effort earned Serengeti Empress a career-best 106 figure and that may be another obstacle in winning the Apple Blossom as that figure needs to be improved upon to get to the 110 and 109 figures Horologist and Ce Ce earned, respectively, in their most recent starts.
The rest of the field, with their best representative Equibase Speed Figures, is Awe Emma (94), Coldwater (90), Come Dancing (112), Lady Apple (104), Ollie’s Candy (103), Point of Honor (98) and Saracosa (99).
Contender for exacta and trifecta wagers: