Multiple Grade I-winner On Fire Baby seeks to return to her top form Saturday at Churchill Downs against a tested field of five other fillies and mare, including graded stakes winners Molly Morgan and Don’t Tell Sophia, in the 31st running of the $100,000-added Locust Grove.
The 1 1/16-mile Locust Grove, named after the 1790 Georgian mansion in Louisville that played home to ancestors of Churchill Downs founder Col. M. Lewis Clark, is one of four stakes races on the first Saturday of Churchill Downs’ 12-date September Meet. First post for the 11-race program is 12:45 p.m. ET with the Locust Grove scheduled as Race 8 at approximately 4:24 p.m. ET.
Anita Cauley’s On Fire Baby, trained by Gary Hartlage, is a likely favorite despite having finished a troubled fifth in her last outing, the $216,200 Fleur de Lis Handicap (Grade II) at Churchill Downs on June 14. Prior to the Fleur de Lis, she captured the $327,000 La Troienne (GI) on Kentucky Oaks Day by 2 ¾ lengths for her second Grade I victory. Overall, the Smoke Glacken mare has taken six of 16 starts with earnings of $1,089,108, and is 3-for-6 with $499,842 in earnings at her home track under the Twin Spires.
“She came out of her last race with some problems,” Hartlage said. “It wasn’t leg problems or anything; she just had some ulcers that were bothering her. We got everything cleared up and all systems are ‘go’ for Saturday.”
Bill Cubbedge’s Molly Morgan enters Saturday’s Locust Grove after winning the Gardenia Handicap (GIII) at Ellis Park by a head over Tapit’s World, who also is entered. The 5-year-old Ghostzapper mare conditioned by Dale Romans upset On Fire Baby in the Fleur de Lis with a four-length rail-skimming romp at odds of 10-1. She followed that effort with a fifth-place finish in the $750,125 Delaware Handicap (GI) prior to her Gardenia triumph. Overall, Molly Morgan has won six of 23 starts and $450,739.
Philip Sims and Jerry Namy’s Don’t Tell Sophia, winner of last fall’s Chilukki (GII) at Churchill Downs, began her 2014 campaign with back-to-back $100,000 stakes victories at Oaklawn Park in the Pippin and Bayakoa before finishing third beaten 1 ¾ lengths behind Magic Union and multiple Grade I-winner Close Hatches in Oaklawn’s Azeri (GII). The 6-year-old Congaree mare enters the Locust Grove having been off since the March 15 Azeri, but has recorded quick times in recent workouts. Don’t Tell Sophia has nine wins from 20 starts and has banked $612,882 in earnings.
The Locust Grove field also features 2013 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (GI) winner Ria Antonia, who comes off a fourth-place finish in the $105,000 Monmouth Oaks (GIII) for trainer Tom Amoss and will face older mares for the first time. Rounding out the field are G. Watts Humphrey’s Frivolous, who finished fourth in the Gardenia behind Molly Morgan, Tapit’s World and Livi Makenzie for trainer Vicki Oliver; and Mike Walker’s Baby Fresh, who makes her first start for trainer Ben Delong following a runner-up finish in a starter optional claiming race at Thistledown.
The complete Locust Grove field from the rail out (with jockeys and trainers): Baby Fresh (Ricardo Santana Jr., Delong); Tapit’s World (Chris Landeros, Kenny McPeek); On Fire Baby (Joe Johnson, Hartlage); Frivolous (Brian Hernandez Jr., Oliver); Ria Antonia (Joel Rosario, Amoss); Don’t Tell Sophia (Joe Rocco Jr., Sims) and Molly Morgan (Corey Lanerie, Romans).
The Locust Grove is one of eight stakes races scheduled during the Churchill Downs September meet. Other fixtures carded on Saturday are the $100,000-added, 1 1/16-mile Iroquois (GIII), which kicks off the 35-race “Road to the Kentucky Derby” series; the $200,000-added, 1 1/16-mile Pocahontas (GII), which starts the 31-race “Road to the Kentucky Oaks;” and the $100,000-added Ack Ack Handicap (GIII) at the distance of one mile for 3-year-olds and upward.