There are only five horses in Saturday’s Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park, a statistic that trainer Rob Atras puts into perspective for everyone.

Ce Ce-Apple Blossom
Azeri winner Ce Ce is the 2/1 second favorite in search of her second Apple Blossom Handicap in three years. (Image: Coady Photography)

“It’s a small field, but it’s got like a Breeders’ Cup kind of feel to it,” Atras told Oaklawn Park’s Jennifer Hoyt.

That’s probably the best way to describe a race featuring two Eclipse Award winners and four Grade 1 winners out of the five older fillies and mares in the 1 1/16-mile Apple Blossom.

And Atras should know. He trains Maracuja, one of the aforementioned Grade 1 winners after she upset Malathaat in last year’s American Oaks at Saratoga. How deep is the Apple Blossom field? Maracuja, who beat both Malathaat and fellow Apple Blossom rival Clairiere in that American Oaks, is the second longest shot on the board at 6/1.

Clairiere would be favored in most other races

As for Clairiere, she was a finalist for the Eclipse Champion 3-Year-Old award won by Malathaat, who won her 2022 debut Friday in the Grade 3 Doubledogdare at Keeneland. And Clairiere, who dismantled a Fair Grounds allowance field by 6 1/2 lengths in her 2022 debut last month, is the third favorite at 5/2.

Two starts ago, Clairiere finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff by less than a length. This prompted trainer Steve Asmussen to say about his closing filly, “Don’t want to trade places with anyone. Promise.”

So why are two Grade 1 winners like Maracuja and Clairiere not favored here? Who’s drawing the money and the morning line love?

Two champions meet for the first time

The last two winners of this race: Letruska and Ce Ce. Your aforementioned Eclipse Award Champions and winners of more than $4.3 million combined meet for the first time.

Letruska, the 7/5 favorite, jump-started her Eclipse Award campaign as Older Dirt Female Horse by winning this race last year. That was one of her four Grade 1 titles in 2021, a year she went 6-for-8.

The Super Saver mare opened her 2022 season in the Grade 3 Royal Delta in February. Before that, came one of those 2021 losses, a 10th in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. That came after she was sucked into an incendiary pace meltdown that claimed a third of the field. Expect her signature front-end speed to dictate the pace here.

“It’s a short field on numbers, but a big field on quality,” trainer Fausto 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.”

Ce Ce, Letruska could join elite Apple Blossom company

A victory for Letruska would make her one of only four horses to win multiple Apple Blossoms. She shares that status with Ce Ce (2/1), who won the 2020 Apple Blossom. The Southern California-based Ce Ce spent 2021 sprinting her way to the Eclipse for Champion Female Sprinter.

That honor came after she upset defending champion Gamine in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint at Del Mar. In the Apple Blossom, Ce Ce got her two-turn stretch-out done in the March 12 Grade 2 Azeri at Oaklawn. The stalking-then-pouncing tactics she used there will come into play here — provided she can stay close enough to Letruska.

Given Letruska’s front-end speed and penchant to take over races early, trainer Mike McCarthy knows what awaits.

Grade 1 Apple Blossom/Oaklawn Park

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Maracuja, 6/1 (Ricardo Santa Jr./Rob Atras)
  2. Letruska, 7/5 (Jose Ortiz/Fausto Gutierrez)
  3. Clairiere, 5/2 (Joel Rosario/Steve Asmussen)
  4. Miss Imperial, 12/1 (Tiago Pereira/Jerry Hollendorfer
  5. Ce Ce, 2/1 (Victor Espinoza/Michael McCarthy)

“Good horses always set honest fractions, so I think they’ll be a pace up front,” he said. “Just try to tuck in and I hope everybody turns up the backside in a sport they want to be in and let the best horse win from there.”

And McCarthy knows the potential pitfalls of letting Letruska run free.

“Certainly it’s a concern,” he said. “But I’m not trading places with anybody: win, lose or draw on Saturday. I don’t trade places with anybody.”

In a race this deep, this talented, this intriguing, why would he? Win this race and Letruska illustrated last year what kind of wonders could follow.

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