Ce Ce and Victor Espinoza winning the Azeri Stakes
Bo Hirsch’s homebred female sprint champion Ce Ce stretched out to 1 1/16 miles in her second start of the year, defeating a determined Pauline’s Pearl and even-money favorite Shedaresthedevil in a memorable renewal of Saturday’s Grade 2 Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn in Hot Springs , Ark.
Ridden by Victor Espinoza for trainer Michael McCarthy, the 6-year-old mare by Elusive Quality fought off bids from both rivals to win by three-quarters of a length over the Steve Asmussen-trained Pauline’s Pearl, with Shedaresthedevil – making her first start since finishing sixth in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Disstaff last November for trainer Brad Cox – a length back in third. She’s All Wolfe, Ava’s Grace, Golden Curl and Lady Mystify completed the order of finish. Lavender (IRE) was scratched.
Time of the race was 1:43.55 on a fast track following fractions (set by Shedaresthedevil) of :23.44, :47.53, 1:12.20 and 1:37.33. The final time was the fastest at the distance for the duration of the 2021-’22 Oaklawn meet.
Winning for the ninth time in 18 career starts, Ce Ce – produced from the G1-winning Belong to Me mare Miss Houdini) – paid $5.40 to win as the second betting choice.
The Azeri is named for the three-time older female champion, 2002 Horse of the Year and Hall of Fame mare who won Oaklawn’s premier race for fillies and mares, the G1 Apple Blossom, three years in a row, from 2002-’04.
The top three finishers could very well be rematched in this year’s Apple Blossom, to be run on April 23. Espinoza guided Ce Ce to victory in the 2020 Apple Blossom.
Shedaresthedevil and jockey Florent Geroux broke on top and beat the field to the first turn, getting a comfortable advantage for the run down the backstretch. Ce Ce settled into fourth position early, with Pauline’s Pearl getting pinched at the break and racing in sixth of the seven starters early.
Rounding the far turn, Ce Ce ranged up alongside of Shedaresthedevil, with Pauline’s Pearl and Joel Rosario in hot pursuit of the top pair and swinging three wide into the stretch. Ce Ce put her head in front at the top of the stretch opened up by one length in midstretch, but Pauline’s Pearl was bearing down on the outside and Shedaresthedevil battling back along the rail. Under steady urging from Espinoza, Ce Ce repelled them both in the final sixteenth of a mile.
“I actually had a good trip,” said Espinoza. “I was able to get clear at the break so I could sit behind the frontrunners. I wanted to wait a little longer, but she was doing it so easy, I just moved on with her. She could hear all the noise from the crowd and kind of put the brakes on me, but luckily the other two horses (Pauline’s Pearl and Shedaresthedevil) were on either side of me and when she saw them, she moved forward. It’s like she runs so easy, she gets a little bit bored and does some silly things, but it all worked out.”
McCarthy, who was not at Oaklawn but spoke by phone to Oaklawn’s publicist, said: “I thought Victor (Espinoza) did a great job, kind of being able to tuck in, sit right outside of the speed, keep her face clear. Up the back, it was a little bit tactical there. He was able to go ahead and hold his position. Looked like Lady Mystify was in kind of a spot there and able to go ahead and just hold his own and around the turn it looked like Victor and her were full of run. Obviously, coming to the top of the stretch, it looked like she was going to go ahead and put a little daylight between herself and everybody else. Coming to the sixteenth pole, I saw her ears go up and wasn’t sure if she was getting tired or what. When those two other fillies came to her, she dug back in and showed what a champion she is today.”
Rosario, aboard the runner-up, said: “I didn’t have a good break, but she did well. I thought for a second she would get her (Ce Ce), but she got the jump again on me. But she ran hard. She looked like she was ready to go. Little unlucky with the trip coming out of the gate, but like I said, she ran well.”
California-based Ce Ce sealed her Eclipse Award at Del Mar last Nov. 6 with a 2 1/2-length win over Edgeway and Gamine in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, her third graded stakes win of the year. She came back to the race Feb. 5, finishing second to Merneith in the G2 Santa Monica Stakes at Santa Anita going seven furlongs.