CHAMPIONS CLASH IN SATURDAY’S APPLE BLOSSOM
By Robert Yates
Photo Credit - Coady Photography
HOT SPRINGS, AR (Friday, April 22, 2022) – It’s a clash of champions, times two.
Eclipse Award winners Letruska and Ce Ce meet for the first time in the $1 million Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) Saturday at Oaklawn, a 1 1/16-mile blockbuster event for older fillies and mares that anchors a 12-race card.
The Apple Blossom goes as the fifth race, with probable post time 2:18 p.m. (Central). Racing begins at 12:10 p.m. The infield will be open. Mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the lows 80s are expected, according to weather.com.
Saturday’s card also features the $1 million Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for older horses at 1 1/8 miles and the $150,000 Oaklawn Stakes for 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles.
The Apple Blossom only drew five entrants, but it’s a case of quality clearly trumping quantity.
Letruska won an Eclipse Award as the country’s champion older dirt female of 2021. Ce Ce won an Eclipse Award as the country’s champion female sprinter of 2021. Millionaire Grade 1 winner Clairiere was a finalist for an Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly of 2021. A fourth entrant, Maracuja, is another Grade 1 winner.
“It’s a small field, but it’s got like a Breeders’ Cup kind of feel to it,” said Rob Atras, who trains Maracuja.
Saturday’s race will mark the first time that two Apple Blossom winners will meet in the Apple Blossom since it became a two-turn race for older fillies and mares in 1975. Ce Ce won the Apple Blossom in 2020. Letruska won the Apple Blossom, now among the country’s signature two-turn events for older fillies and mares, in 2021.
Ce Ce or Letruska can become 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).
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 was a runaway selection in voting for an Eclipse Award.
“I think it’s a very different race than last year,” Gutierrez said after watching Letruska train Thursday morning at Oaklawn. “Again, it’s a short field, but now we have the pressure of being the favorite. But it’s pressure that we want. Monomoy (Girl) ran and we had the good luck to cross in front first. That’s when you understand the difference in a nose at the end of the race. Now, I think we have the obligation to come back here and try for back-to-back Apple Blossoms. It would be fantastic.”
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.
The speedy 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 grueling 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 does her best work on the front end and appears to be the controlling speed again Saturday.
“It’s a short field on numbers, but a big field on quality,” Gutierrez said. “All the ones have a very clear style of running. In our case, we follow the only style we know – it is to let her run. It depends on the rhythm of the race and how Jose Ortiz decides to ride. Now that she’s 6 years old, I think everybody knows how she runs. We’ll see, but she’s in good form.”
A daughter of Super Saver, Letruska has an 18-1-1 record from 24 lifetime starts and earnings of $2,348,529.
Southern California-based Ce Ce returns to Oaklawn after employing stalk-and-pounce tactics to win the $350,000 Azeri Stakes (G2) at 1 1/16 miles March 12 for trainer Michael McCarthy and breeder/owner Bo Hirsch. The Azeri marked Ce Ce’s return to two-turn races after concentrating on sprints for most of 2021. Ce Ce secured an Eclipse Award with a victory in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) at 7 furlongs Nov. 6 at Del Mar.
Ce Ce has four published works at Santa Anita since the Azeri, including a 5-furlong bullet drill in :58 April 9.
“I think she’s got a good post position, drawn outside, in a five-horse field,” McCarthy said Thursday night. “Good horses always set honest fractions, so I think they’ll be a pace up front. Just try to tuck in and I hope everybody turns up the backside in a spot they want to be in and let the best horse win from there.”
Ce Ce figures to be stalking Letruska and the hope, McCarthy said, is she doesn’t get loose through soft fractions.
“Certainly, it’s a concern,” McCarthy said. “But I’m not trading places with anybody, win, lose or draw on Saturday. I don’t trade places with anyone.”
Ce Ce has a 9-2-3 record from 18 lifetime starts and earnings of $2,003,100.
Late-running Clairiere makes her Oaklawn debut after toying with allowance runners in her 4-year-old debut at 1 1/16 miles March 16 at Fair Grounds for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. Clairiere closed her 2021 campaign with a fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, beaten only three-quarters of a length after a wide trip.
“Don’t want to trade places with anybody,” Asmussen said. “Promise.”
Clairiere won her 4-year-old debut by 6 ½ lengths. It was her first start on Lasix and first time to be ridden by Joel Rosario, the 2021 Eclipse Award winner as the country’s most outstanding jockey.
“That was good,” Rosario said. “First time back since the big race she ran in last time. She kind of did that on her own. It was an easy race for her. Just trying to play it that way and she had a nice trip.”
Maracuja, another late runner, has been training at Oaklawn since early January and exits a sharp two-length allowance victory at 1 1/16 miles April 1 in her 4-year-old debut.
Maracuja recorded her biggest career victory to date in the $500,000 Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) for 3-year-old fillies last July at Saratoga, toppling, among others, eventual Eclipse Award winner Malathaat and Clairiere.
The April 1 comeback race was Maracuja’s first start against older horses and first start since a fourth-place finish behind Clairiere in the $1 million Cotillion Stakes (G1) for 3-year-old fillies Sept. 25 at Parx.
“It’s kind of a funny situation,” Atras said. “It’s early in the year and you’ve got Letruska – she kind of had her prep race for it (Apple Blossom), which was a walk in the park and she looked awesome doing it. Then, Clairiere had the same kind of thing. She looked very dominant in her race. We kind of had our prep and we weren’t quite as dominant as those two, but we were at the back of the pack and made a good run and we were probably a little short, anyways. Everyone’s kind of early in the year, in their form. Everyone’s coming off a win, so they all look like they’re in top form at this point. We’re going to have to step up to beat them.”