03/08/2012 4:07PM

Oaklawn: On Fire Baby the queen bee in Honeybee

Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
On Fire Baby, with Joe Johnson up, adds a Pocahontas victory to her record last fall at Churchill Downs.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Trainer Gary Hartlage has long maintained the major objective with On Fire Baby is to be racing at Churchill Downs the first weekend in May. Whether that’s in the Kentucky Oaks or the Kentucky Derby could be determined on Saturday at Oaklawn Park.

On Fire Baby is part of an eight-horse field for the Grade 3, $125,000 Honeybee, a 1 1/16-mile race for 3-year-old fillies that shares a card with the Grade 3, $125,000 Razorback Handicap. She figures to be an odds-on favorite because of a résumé that includes sharp wins in the Golden Rod and Pocahontas, a pair of Grade 2 races run last fall at Churchill.

“She’s something we’ve been dreaming about getting, and now we’ve got it,” said Hartlage, who trains On Fire Baby for her breeder, Anita Cauley.

Hartlage said the path On Fire Baby takes for the remainder of the spring will probably be shaped Saturday. The Honeybee is a prep for the Grade 2, $300,000 Fantasy for 3-year-old fillies, but there’s a chance it could instead end up serving as On Fire Baby’s springboard to the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby.

“We’re taking it one race at a time, and after the Honeybee we’ll see where we go from there,” Hartlage said. “If she does what I think she’ll do in the Honeybee, I think Anita’s going to have a real tough decision.”

On Fire Baby has turned in three powerful works since her last start, when she finished third against males in the $100,000 Smarty Jones at Oaklawn in her first start of the year Jan. 16. She was the favorite in the one-mile race that ended at the sixteenth pole, and finished third, a 1 1/4 lengths behind winner Junebugred.

“Her last race, I think there was something going on with her,” Hartlage said. “I think some kind of little virus or something, because she was never on the muscle. She was a completely different horse than all her other races.

“She always takes a hold of the bit, and she didn’t take a hold of the bit her last race, and for what reason, I don’t know. She’d never missed an oat, but she just kind of had the blahs. And that’s why we gave her this much time up to this race, just to really make sure she’s full-go, and everything’s a go. We’re ready to rock ‘n roll.”

Hartlage also likes the additional distance On Fire Baby will be picking up for the Honeybee.

“It’s definitely to her benefit,” he said. “I think the mile and an eighth would be to her benefit.”

Hartlage, a 65-year-old native of Louisville, Ky., has been coming to Oaklawn for 37 years and in On Fire Baby his 12-horse stable houses one of the nation’s leading 3-year-old fillies. He won the Fantasy with her half-sister, High Heels, and a stakes with another half-sibling, French Kiss. But On Fire Baby is a whole different animal, more robust and more advanced at this stage of her career with a 3-for-5 record and earnings of $237,329.

“She’s got class, the size and the ability and the breeding,” Hartlage said. “She’s got it all, everything wrapped into one.”

Joe Johnson has the mount on On Fire Baby, who will race on Lasix for the first time. Hartlage said he would prefer a fast track for the filly, who will break from post 8.

“If they set the pace fast, she can sit off of it,” he said. “If they don’t, she’ll be on it. So, she can do about whatever she wants to do, unless she just drags Joe up there. But if she does, she’ll gradually settle.

“It’s going to be interesting to see what she does Saturday.”

Others set to start include Amie’s Dini, winner of the $75,000 Martha Washington at Oaklawn, and Rocket Twentyone, who won last year’s Grade 3 Arlington Washington Lassie.