With the announcement Wednesday that champion Unique Bella would be pointing toward next month’s Apple Blossom (G1) at Oaklawn Park, who might potentially face her in the meet’s marquee race for fillies and mares will be found out Saturday in the $350,000 Azeri (G2) which, like the Apple Blossom, is run at 1 1/16 miles.
Streamline, a mainstay at Oaklawn the last three seasons for trainer Brian Williamson, will attempt to do something she hasn’t yet — produce back-to-back wins at the Hot Springs course. The defending Azeri winner was back to her best second time off the bench in the February 17 Bayakoa (G3), rallying from the back to defeat speedy Terra Promessa by 1 1/4 lengths in the slop.
One filly that didn’t handle the wet going at all was Farrell, who barely picked up her feet, a not-unusual occurrence given her performance in similar conditions last spring in the Kentucky Oaks (G1). Two back, she led throughout to take the $125,000 Pippin over the top two and figures a danger to bounce back in dry conditions.
The locals will need to have their running shoes on as the top four from the January 28 Houston Ladies Classic (G3) are in the field. Tiger Moth wore down odds-on favorite Actress to take the Sam Houston feature by a neck, and had run third to Streamline in the 2017 Azeri. Actress was a blowout winner of the Comely (G3) when adding blinkers two back, and looks a major threat right back.
Third-place finisher Martini Glass has since run back, scoring an 8-1 upset of the Royal Delta (G3) at Gulfstream. Last season, the now five-year-old put a scare into Songbird in the Delaware H. (G1) and also finished second in the Spinster (G1).
Behind Martini Glass in the Spinster, in third, was Blue Prize, a Group 1 winner in her native Argentina. Second or third in her first five U.S. appearances, the Pure Prize mare finally broke through in her 2017 finale, taking the Falls City H. (G2) by more than eight lengths over Tiger Moth.
Sandy’s Surprise, fourth in the Ladies Classic, appears the longest shot of the eight-horse field.
The $300,000 Essex H., a prelude to next month’s Oaklawn H. (G2), has attracted a field of 11 to go 1 1/16 miles. A contentious betting race is on tap with Leofric, recent runner-up in the Razorback H. (G3), potentially best of the local set that includes Blueridge Traveler, Petrov, Untrapped, Dazzling Gem, and Rocking the Boat.
A strong trio of shippers could have a major say, though, including last year’s Illinois Derby (G3) one-two Multiplier and Hedge Fund, both of whom are making their second starts off long layoffs. Dalmore, a well-beaten seventh in last year’s Essex, will try again following a romping allowance victory at Santa Anita last out.