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Friday, March 5, 2010

Apple Blossom preparations gathering steam

Mary Rampellini,
Daily Racing Form

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - There are signs the Apple Blossom Invitational is getting closer. On Thursday at Gulfstream Park, the Venezuelan star Bambera will work toward an intended start in the race. On Saturday afternoon, the local prep, the Grade 3, $150,000 Azeri, will be run at Oaklawn. And on March 10, nominations close for the Apple Blossom.

From the nominees, eight fillies and mares will be extended invitations to compete against Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta in the April 9 race, which will be worth $5 million if the two champions start. Getting Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta in the gate together for what would be their first meeting is the sole goal right now at Oaklawn.

"That's our only priority," said Eric Jackson, the track's general manager. "The race is everything that counts. It's not the attendance. It isn't the handle. It isn't anything else. This is 'Race for the Ages.' If the other things come together, that's great."

Jackson said the first step is getting past March 13, when both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta are scheduled to make their seasonal debuts. Rachel Alexandra is to run at Fair Grounds, and Zenyatta at Santa Anita. The owners of both horses have indicated their intent to run in the Apple Blossom next.

"If everybody's moving forward from March 13, then we'll start getting real serious about our crowd estimates and what we think will happen," Jackson said. "But right now, I'm very comfortable saying I think it will be around 50,000, which is a phenomenally good day."

Jackson said reserved seats for the Apple Blossom, to be run on a Friday, are sold out. However, general admission will be the standard $2 and there are plenty of places for the crowd at the track, which regularly hosts more than 50,000 patrons each Arkansas Derby Day.

"We've got something like 25,000 bleacher seats, bench seats, and I guess that doesn't really count the infield," Jackson said. "Every year, Oaklawn puts on a Fourth of July celebration for the community and we get somewhere around 15,000 people out in the infield just for that in the area that we have staked out right now, and we would make that area larger."

Oaklawn is trying to get the Apple Blossom broadcast on national television, with Randy Moss, an analyst for ESPN, leading that charge for the track.

"Randy Moss is working on that," Jackson said. "We've retained Randy Moss. He's working behind the curtain and he tells me he's highly confident that we're going to be on national TV. But we're probably several weeks away from being able to finalize that."

The Apple Blossom could go as the final race on a 10-race program, Jackson said.

"None of that's chiseled in stone," Jackson said. "But that's our thinking right now."

Requests for media credentials have come in from as far away as Japan and Turkey. The local paper, the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record, is counting down the days to the race with stories ranging from requests for aircraft parking to updates on trading cards featuring Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta.

There also is a separate website for the event, appleblossominvitational.com.

South American challenger

Nominations for the Apple Blossom range from champion Stardom Bound to multiple Group 1 winner Bambera, who since January has been in training with Pablo Andrade at Calder.

"She's like a big idol, a superstar in Venezuela," he said.

Andrade said there is an outside chance that the 4-year-old Bambera could make her first start of the year in the Rampart at Gulfstream on March 20. However, he said her owners are leaning toward starting her season in the Apple Blossom. Bambera last raced Dec. 4, winning the Group 1 Caribbean Classic in Puerto Rico. Overall, she is 16 for 18, with earnings of $923,564.

Oaklawn will extend Apple Blossom invitations on March 24. Pre-entries for the race will be taken March 26, and final entries will be drawn April 6.

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