04/12/2013 7:37PM

Apple Blossom: On Fire Baby surprises; Grace Hall a troubled seventh

Tom Keyser
On Fire Baby, ridden by Joe Johnson, charges home in front to win the Apple Blossom Handicap.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - On Fire Baby became a Grade 1 winner in her first start since last May on Friday at Oaklawn Park, when she led a local sweep of the $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap. She won by a half-length over Tiz Miz Sue, while it was another four lengths back in third to Don’t Tell Sophia.

Grace Hall, the even-money favorite, was forced to check in the first turn and finished seventh. 

The Apple Blossom continued the Racing Festival of the South, when Oaklawn puts on at least one major stakes a day over the final week of its meet. A crowd of 23,111 turned out for the penultimate card of the season that closes Saturday with a program of four stakes led by the Arkansas Derby.

:: Johnson suspended for ride aboard On Fire Baby

On Fire Baby ($26.40), a multiple Grade 2 winner who had been off since a fourth-place finish in the Grade 1 Acorn at Belmont Park on May 28, made a beeline for the lead as soon as the gates opened for the Apple Blossom. She secured position along the rail, and proceeded to take the field through fractions of 24.03 seconds for the opening quarter, 48.10 for the half-mile, and 1:12.62 for six furlongs. Grace Hall came to On Fire Baby midway on the final turn, while Tiz Miz Sue made a run at the leader in the stretch. But On Fire Baby had more en route to covering 1 1/16 miles on a track rated fast in 1:44.13.

“I’m so excited,” said Anita Cauley, who bred and owns On Fire Baby.

The Apple Blossom was the first Grade 1 win for Cauley, as well as for trainer Gary Hartlage and jockey Joe Johnson.

“It was a three musketeers deal,” said Hartlage.

On Fire Baby, the winner of the Pocahontas and Golden Rod in 2011 at Churchill Downs and the winner of the Grade 3 Honeybee last year at Oaklawn, was given time off due to inflammation in one of her stifles, said Hartlage. She resumed training in January, and showed a series of endurance-minded works leading up to the Apple Blossom.

“This is the best horse I’ve had, and I’ve been training for 40 years,” Hartlage said. “She’s special.”

Grace Hall, who was fourth in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic, was forced to check in the first turn while racing along the rail. She was later steadied, and after settling in on the backside was angled outside of her rivals. Grace Hall then briefly moved to the leader on the final turn.

“I tried to keep her in the clear after what happened on the first turn,” said jockey Joel Rosario. “She didn’t try after that. It was not her best day.”

On Fire Baby is a 4-year-old daughter of Smoke Glacken. She earned $300,000 for her win in the Apple Blossom to improve her career record to 5 wins from 9 starts and earnings of $654,629.

Hartlage said On Fire Baby will be pointed for the Grade 2, $300,000 La Troienne at Churchill Downs on May 3.