04/10/2013 3:43PM

Oaklawn: Apple Blossom gives Grace Hall opportunity to prove she's among top older females

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Barbara D. Livingston
Grace Hall will be making the second start of her 4-year-old campaign in the Apple Blossom Handicap.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Grace Hall was one of the top 3-year-old fillies in training last season with wins in the Gulfstream, Delaware, and Indiana Oaks. Her bid to become a major player in the older filly and mare ranks begins in earnest Friday, in the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park.

Grace Hall is the 118-pound highweight in the 1 1/16-mile feature that continues the $2.9 million Racing Festival of the South, when Oaklawn fires off eight major stakes during the final week of its meet. The Apple Blossom falls on the season’s penultimate card and will share a program with the $75,000 Instant Racing.

The Apple Blossom, which in the last decade has been won by Azeri, Zenyatta, and Havre de Grace, drew a field of seven that includes three names on Daily Racing Form ’s top-10 list of fillies and mares complied by national handicapper Mike Watchmaker: Tiz Miz Sue, ranked 7th; Summer Applause, 8th; and Grace Hall, 9th.

On Fire Baby, a multiple Grade 2 winner who will be making her first start since last May; She’s All In, a Grade 3 winner of more than $800,000; and stakes winners Don’t Tell Sophia and Bryan’s Jewel add further depth to what is one of just two Grade 1 races in the region, the other being the Arkansas Derby here Saturday.

Grace Hall, who closed out her 3-year-old season with a fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic, has turned in a series of bullet works at the Palm Meadows training center in south Florida in preparation for the Apple Blossom, which will be her second start of the year. The drills suggest she could be sitting on a breakout race in what has been her prime objective since being purchased for $3.2 million last November at Fasig-Tipton Kentucky by Jon Clay.

“Mr. Clay really thinks highly of the Apple Blossom, and I’m sure his reason is the prestige of the race,” said Tony Dutrow, who trains Grace Hall. “We started off the year with the plan to give her a race at Gulfstream and go on to the Apple Blossom. We hadn’t had any discussions beyond this race.”

Grace Hall, whose 2011 Spinaway victory makes her the lone Grade 1 winner in the Apple Blossom field, exits a third-place finish in the Grade 3 Sabin at Gulfstream on Feb. 17. She was hung wide and finished eight lengths behind winner and divisional leader Royal Delta.

“It was just a race to get her year started, just get her out there and get her going,” Dutrow said of the Sabin. “We’re feeling real good about her. She’s training as good as you want. She couldn’t be better.”

Dutrow said Grace Hall has also made a nice transition from 3 to 4.

“She’s filled out and grown up like they do,” he said. “She’s matured and gotten broader. She’s not a baby anymore.”

Grace Hall has won from both on and off the pace and given her four consecutive bullet works and the fact that the Apple Blossom will be her first start in more than six weeks, she could be a candidate to wire the field Friday. She will break from post 2, under Joel Rosario.

Summer Applause could get an ideal tracking trip, one start after winning the Grade 2 Top Flight Handicap at Aqueduct on March 2.

“She doesn’t need to be too far back, this filly,” said trainer Chad Brown. “She can lay close.”

Summer Applause has been flattered since the Top Flight, with two of the horses she defeated coming back to win overnight handicaps. The Apple Blossom will be the third start of her current form cycle. She concluded her 3-year-old campaign by finishing fourth in the Kentucky Oaks, a race in which Grace Hall was third.

Summer Applause will break from post 4, under Rajiv Maragh.

“She’s training very, very well,” Brown said. “I expect to her run well.”

Tiz Miz Sue won the local prep for the Apple Blossom, the Grade 3, $150,000 Azeri, for the second year in a row March 16. Since that race, her second start of the year, she appears to have moved forward, judging by her work last Saturday. Tiz Miz Sue cruised a half-mile in 50.60 seconds, while getting her final quarter in 22.80.

“She’s just doing great,” said trainer Steve Hobby. “She’s just full of confidence right now.”

Don’t Tell Sophia makes her Grade 1 debut after a standout Oaklawn season in which the 5-year-old won the $100,000 Bayakoa over Tiz Miz Sue in February with a Beyer Figure of 100. The score came following a tour-de-force romp in the $75,000 Pippin in January.

“This race was in the back of our minds from the time we got here,” said trainer Phil Sims.

“We’ve always thought a lot of her, even as a 2-year-old. We always thought she was a star in waiting. She’s had little bumps on the road, issues that would set her back a little from racing on a strict schedule. But now she’s able to kind of show what she can do.”

Robby Albarado has the mount on Don’t Tell Sophia.

“I would love to see a little bit of pace in the race,” said Sims.