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The Apple Blossom Handicap has occupied many places on the calendar but not the day after the Arkansas Derby.

In a season of change at Oaklawn Park, the track's second Grade 1 race follows the first again but in reverse order. People no doubt will be talking about Saturday's 83rd running of the Arkansas Derby when a compact, but contentious field of older fillies and mares goes postward today in the 54th Apple Blossom, still a mile and sixteenth but now worth $750,000.

How contentious? Grade 1 winners Midnight Bisou and Elate square off again after finishing a length apart in the Grade 2 $350,000 Azeri March 16. Wonder Gadot, a Canadian champion, finished a game second in last year's Kentucky Oaks, and Chocolate Kisses, who like Midnight Bisou has a winning race over the track, is a Grade 2 winner.

The field could have been gaudier had champion filly Monomoy Girl made her 4-year-old debut for trainer Brad Cox. But expect refunds in a race won twice by the incomparable Zenyatta and a record three times by Azeri, plus by immortals such as Bayakoa, Paseana and Lady's Secret.

Jeff Bloom, co-owner of 122-pound high weight Midnight Bisou, had this to say: "I've been in this game my whole life, and there's a few races, for whatever reason, that are bucket-list type races, and the Apple Blossom, in particular, has been one of those. I've never run in the race. To be able to point to the Apple Blossom with a filly as special as Midnight Bisou is pretty cool."

Trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, Midnight Bisou benefited from a condition edge in the Azeri, where she defeated Elate by one length at a mile and sixteenth. Elate, a 5-year-old mare whose sire and dam both won Oaklawn stakes, was making her first start in more than 200 days while Midnight Bisou came off a stakes victory Jan. 27 in the $300,000 Houston Ladies Classic.

Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith has won the Apple Blossom six times, including three consecutive years with Azeri (2002-04) and again in 2008 and 2010 with Zenyatta. Both horses went on to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, helping Smith earn a reputation (enhanced by trainer Bob Baffert and others) as the sport's premier "money" rider.

"Another race with some anxious moments," Bloom said, referring to the Apple Blossom. "But it's like I always say, 'When Mike Smith's on the back of your horse, you can just sit back and know that he knows what he's doing.'"

Midnight Bisou can become the first horse to sweep the Azeri and Apple Blossom in the same year since Close Hatches in 2014. Bill Mott, Close Hatches' Hall of Fame trainer, is back with Elate, who races for historic Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, her breeders. Elate's close second in the Azeri encouraged Mott, who trains Close Hatches' first foal, Kentucky Derby contender Tacitus.

"It stands to reason that she'll move forward a little bit off the race," said Mott, a four-time Apple Blossom winner. "If she does, I think she'll be very competitive."

Midnight Bisou isn't the only Apple Blossom starter with Canadian back class. Escape Clause represents the first Grade 1 starter in the 45-year career of trainer Don Schnell, who also co-owns the mare. She just set a track record (1:34) for one mile at Sunland Park in New Mexico, posting her 18th stakes victory in the March 24 Harry Henson Handicap.

Tyler Baze knows Escape Clause well, winning the Harry Henson (7 1/4 lengths) and Grade 3 La Canada at Santa Anita. They know her well at Canadian tracks including Century Downs and Assiniboia Downs.

"We prefer to run from off it," Schnell said. "She prefers to have a couple of targets in front of her. I'm going to have to see what the speed is and Tyler will have to judge the pace."

First post for the nine-race card is 1:30 p.m. with the Apple Blossom, race eight, set for 4:42 p.m, following the $150,000 Fifth Season for older horses at 1 1/16 miles. The track's $54,000 progressive cash giveaway includes a $10,000 drawing after the ninth race. The promotion usually is held on Presidents Day (Febuary) but along with the Apple Blossom was moved to an April Sunday this year, encouraging patrons to attend on what normally would be a day of rest following the Arkansas Derby.

Sports on 04/14/2019

Print Headline: Apple Blossom brings post-Derby excitement

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