Stakes Advance - Azeri

Compiled by Robert Yates

Hot and Sultry’s first 2024 audition for a Grade 1 race in April didn’t go as planned. She has a second chance Saturday at Oaklawn.

Hot and Sultry is among eight entered in the 1 1/16-miles $400,000 G2-Azeri Stakes for older fillies and mares. The Azeri is the final major local prep for the April 13 $1.25 million G1-Apple Blossom Handicap.

Probable post time for the Azeri, the ninth of 10 races, is 4:55 p.m. (CST). Racing begins at 12:30 p.m.

Azeri entrants from the rail out: Soul of an Angel, Emmanuel Esquivel to ride, 119 pounds, 8-1 on the morning line; Bellamore, Keith Asmussen, 121, 5-1; Misty Veil, Ramon Vazquez, 121, 15-1; Comparative, Manny Franco, 124, 3-1; Saddle Up Jessie, Jevian Toledo, 124, 4-1; Hot and Sultry, Ricardo Santana Jr., 121, 2-1; Tiny Temper, James Graham, 117, 20-1; and Shotgun Hottie, Cristian Torres, 119, 8-1.

Program favorite Hot and Sultry looks to rebound from a fifth-place finish in her 2024 debut, Oaklawn’s $250,000 G3-Bayakoa Stakes Feb. 2. Hot and Sultry’s race unraveled at the start after she stumbled badly and fell to the back, negating her biggest asset – speed.

“She still only got beat four lengths,” said Norm Casse, who trains Hot and Sultry for Arkansans Alex and JoAnn Lieblong. “There was a wall of horses that backed up against her all the way to the quarter pole and I think if she had gotten clear that day a little earlier, things might have been even more different. But it is what it is. Poor break; just a complete throw out. She’s training great and I wouldn’t trade our horse for anybody else’s.”

Hot and Sultry hadn’t started since a front-running eight-length victory in the one-mile $300,000 G3-Chilukki Stakes Nov. 18 at Churchill Downs. In addition to the Chilukki, Hot and Sultry won the $150,000 American Beauty Stakes for older female sprinters last season at Oaklawn before finishing fourth in the Azeri and third in the Apple Blossom.

Casse said Saturday’s race will determine if Hot and Sultry will again be pointed to the Apple Blossom or shorten up in the seven-furlong $600,000 G1-Madison Stakes April 6 at Keeneland.

“I personally feel like she’s better now than she’s ever been,” Casse said. “As far as a crossroad race, yeah, there’s going to be a big decision that’s made after this race, in terms of what we do next with her. The idea when we came down here was to see if we aimed for the Apple Blossom or the Madison at Keeneland. So, it’s all going to be dictated by how she runs this weekend.”

The Azeri also brings back Comparative, Misty Veil and Shotgun Hottie, 1-3-6, respectively, in the Bayakoa.

Comparative has won five of her last six starts, including the nine-furlong $150,000 Ladies Stakes Jan. 6 at Aqueduct for trainer Brad Cox. Misty Veil won Oaklawn’s 8 ½-furlong $150,000 Pippin Stakes Jan. 6 for trainer Mike Maker. Shotgun Hottie won the $500,000 G3-Molly Pitcher Stakes uly 22 at Monmouth Park for trainer Cherie DeVaux.

New shooters include Bellamore for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen and Saddle Up Jessie for trainer Brittany Russell.

Bellamore exits a victory in the $300,000 G3-Houston Ladies Classic Jan. 27 at Sam Houston. Saddle Up Jessie was beaten a neck by Comparative in the Ladies Stakes and captured the one-mile $150,000 Heavenly Prize Invitational Stakes Feb. 10 at Aqueduct in her last start.

“She’s kind of a filly that likes to get into the flow of the race, so, naturally, we would like to see her break (well),” Russell said. “I think she runs best if she’s a little bit forwardly placed, but she’s also the type that she’ll get into a flow and kind of put herself where she’s comfortable.”

Russell is seeking her first career Oaklawn victory.