Ce Ce was always well regarded, but after a thrilling victory in the $600,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1), she has stamped herself as one of the brightest breakout stars of 2020.
The four-year-old daughter of Elusive Quality – Miss Houdini, by Belong to Me runs for breeder Bo Hirsch, and is trained by Michael McCarthy, who has always been enamored with the filly’s talent.
“I expected her to run well in her first start, but to win the way she did surprised even me,” the trainer said.
A 6-1 Ce Ce debuted April 12 of last year at Santa Anita, running down favored Honeyfromthesouth to win by two-and-a-quarter lengths, and finish more than ten lengths clear of the third-place horse. “She had to sit in the pocket, take dirt, then level off and run away,” McCarthy recalled. “I thought that was very impressive.”
A three-year-old Ce Ce faced older horses in her second start, missing by just a neck behind subsequent graded stakes winner Lady Ninja. “She was unlucky to get beat that day,” McCarthy said. She had gone to the lead and dueled along the rail, garnering quite an education and showing enough to earn a trip out of town and into Grade 1 company.
Being asked to stretch out to a mile on her first road trip and to face the likes of 2019 Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) winner Serengeti Empress and unbeaten hometown horse Guarana was a lot, but Ce Ce still finished fourth, nipped just a head for third. “I wasn’t sure if she was ready for a mile,” McCarthy said. “She was a little unseasoned and just putting the pieces together. That day at Belmont there was an inside speed bias and she was drawn way outside.”
While giving credit to winner Guarana’s trainer Chad Brown and rider Jose Ortiz – “Jose realized exactly what kind of trip was needed, and that made a big difference” – McCarthy was frustrated to miss third. “It was a stinger not to be able to get black type,” he said.
Shortly thereafter, Ce Ce spooked coming off the track at Santa Anita and wrenched something. “She wasn’t right for weeks after that,” McCarthy said. “She would make progress, then go two steps back. She eventually had 75 days off, came back in great order, and hasn’t missed a step since.”
Ce Ce, who McCarthy said, “Is a nice filly, but all business,” returned on February 17 at Santa Anita, winning for fun in allowance company despite a bobbling break. She then stepped up into Grade 1 company in the $400,000 Beholder Mile on March 14, facing Grade 1 winners Hard Not to Love and Ollie’s Candy. Ce Ce was sent off as the third choice but ran away from the field, trotting home 3 ¼ lengths clear.
Enter the Apple Blossom, which involved another plane ride to Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. McCarthy knew the field would be full – “big fields are going to happen, especially when you’re the only game in town right now, and the last Grade 1 for some time” – but he still struggled with the post Ce Ce drew in the 1 1/16-mile race, Post 14. The competition included four other Grade 1 winners and several Grade 2 heroines knocking on the door, including Street Band, Come Dancing, and Point of Honor.
“I was worried about the draw all week,” McCarthy said. “In big races these things are going to happen, but I was bummed out about it. I thought that the way the race shaped up on paper the horses to beat were right inside of us, so we couldn’t let them get too far away. Low and behold, the race complexion totally changed.”
Expected pacesetter and race favorite Serengeti Empress couldn’t get to the lead, so Ollie’s Candy and Cookie Dough found themselves in a furious duel through fractions of :22.20 and :45.51. “Ollie’s Candy became the controlling speed, and Cookie Dough seemed like she was getting out a bit, so we were able to go ahead and tuck in right behind them in a great spot.”
Under regular pilot Victor Espinoza, Ce Ce sat fifth early, but was still three lengths behind at the head of the stretch. Ollie’s Candy had more in reserve, but Ce Ce wore her down, scoring by a head. She bolstered her record to four wins in six starts for earnings of $726,600.
“This filly just really likes to train and is always on her game,” McCarthy said. “She feels good all the time and keeps you on your toes.”
With racing on hold at most tracks due to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, Ce Ce’s opportunities are limited. If they can get going, Grade 1 events in California and New York beckon.
Photo Courtesy Coady Photography/Oaklawn Park