July 18, 2024

Breeders’ Cup Distaff berth up for grabs in Clement L. Hirsch

Ce Ce (left) headed Ollie's Candy on the wire in the Apple Blossom (Coady Photography)

Although only six entered Sunday’s $250,000 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (G1) at Del Mar, the select cast furnishes several intriguing storylines in the “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1).

Defending champion Ollie’s Candy hasn’t won since her gutsy decision in last year’s running, but the John Sadler mare has been running well in defeat. A reappearing third behind Ce Ce and Hard Not to Love in the Mar. 14 Beholder Mile (G1) set her up for a pair of outstanding efforts. Ollie’s Candy was just nailed by Ce Ce in an Apple Blossom (G1) heartbreaker at Oaklawn, and last time out in the Ogden Phipps (G1) at Belmont, she again strode clear, only to be caught late by She’s a Julie and Point of Honor. A return to the seaside might reinvigorate Ollie’s Candy, who picks up Flavien Prat.

Ce Ce and Hard Not to Love are both seeking rebounds themselves after being overturned by Bob Baffert’s Fighting Mad in the May 31 Santa Maria (G2). Overlooked at 10-1 that day, Fighting Mad sped to the early lead and never looked back. The Gary and Mary West homebred might not have as straightforward a trip here with Ollie’s Candy to keep her company. But Fighting Mad is drawn just to her outside in post 6 and keeps Abel Cedillo aboard.

Aside from the potentially different race shape, the beaten principals from the Santa Maria have other reasons to perform better in the Hirsch. Ce Ce, a lackluster third as the 3-5 favorite, appeared to regress off three consecutive conquests. The Mike McCarthy trainee loves to fire fresh, and the two-month break should serve her well. Moreover, Ce Ce has the sentimental angle locked up: she’s a homebred for Bo Hirsch, son of the race’s honored namesake. She carries the top weight of 125 pounds including Victor Espinoza.

Hard Not to Love was out of position after a bobbling start in the Santa Maria, perhaps influenced by her protracted resistance to entering the gate. She closed to finish a clear second, and with a better break might have posed a greater win threat. Her prior loss in the Beholder Mile also involved a less than ideal trip, a tactical surprise of leading through fast fractions that softened her up as Ce Ce rallied. If Mike Smith can work out the kind of advantageous off-the-pace style that propelled her in the La Brea (G1) and Santa Monica (G2), the John Shirreffs filly can regain the winning thread.

Multiple turf stakes winner Dogtag is an intriguing newcomer to the dirt division. Trained by Richard Mandella for LNJ Foxwoods, like turf star United who briefly entertained a Pacific Classic (G1) notion, the War Front blueblood is bred to handle the surface. Dogtag started out with Chad Brown on the East Coast, where she captured the P.G. Johnson and Hilltop and placed in last summer’s Lake George (G3). The winner of two straight on the Santa Anita turf, Dogtag cuts back in trip from the 1 1/4-mile Possibly Perfect. Umberto Rispoli has the call aboard the wildcard.

Hang a Star stretches out beyond a sprint for the first time, with a new rider in Drayden Van Dyke. Interestingly, she’d been second to Bellafina at 42-1 in the May 17 Desert Stormer (G3), the same race that launched Fighting Mad into the Santa Maria. By Tapizar and out of a half-sister to turf multimillionaire Rushing Fall, Hang a Star has the pedigree to enjoy the added ground, but class remains a question mark.