Eclipse Champions Clash in Apple Blossom

Letruska won last year's Apple Blossom in a figurative passing of the mantle as division leader from Monomoy Girl | Coady


After the focus on points races for Derby and Oaks contenders taking up headlines over recent weekends, the distaff division gets a match up worthy of the front page as 2021 Eclipse champions Letruska (Super Saver) and Ce Ce (Elusive Quality) meet for the first time in Oaklawn's GI Apple Blossom H.

Both are previous winners of the Hot Springs signature race, as the Fausto Gutierrez-trained Letruksa won the Apple Blossom in 2021 and the Mike McCarthy-conditioned Ce Ce took the 2020 edition. The two have otherwise taken divergent paths, so much so that in spite of twice running on the same card last year, they were in different divisions: on Nov. 6 at Del Mar for the Breeders' Cup, Letruska ran in the GI Distaff and Ce Ce won the GI Filly & Mare Sprint, while on Aug. 28 at Saratoga, Letruska won the GI Personal Ensign and Ce Ce finished third in the GI Ballerina.

In addition to both being previous Apple Blossom winners, both 6-year-old homebred mares were named champions for their outstanding seasons last year. Letruska's 2021 campaign included six graded wins, four of which were Grade Is as she dominated the division for the Older Dirt Female title, and Ce Ce won three graded races, culminating in a powerful Breeders' Cup win that propelled her to Champion Female Sprinter. Both mares have won their most recent starts as Letruska took Gulfstream's Feb. 26 GIII Royal Delta S. and Ce Ce won Oaklawn's Mar. 12 GII Azeri S.

Based on her dominance last year in the division, her proven prowess at two turns, and her devastating speed, Letruska will be the favorite. However, Ce Ce has proven time and time again that she can't be counted out with her tracking and pouncing style. She will also carry an impost three pounds under Letruska's. The latter's connections are looking long term with an end goal of rectifying her Breeders' Cup loss last year.

“The idea is to go back to the Breeders' Cup, especially now that it's on this side the country,” said Gutierrez Thursday. “We have more chances to check what mistakes we had last year and make much better decisions this year. The idea is to run here in the Apple Blossom and maybe three or four more races and try to win the Breeders' Cup. But we need to go step-by-step and now the most important race is the Apple Blossom.”

To add another splash of intrigue to the Apple Blossom field beyond the top two are a pair of Grade I-winning 4-year-olds, who have both signaled they are poised for big 2022 campaigns. Steve Asmussen's Clairiere (Curlin), winner of the 2021 GI Cotillion S. and a constant factor on the board in last year's 3-year-old division, shook off winter rust by tuning up for the Apple Blossom with a huge 6 1/2-length optional allowance score at Fair Grounds Mar. 16. Maracuja (Honor Code), victress of Saratoga's GI Coaching Club American Oaks for trainer Rob Atras, wore down the frontrunner in the stretch of her 2022 debut, an optional allowance over this track and trip Apr. 1.

The short field also has a deserving longshot in Jerry Hollendorfer's Miss Imperial (Maclean's Music), who is a multiple black-type winner at Assiniboia Downs. The former claimer has notched 14 career wins, which is difficult at any level, but she's never run against this type, nor in a graded event. However, her best races have come on the lead and she gets nine pounds from Letruska, so she could very easily change the complexion of the race if she and the champ get into a punishing speed duel.

If either Letruska or Ce Ce prevail, the winner will be just the fourth mare to win the Apple Blossom more than once, joining Paseana (Arg) (Ahmad {Arg}), Azeri (Jade Hunter), and Zenyatta (Street Cry {Ire}). All three of those mares are in the Hall of Fame.

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