Champion Letruska Returns to Defend Apple Blossom Title

Champion Letruska Returns to Defend Apple Blossom Title

Letruska spent roughly two months at Oaklawn during the 2021 meeting. While her 2022 stay will be much shorter, the goal remains the same – win Saturday’s $1 million Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) for older fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles.

Now an Eclipse Award winner, Letruska got her first feel of the Oaklawn surface this year by jogging two laps the wrong way and schooling in the gate after the first renovation break Thursday morning under jockey Geovanni Franco. The track was rated muddy.

Letruska, who arrived Wednesday, is trying to become just the fourth horse to win multiple runnings of the Apple Blossom, following Hall of Famers Paseana (1992, 1993), Azeri (2002, 2003, 2004) and Zenyatta (2008 and 2010).

Trained by Fausto Gutierrez, Letruska recorded her breakout victory nationally in last April’s Apple Blossom when she edged two-time Eclipse Award winner Monomoy Girl by a nose. Letruska rode that momentum to three more Grade 1 victories and an Eclipse Award as the country’s champion older dirt female. Her more calculated 2022 racing schedule resumes Saturday.

“The idea is to go back to the Breeders’ Cup, especially now that it’s on this side the country,” Gutierrez said after watching Letruska train Thursday morning. “We have more chances to check what mistakes we had last year and make much better decisions this year. The idea is to run here in the Apple Blossom and maybe three or four more races and try to win the Breeders’ Cup. But we need to go step-by-step and now the most important race is the Apple Blossom.”

Letruska was based this winter and early spring in south Florida, where she opened her 6-year-old campaign with a front-running three-length victory in the $150,000 Royal Delta Stakes (G3) at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 26 at Gulfstream Park. Letruska was racing for the first time since finishing a leg-weary 10th in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) at 1 1/8 miles Nov. 6 at Del Mar.

Letruska’s only other loss in a rugged eight-race cross-country 2021 campaign was a runner-up finish in the $350,000 Azeri Stakes (G2) at 1 1/16 miles, Oaklawn’s final major prep for the Apple Blossom. Letruska arrived about 10 days before the Azeri (March 13) and was still on the grounds roughly a week after her April 17 victory in the Apple Blossom.

Gutierrez said Letruska will return to her Keeneland base – she breezed 5 furlongs there April 15 – “one or two days” after the Apple Blossom. The 2022 Breeders’ Cup is at Keeneland.

Letruska schooled in the paddock Thursday morning after training and Gutierrez said he plans to jog the champion two laps the wrong way again Friday morning.

“I don’t want to gallop her again before the race because she’s very explosive,” Gutierrez said.

A daughter of Super Saver, Letruska has an 18-1-1 record from 24 lifetime starts and earnings of $2,348,529.

The projected five-horse Apple Blossom field from the rail out: Maracuja, Ricardo Santana Jr. to ride, 119 pounds; 6-1 on the morning line; Letruska, Jose Ortiz, 124, 7-5; Clairiere, Joel Rosario, 121, 5-2; Miss Imperial, Tiago Pereira, 115, 12-1; and Ce Ce, Victor Espinoza, 121, 2-1.

Champion Ce Ce (2021 female sprinter) also trained Thursday morning after arriving Wednesday from Southern California. Ce Ce won the 2020 Apple Blossom.

Probable post time for the Apple Blossom, which goes as the fifth of 12 races, is 2:18 p.m. (Central). First post Saturday is 12:10 p.m.

Idol Returns in Oaklawn Handicap

Southern California-based Idol has been idle for most of the last year, but the Grade 1 winner is scheduled to launch another comeback in Saturday’s $1 million Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for older horses at 1 1/8 miles.

Trained by Richard Baltas, Idol was a candidate for last year’s Oaklawn Handicap after winning the $400,000 Santa Anita Handicap (G1) in March 2021 at Santa Anita. But Idol has run just once since the Santa Anita Handicap, finishing a well-beaten sixth in the $300,000 Awesome Again Stakes (G1) at 1 1/8 miles Oct. 2 at Santa Anita.

“If you look at the horse, he’s a big horse, a tall horse,” Baltas said Tuesday afternoon. “Covers a lot of ground. On those deeper tracks like Santa Anita, he just kind of struggled getting through them and he had some hind-end stuff going on, like muscle.”

