Champion Ce Ce Targeting Second Apple Blossom Victory

By Robert Yates

Ce Ce, galloping over the Oaklawn Park Track

Photo Credit: Coady Photography

The last time Southern California-based Ce Ce raced at Oaklawn, she may have seen snow for the first time in her life.

A freak winter storm March 11 dumped 2 to 4 inches in the Hot Springs area, covering the racing surface, and drove overnight temperatures into the low 20s. Ce Ce was scheduled to run in the $350,000 Azeri Stakes (G2) for older fillies and mares March 12, a 1 1/16-mile race that marked her first start in Hot Springs since winning the prestigious Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) in April 2020.

Roughly 24 hours later, the snow was gone, the skies were clear and temperatures had climbed to the upper 40s as Ce Ce, an Eclipse Award winner as the country’s champion female sprinter of 2021, won the Azeri over a fast racing surface.

“If she has (seen snow), it hasn’t been since probably her 2-year-old year, so it’s been a while,” trainer Michael McCarthy said moments after the 6-year-old's victory. “To have that racetrack in the shape it was today after looking at it yesterday – what a difference a day makes. Those guys did everything they could to have that racetrack in as good a shape as possible and I’m very appreciative of that.”

Ce Ce is back at Oaklawn and this time the temperature will be around 80 degrees when she attempts to win Saturday’s $1 million Apple Blossom (G1) at 1 1/16 miles for a second time.

A victory would make Ce Ce just the fourth horse to capture multiple runnings of the Apple Blossom, following Hall of Famers Paseana (1992, 1993), Azeri (2002, 2003, 2004) and Zenyatta (2008 and 2010), and continue McCarthy’s success in high-end races at Oaklawn.

A former assistant to Todd Pletcher, McCarthy has started 13 horses at Oaklawn and compiled a 4-3-1 mark. His runners have bankrolled $1,185,667.

McCarthy won the $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for older horses in 2018 with City of Light, added the $600,000 Apple Blossom (G1) in 2020 with Ce Ce and also finished second, beaten a nose, in the $400,000 Oaklawn Mile for older horses in 2021 with Rushie.

“It’s been nice to go back there and have some success at a place like Oaklawn,” the Santa Anita-based McCarthy said. “It’s certainly something we look for on the racing calendar. To be able to win the Oaklawn Park Handicap with City of Light – huge deal. Obviously, the Apple Blossom with Ce Ce and to come back and double it up 21 months later, or whatever it was in the Azeri, it was great. A lot to be said about that place. Everybody works hard to put on a good product. Prestigious races. Racetrack’s always in good shape, or at least everybody’s doing their best to get the racetrack in good shape, so it goes a long way. It doesn’t go unnoticed, at least with me.”

Ce Ce is the 2-1 second choice in the program for the Apple Blossom.

Castillo Finding the Winner’s Circle

The Oaklawn jockey colony has seen a dramatic makeover in recent weeks, with injuries to leading rider David Cabrera, Cristian Torres and Walter De La Cruz, nationally prominent names Joel Rosario and Florent Geroux departing for Kentucky and Ramon Vazquez relocating to Southern California.

Newcomer Isaac Castillo has taken advantage of the roster shuffle, riding six winners through April 16. A native of Panama, Castillo, 24, made his Oaklawn debut April 7 after previously being based at the ongoing Tampa Bay Downs meeting.

“Basically, Dan Ward, (Hall of Fame trainer) Jerry Hollendorfer’s assistant, was a very big influence,” Castillo’s agent, Dylan Fazio, said. “We rode for him, first call, at Monmouth and he wanted us to come here from the beginning, but we were kind of set on Tampa. He kept on really pushing at us and telling us like, ‘This is really a great spot and I’ll help you out over here.’ Once we saw a couple of riders were leaving and then we saw this huge gap in the jockey colony, we felt it was really a great opportunity for us.”

Castillo’s six victories through April 16 were aboard Eagle Pass ($14.20) April 9 for trainer Scott Becker, favored Defender ($5.60) April 9 for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, favored La Flecha ($5.40) April 10 for trainer Randy Morse, favored Cairama ($6) April 10 for Asmussen, Chai Tea ($23.60) April 15 for trainer Tim Martin and Presidential ($27) April 16 for Asmussen.

Illustrating how quickly Castillo has been able to get his foot in the door, he had only ridden one horse for Asmussen, that coming in 2018, before his arrival earlier this month.

Castillo is named on 13 horses for Asmussen this weekend (Friday, Saturday and Sunday), including 2021 Arkansas Derby winner Super Stock in Saturday’s $1 million Oaklawn Handicap (G2).

“We didn’t really expect to get this opportunity, but we’re really grateful for everything he’s done for us since we got here on the grounds,” Fazio said.

Another perk for riding in Arkansas is the money. Castillo has ridden 29 winners at the 2021-2022 Tampa Bay Downs meeting, with his 230 mounts collecting $528,374 in purse earnings. Conversely at Oaklawn, Castillo’s 34 mounts through April 16 had generated $374,907. Presidential’s victory, for example, came in a $150,000 race, a record for an Oaklawn allowance event. Cairama was racing for a $106,000 purse.

“It’s definitely something new for us,” Fazio said. “The actual purses are triple from where we’ve been riding, so it’s really nice to see that.”

Fazio said Castillo plans to ride at Oaklawn until the meeting ends May 8 before returning to Monmouth Park.

Castillo rode his first horse in the United States 2016 and recorded his first American victory in 2017, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. He entered Friday with 221 victories and $6,441,452 in purse earnings in his career.

V is for Vazquez

After riding four winners April 7, his last day as a regular at the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting, jockey Ramon Vazquez returned to Hot Springs to ride this weekend (Friday, Saturday and Sunday).

Vazquez relocated to Southern California earlier this month and momentum generated at Oaklawn – 44 victories through April 16 to rank fourth in the standings – has carried to Santa Anita, where the jockey is now regularly riding for the first time. Vazquez already has six victories at Santa Anita, including doubles April 15 and April 16.

Vazquez was named on 21 horses this weekend at Oaklawn (Santa Anita resumes racing April 30), including Idol in Saturday’s $1 million Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for Southern California-based trainer Richard Baltas. One of Vazquez’s six victories at Santa Anita came for Baltas and the jockey will be riding Idol, a Grade 1 winner, for the first time Saturday.

“Ramon knows the track,” Baltas said. “I have a little relationship with him, so I went to him because he knows what’s going on over there. He’s ridden good for me since he’s been here. I think he’s going to be one of the leading riders in California.”

Vazquez entered Friday with 393 career victories at Oaklawn. He recorded his most lucrative career victory to date aboard Un Ojo in the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) for 3-year-olds Feb. 26. The Rebel was Oaklawn’s final major prep for the $1.25 million Arkansas Derby (G1) April 2. Vazquez is scheduled to ride Un Ojo in the Kentucky Derby.