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On Fire Baby gets the perfect trip in Pocahontas
Anita Cauley's homebred On Fire Baby rallied from just off a frenetic pace to capture Sunday's Grade 2, $173,400 Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill Downs. Fifth in the Grade 1 Alcibiades on Keeneland's Polytrack last time out, the 9-1 chance thrived on the return to dirt, and the cut-back to one turn. Joe Johnson launched a well-timed move aboard the Gary Hartlage pupil, who held off the late charge of And Why Not by three-quarters of a length.
The Pocahontas is a stepping stone to the Grade 2 Golden Rod on November 26, and an early pointer to next spring's Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks. The winner's connections have been down this road before with her half-sister, Grade 2 victress High Heels, who finished third in both the Golden Rod and the Oaks. On Fire Baby, by champion sprinter Smoke Glacken, will have to answer the stamina question at some point.
"This feels good," Hartlage said. "She's always showed me she was a good horse from the day she stepped in the barn and that's why I ran her in a Grade 1 and today a Grade 2. I've trained a lot of good horses, and some graded stakes winners, and she's right up there with them. She'll be even better next year when she really figures out what's going on."
A mad scramble for the early lead ensued in the Pocahontas, with five fillies virtually in line abreast through an opening quarter in :22 2/5. My Due Process was narrowly in front of Bet to Win, Aubby K, Georgie's Angel and Believe You Can at that point, but all of them couldn't sustain the pace. As her pace rivals began to drop off, Aubby K emerged as the strongest, rattling off fractions of :45 2/5 and 1:10 2/5.
Meanwhile, On Fire Baby had advanced into a ground-saving fifth, just a couple of lengths back. At the top of the stretch, On Fire Baby angled off the fence, came around Aubby K, and wore her down. The gray took 1:37 to complete the mile on a fast track and returned $20.20, $9.40 and $5.80.
"We were hoping to lay off the pace, save some ground and hope things opened up," Johnson said. "We've known she's been a good one since the day she stepped off the van. It's nice when you work hard and things come together."
And Why Not, who had been unhurried early when nearly 16 lengths behind, uncorked a sustained bid wider out. Lengthening stride beautifully down the lane, she was gaining plenty of ground, but couldn't get to the winner in time. Like On Fire Baby, she was rebounding from a sixth in the Alcibiades.
Another 1 3/4 lengths adrift in third came Glinda the Good, who had every chance in the stretch drive. Aubby K hung on for fourth after her early exertions, followed by Golden History, Believe You Can, Taxi Dancer, Flashy Lassie, 3-1 favorite Heart of Destiny, Georgie's Angel, My Due Process and Bet to Win.
Heart of Destiny, runner-up in the Alcibiades, failed to show her true colors on the dirt.
"No more dirt," said Jimmy Baker, trainer of the beaten favorite. "She ran OK on the dirt at Saratoga, but that was a maiden race. A maiden race and a Grade 2 are night and day. We might run her on the turf here later in the meet or we might freshen her up for next year. She's a nice horse and we have a lot of options with her."
On Fire Baby has now bankrolled $127,582 from her 3-2-0-0 line, with both wins coming around one turn on dirt. A four-length maiden winner in her 5 1/2-furlong debut at Ellis Park, she contested the pace in the 1 1/16-mile Alcibiades before tiring.
The Kentucky-bred is now the third stakes winner from her dam, the Gilded Time mare Ornate, who was a stakes winner herself. Her first was the aforementioned High Heels, queen of the Grade 2 Fantasy Stakes and runner-up in such events as the Grade 2 Falls City Handicap, Grade 2 Chilukki Stakes and Grade 3 Gardenia Handicap, in addition to her thirds in the Golden Rod and Kentucky Oaks. Ornate's next foal was stakes scorer and Grade 3-placed French Kiss, who was sixth in her attempt at the Golden Rod.
Other high-profile family members include Grade 1-winning millionaires Paddy O'Prado, Olympio and Pyro, Grade 1 hero Cuvee, and current Grade 3 winner Tapizar, a contender in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.
On Fire Baby could emulate her notable half-sisters and become the third filly out of Ornate to contest the Golden Rod.
"If we run her one more time, this year it would be in the Golden Rod, but we'll see how she comes out of this race," Hartlage said.