HOT SPRINGS — On Fire Baby rewarded her connections’ confidence and patience with a gate-to-wire victory in Friday’s $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap, her first race in over 300 days. The victory also marked the first Grade 1 score for her owner-breeder Anita Cauley, trainer Gary “Red Dog” Hartlage and jockey Joe Johnson.
“I’m really, really proud,” said Cauley. “I needed her to act like a racehorse today. I didn’t necessarily need the win. This was icing on the cake. We want to have her around for a while.”
On Fire Baby was guided to the lead by Johnson from the start and allowed to get an uncontested first quarter in 24 and half mile in the 48. When her competition began to engage her around the final turn, she answered all questions and held on to win by a half-length over Azeri Stakes-winner Tiz Miz Sue, who closed late after finally getting running room in the stretch. Pippin and Bayakoa Stakes-winner Don’t Tell Sophia also made a belated run, but had to settle for third.
“Joe rode one hell of a race,” said Hartlage. “It doesn’t get much better than that. He’s the most underrated rider there is.”
Summer Applause, Bryan’s Jewel, She’s All In and even money favorite Grace Hall, who had to steady at the seven-eighths pole and then faded after putting in a mild bid, completed the order of finish.
On Fire Baby, by Smoke Glacken, is the third Oaklawn stakes winner produced by Ornate, a minor stakes winner for Cauley and Hartlage. Her first foal, High Heels, won the 2007 Fantasy Stakes and second foal, French Kiss, won the 2009 Pippen. However, On Fire Baby, who also won Oaklawn’s 2012 Honeybee Stakes (G3), is the most accomplished to date. The Apple Blossom was her fifth victory from nine career starts and she has now earned $654,629.
“This is the best she’s ever looked in her life. She’s picked up 150 pounds since last year. She’s so relaxed. She’s really matured. She’s the best horse I’ve ever had and I’ve been training 40 years. She’s something special.”
The winner paid $26.40, $10.00 and $4.80 at odds of 12-1. The exacta paid $114.80 and trifecta returned $213.90.