December 1, 2023

How Susan’s Girl laid the foundation for the Apple Blossom Handicap

Since its creation in 1974, Oaklawn Park’s Racing Festival of the South has been a magnet attracting many of the nation’s finest horses and horsemen to Hot Springs, Arkansas. And one of the crown jewels of the festival has been the Apple Blossom H. (G1) for fillies and mares, which will be renewed Saturday.

Upgraded from overnight handicap status in 1974, the Apple Blossom remained a 6-furlong race in its first running as an official stakes, but it took off the following year when the distance was increased to one mile and 70 yards and its base purse doubled from $25,000 to $50,000. The modern history of the Apple Blossom could not have gotten off to a better start when it attracted the most decorated horse to race at Oaklawn in decades.

Although technically bred in the name of his son, who he would name a Kentucky Derby winner after, Susan’s Girl was in truth a virtual creation of owner-breeder Fred W. Hooper. Sending his Alabama-bred, Kentucky Oaks runner-up Quaze to the court of Belmont Stakes winner Quadrangle in 1968, Quaze produced in Florida the following spring a bay filly with a signature white blaze.

Oaklawn Park Sunrise
Oaklawn Park Sunrise (Coady Photo/Oaklawn Park)

By the time she arrived at Oaklawn in the spring of 1975 at age 6, Susan’s Girl was a two-time division champion and well on her way to the Hall of Fame. In seven stakes appearances at age 2, she had won twice and placed behind champion Numbered Account in both the Frizette and Gardenia. But it was at ages 3 and 4 when Susan’s Girl would leave her contemporaries behind.

Kicking off her sophomore season of 1972 with six consecutive stakes victories including the Santa Susana (Santa Anita Oaks), Kentucky Oaks, and Acorn, Susan’s Girl roared back in the fall from a minor mid-season slump to take the Cotillion H., Gazelle H., and Beldame, the latter in brisk time of 1:47 2/5 for 1 1/8 miles at Belmont.

An iron horse by modern standards, Susan’s Girl turned in another long and effective coast-to-coast campaign at 4, winning 6-of-14 stakes appearances. Among them were the Santa Margarita H., Santa Barbara H., Delaware H., and Spinster, all designated Grade 1s under the new graded stakes system implemented at the time.

Voted champion at age 3 and 4, retirement might have been expected for Susan’s Girl, especially after she chipped an ankle bone at Santa Anita in the winter of 1974. However, she was at that point very close to achieving something no North American-based female Thoroughbred had ever achieved: earning $1 million in a career.

Following ankle surgery, Susan’s Girl spent 62 consecutive days on a swimming regimen to maintain her weight. As explained by Hooper’s wife to the Louisville Courier-Journal‘s Jim Bolus, Susan’s Girl was shipped daily from Hooper’s farm in Ocala, Florida, to Lake Weir, where the mare’s halter was tied to a boat with a 10-foot rope. Led into the water and with the boat circling the lake, Susan’s Girl swam freely for “eight or nine minutes a day.”

Although expected to be a little short in her return to action at Churchill Downs in late October 1974, Susan’s Girl’s class shone as she won a 7-furlong allowance first time back and then, 11 days later, gutted out a nose victory in the Falls City H. under top weight of 126 pounds.

Susan’s Girl’s quest for $1 million got off to a slow beginning in the winter of 1975 as she failed to win in four outings at Santa Anita. It was after that when Oaklawn Park and the city of Hot Springs would get a look at arguably the most prominent horse to break from the track’s starting gate in years.

Oakalwn Park Racing
Oakalwn Park Racing (Coady Photo/Oaklawn Park)

Despite her lofty reputation, Susan’s Girl didn’t scare many away from the Apple Blossom. Although backed down to 9-10, Susan’s Girl still had to outrun 11 others as the 124-pound top weight. Her main rival was Honky Star, who had captured the Monmouth Oaks (G1) and Cotillion (G1) the previous summer.

Susan’s Girl was away alertly from post 12 under Jimmy Nichols and was in a comfortable tracking spot in third down the backside. Bidding for the lead around the far turn, Susan’s Girl took command approaching the quarter pole and extended her margin to 3 1/2 lengths at the wire to post her first victory of the season. Before a Wednesday afternoon crowd of 15,487, Susan’s Girl won the first two-turn Apple Blossom in a time of 1:42 2/5.

Already the all-time leading money female in North America, Susan’s Girl’s bankroll sat at $961,937 after the Apple Blossom. She raced 13 more times that year, 12 of them stakes, and followed up her score in the Apple Blossom with victories in the Long Beach H. (G2) on turf at Hollywood Park, Matchmaker (G1), Delaware H. (G1), Beldame (G1), and Spinster (G1). With a third Eclipse Award in tow, Susan’s Girl left for the paddocks with career earnings of $1,251,667.

Susan’s Girl’s class and durability can not be overstated. From 63 starts, she won 29 races and placed in 25 others. Susan’s Girl was unplaced only 10 times, four of which were stakes open to males.

Susan’s Girl was long recognized as having won more stakes (24) than any filly or mare in modern American history until surpassed by the sprinter Xtra Heat in 2003. However, Susan’s Girl’s were invariably of higher quality and ranged in distance from 6 furlongs to 1 1/4 miles.

Its foundation laid by Susan’s Girl, the Apple Blossom has been won since by U.S. champions and/or Hall of Famers Bold ‘n Determined, Track Robbery, North Sider, Bayakoa, Paseana, Heavenly Prize, Escena, Banshee Breeze, Gourmet Girl, Azeri, Zenyatta, Havre de Grace, Close Hatches, Untapable, Forever Unbridled, Stellar Wind, and Midnight Bisou.

If the next 45 years of the Apple Blossom are as good as the most recent 45, racing will be very lucky indeed.

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