Ce Ce reeled in Ollie’s Candy in the closing strides to win a thrilling edition of the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap April 18 at Oaklawn Park. (Coady Photography)
A month after staking her claim as the best distaffer on the West Coast with a victory in the Grade 1 Beholder Mile Stakes at Santa Anita Park, Bo Hirsch’s Ce Ce is showing her brilliance extends beyond California.
Traveling to Arkansas for the $600,000, Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park, the 4-year-old Elusive Quality filly defeated a star-studded group that included nine other graded stakes winners, four at the Grade 1 level, including runner-up Ollie’s Candy. Plus, she did it from post-position 14 in a 1 1/16-mile race with a short run to the first of two turns.
Following a sharp break and with an assist from several rivals, who sped off to go a demanding pace, Ce Ce made her outside draw seem like a mild hindrance. She was able to duck in behind the leaders in fifth, only about three wide into the first turn under Hall of Fame jockey Victor Espinoza.
In fifth she remained down the backstretch as Ollie’s Candy out-sprinted Cookie Dough and Serengeti Empress to the lead with a half-mile in :45.51. Then, on the second turn, the leader spurted away from her pace-chasing rivals, going six furlongs in 1:10.27, only now it was Ce Ce who loomed a danger. Advancing in the three path, she began to close the gap.
Ollie’s Candy would not yield easily, holding Ce Ce at bay for much of the stretch. But once Espinoza asked Ce Ce for all she had, she was able to muster the necessary late finish to win by a head. The Mike McCarthy trainee finished in 1:43.14 on a fast track, paying $9.80.
“I hit the first turn three or four wide, and it was perfect,” Espinoza said. “I was smiling because it was exactly what I wanted. Down the backside, I had to put her in the race because I didn’t want the speed to get away from me. At the three-eighths [pole], I put her behind the speed and just waited. Turning for home, I was just loaded. It’s always fun to ride horses like Ce Ce. She’s an amazing filly.”
Her victory gave Espinoza his second win in the Apple Blossom. He won it in 2017 aboard 5-year-old Stellar Wind, a champion at 3.
Point of Honor rallied for third, nipping fourth-place Street Band in a photo finish. Favored Serengeti Empress faded to 11th.
McCarthy said the race unfolded differently than he expected when 2019 Longines Kentucky Oaks winner and favorite Serengeti Empress was unable to take the lead. Then when the front-runners strung out the pack, with Ce Ce well positioned in the first flight of chasers, five lengths off the pace, he began to gain confidence in his filly.
“We were able to sit in a perfect spot,” he said.
He praised the effort of the rail-drawn Ollie’s Candy, a fellow Californian who had been third to Ce Ce in the Beholder Mile.
“It was a race neither deserved to lose,” he said of the Apple Blossom battle.
“I’m thrilled. I thought she ran great,” said her trainer, John Sadler. “The instructions to [jockey] Joel [Rosario] were to just not waste the post. His hands weren’t tied. He did what he had to do to get into position. I was a little surprised they went that fast, but I’m very pleased with the effort.”
Ce Ce, bred in Kentucky, is a product of Bo Hirsch’s breeding and racing program. Her dam, 20-year-old Miss Houdini (by Belong to Me), won the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante Stakes in 2002 for trainer Warren Stute and has produced three other black-type runners, including two-time graded stakes winner Papa Clem (by Smart Strike).
Papa Clem also shined at Oaklawn, winning the Arkansas Derby in 2009 for Gary Stute. He was fourth in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs behind upset winner Mine That Bird.
“It really speaks to their breeding operation,” McCarthy said of the family’s success.
Whitmore Wins Count Fleet for Third Time in Four Years
In a world where facts and beliefs seem to change on an hourly basis, Whitmore continues to be as reliable as they come.
Another brilliant chapter in the 7-year-old gelding’s incredible success story at Oaklawn Park was scripted April 18 when he rallied for a three-quarter-length victory under Joe Talamo in the $350,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap — his third victory in the past four years in the six-furlong stakes — and became the Hot Springs track’s all-time leader with seven stakes wins.
“We’re blessed to have him,” said trainer Ron Moquett, who also owns a share of the gelding through his Southern Springs Stables. “When you wake up every day in this game, you dream of a horse like this that you can count on and who is talented and honest. We are so grateful.
“This is my life. This is what I live for. I will never try to be a leading trainer. I don’t have an ego. I want to develop horses and have good horses and do right by them to help them reach their potential. I think I’ll live to be 100, but if something happens and I go tomorrow, then this is the kind of stuff I wanted to do.”
For Moquett, who has been training for more than 22 years with slightly more than 800 wins, the victory was especially satisfying, coming at a time when he’s at a high risk of contracting COVID-19. He’s feeling well, but, to be safe, he’s now forced to spend his days sheltered at home, which, fortunately enough, is close enough to Oaklawn Park so that he can “feel the horses rush by when they pass the 4 1/2-furlong pole.”
“If people with lung problems or immune disorders are supposed to be concerned, then I have an immune disorder that has caused me to lose about 80% of both of my lungs. So I’m Exhibit A for people who should be concerned about the virus,” he said. “We’re being very careful, and I’m lucky we have a routine where I can see the horse train from my yard and not be around people. I’m under house arrest, and I underestimated how hard it would be, but, I’ll tell you, days like this make it easy.”
Adding to his accolades, Whitmore moved past the $3 million mark in earnings for his ownership group, which also includes Robert LaPenta and Sol Kumin’s Head of Plains Partners. He won for the 14th time in 34 starts.—Bob Ehalt