Baltas said Idol appears to have shaken his physical issues and has trained forwardly this year at San Luis Rey Downs in Southern California for his 2022 debut. Idol was based at Santa Anita in the winter and spring of 2021.

“He’s been doing good lately, though,” Baltas said.

Baltas has a small string at Oaklawn and said he considered several other races for Idol’s comeback, including the $300,000 Ben Ali Stakes (G3) at 1 1/8 miles Saturday at Keeneland, $200,000 Californian Stakes (G2) at 1 1/8 miles April 30 at Santa Anita and the $500,000 Alysheba Stakes (G2) at 1 1/16 miles May 6 at Churchill Downs.

“He’s a funny horse,” Baltas said. “He seems to run better on tighter tracks, like Churchill. Even though he won the Santa Anita Handicap, I’m not so sure he likes Santa Anita because he doesn’t train well over it and that’s one of the main reasons why I sent him to San Luis Rey Downs. He hasn’t missed a beat for a while. Look, it’s a lot to chew off – off a layoff – but I don’t think this race is like extremely tough, not for a million bucks.”

Idol, who is owned by Calvin Nguyen, Baltas’ longtime client, has a 3-2-1 record from seven lifetime starts and earnings of $416,964. Idol made his first three career starts in 2020 at Churchill Downs and set a 1 3/16 mile track record (1:55.97) in an allowance race at its fall meet before moving to Southern California.

A 5-year-old son of Curlin, Idol is a full brother to Nest, a leading candidate for the $1.25 million Kentucky Oaks (G1) for 3-year-old fillies May 6 at Churchill Downs.

The projected eight-horse Oaklawn Handicap field from the rail out: Beau Luminarie, Florent Geroux to ride, 117 pounds, 12-1 on the morning line; Thomas Shelby, David Cohen, 117, 8-1; Last Samurai, Jon Court, 117, 8-1; Idol, Ramon Vazquez, 119, 6-1; Rated R Superstar, Ricardo Santana Jr., 120, 5-1; Plainsman, Joel Rosario, 121, 5-2; Super Stock, Isaac Castillo, 118, 10-1; and Fearless, Jose Ortiz, 121, 9-5.

Probable post time for the Oaklawn Handicap, which goes at the 11th of 12 races, is 5:41 p.m. (Central). First post Saturday is 12:10 p.m.

Anthony Inches Closer to Record

John Ed Anthony’s Shortleaf Stable collected $3,000 in earnings Saturday to move closer to setting a single-season Oaklawn record for owners.

Shortleaf enters the final nine days of the scheduled 66-day meeting with $1,656,587 in purse earnings, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. M and M Racing (Mike and Mickala Sisk) set Oaklawn’s single-season record for purse earnings for an owner ($1,782,351) in 2019.

Anthony has two horses entered this weekend – Greatheart in Friday’s fourth race for trainer John Ortiz and Plainsman for trainer Brad Cox in Saturday’s $1 million Oaklawn Handicap (G2) at 1 1/8 miles.

Greatheart is the 9-5 program favorite for the 1-mile maiden special weights race that has a $90,000 purse. Plainsman is the 5-2 second choice in the program. Anthony would supplant M and M – regardless of Greathouse’s finish – if Plainsman runs first or second in the Oaklawn Handicap.

Anthony is Oaklawn’s all-time winningest owner, 275, including a meet-high 15 this season. Anthony’s first victory at Oaklawn was Feb. 16, 1972.

Finish Lines

Summer Shoes, 2 for 2 at the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting, is pointing for the $150,000 Natural State Breeders’ Stakes for Arkansas-bred fillies and mares, 3 and up, at 1 mile May 6, trainer Tom Swearingen said Thursday morning. … All West ($9.80) represented jockey Francisco Arrieta’s 100th career victory in last Saturday’s eighth race. Arrieta, in his Oaklawn debut, won 50 races to finish third in the 2021 standings and has 50 victories to rank third in the 2021-2022 standings. … The $150,000 Bachelor Stakes for 3-year-olds at 6 furlongs closed April 15 with 20 nominations. Post positions will be drawn Monday.