HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- The champion Stellar Wind started her 5-year-old season in stirring fashion on Friday, taking down the Grade 1, $600,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn after working past stubborn pacesetter Terra Promessa. Stellar Wind won by 1 1/4 lengths over that one, and it was another 3 1/4 lengths back to Streamline in third.
The Apple Blossom, a 1 1/16-mile race for fillies and mares, was one of two graded stakes on the card as part of the Racing Festival of the South. The Grade 3, $400,000 Fantasy was won by Ever So Clever ($33.60).
Stellar Wind ($2.80) settled along the rail in third in the Apple Blossom as Terra Promessa jumped out to the lead and was clear through fractions of 23.88 seconds for the opening quarter, 48.22 for the half-mile, and 1:12.59 for six furlongs. Stellar Wind went after the leader into the final turn, was angled out by jockey Victor Espinoza, and moved past that rival near the sixteenth pole. She went on to cover the distance on a fast track in 1:42.75.
"I think she's better than before," said Espinoza, who was aboard Stellar Wind for trainer John Sadler. "As she's gotten older, she's more mature, more professional. But it seems like this year, she's coming back great, and maybe even a little better than last year."
Stellar Wind was making her first start since the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita in November, when she finished fourth behind the now-retired champion Beholder. Stellar Wind was freshened following the start, said Sadler, and was intended to launch her season at home in the Santa Margarita on March 18 at Santa Anita. However, high levels of rain in January and February pushed back her schedule, and she targeted the Apple Blossom.
"I thought I had her good and prepped for this race," Sadler said. "I knew I had to do more than the previous year because of shipping and running on a new surface."
Stellar Wind delivered and gave Sadler his second Grade 1 win at Oaklawn. He also captured the Arkansas Derby in 2010 with Line of David. The races are the lone Grade 1 offerings available to Thoroughbreds in the Southwest region of Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas.
Stellar Wind, who was the champion 3-year-old of 2015, was winning her seventh stakes race in the Apple Blossom and her fourth Grade 1. She earned $360,000 for the victory, improving her career totals to eight wins from 13 starts for earnings of $1,813,200.
Stellar Wind is a daughter of Curlin owned by Hronis Racing.
Sadler said Stellar Wind probably will make her next start in the Grade 1, $400,000 Beholder Mile on June 3 at Santa Anita. The race was previously known as the Vanity.
"We'll get her back on the stakes circuit at Santa Anita, although we'll look at other stakes around the country," said Sadler.
The ultimate objective, he said, is a return trip to the Breeders' Cup Distaff, which this year will be run at Del Mar.
Oaklawn handled $5.2 million on its 10-race card from all sources on Friday. Attendance was an estimated 20,000. The meet closes Saturday with a program of four stakes led by the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby that drew champion Classic Empire. First post for the 12-race card is 12:30 p.m. Central.