Owner Anita Cauley’s homebred gray filly has been on the receiving end of much confidence sent her way by trainer Gary “Red Dog” Hartiage.
On Fire Baby is the three-year-old filly’s name. She was nominated for the 2012 Kentucky Derby and right away “Red Dog” planned a path that could get her to that race.
Only three fillies have ever won the Kentucky Derby — Regret in 1915, Genuine Risk, and Winning Colors — but history hasn’t seemed to faze trainer Hartiage one bit.
After teaming her with jockey Joe Johnson, “Red Dog” gave On Fire Baby her first start in a 5 1/2 furlong sprint at Ellis Park last August 19. The light gray two-year-old whizzed through her debut test with Johnson’s robin’s-egg blue silks striding away from the field and winning by four lengths.
It was then that “Red Dog” showed all his cards. He took her to the Grade I Alcibiades Stakes at Keeneland on the first Saturday in October. There was no holding back. On Fire Baby was going from a short sprint against maidens to a Grade I stakes at 1 1/16 miles.
Her odds in the Alcibiades were 40-1.
Even though she waged a duel for the early lead, the other 12 thoroughbreds in the bulky field were all more experienced and seemingly better prepared than she was.
She didn’t fade to the back of the jumbled pack, but actually finished fifth.
“Red Dog” didn’t take a step back . . . or even to the side. He brought her back in the late October, Grade II Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill Downs.
In her third try, there was a change in strategy. Instead of contesting or taking the early lead, jockey Johnson reserved On Fire Baby off the pace in seventh position. She would be helped by the five-horse clump of those going for the early lead and opening the Pocahontas with a 22.54 time for the first quarter-mile.
At the three-sixteenths pole, On Fire Baby was guided off the rail by Johnson and moved to the center of the track for her possible stretch drive. She breezed past Aubby K. and held sway against the late-closing And Why Not to win by three-parts of a length.
Two wins in three tries. And one of those wins was in a Grade II event.
“Red Dog” wasn’t trying to cover his satisfaction with any false humility when he told people afterwards in the winner’s circle: “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 I and a Grade II.
“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. If we run her one more time in 2011 it would be in the Golden Rod Stakes (Grade II) here at Churchill in late November.”
When On Fire Baby showed no health problems in the aftermath of the Pocahontas, “Red Dog” did enter her in the Golden Rod Stakes.
Jockey Johnson and trainer Hartiage sat down and read the Daily Racing Form. The two looked at each other. Both had quizzical expressions. Johnson spoke first. “I can’t see the speed in the race.” Hartiage had a faint smile that crinkled the skin around his eyes and he replied: “What a coincidence because neither can I.”
There was agreement as to their strategy for the race.
Johnson said both men believed in a simple course of action. “The plan was to break and and go on with her. When we broke, no one was really gunning for the lead, so I took advantage of it and when I called on her to run, she responded. She was very professional today.”
The reason for Johnson’s laid-back explanation of how the Golden Rod had been run because On Fire Baby had dumped the field by 6 1/4 lengths.
In her four races staged in 2011, On Fire Baby had won three times, including successes in the pair of Grade II events that completed her brief two-year-old season.
Trainer Hartiage summed up what he had seen in the Golden Rod and where he was planning to go in 2012. “She was the horse I thought she was and did her thing.” And then he showed the side of him that helped him gain his nickname, “They let us walk like a dog and she’s just that good.”
With winnings of $227,329 and most of it from graded stakes races, she probably had enough to join the likely 20-horse field in the Kentucky Derby if “Red Dog” and owner Cauley want to go in that direction.
Her first race this year was in the January 16 Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. In the field of 12, she was the only filly. Her start from post 10 was not a lucky draw.
Those folks in Arkansas did not let her “walk like a dog”.
On Fire Baby was only fourth through the clubhouse turn. She was far off the rail, but clear of traffic. As the leaders moved toward the last turn, jockey Johnson moved her to their flanks. But in the stretch she couldn’t move past two others and finished third, beaten by about 1 1/2 lengths.
From that third-place in January, Hartiage took dead aim on this Saturday’s Grade III Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
“It’s about the best road for getting to Louisville,” said “Red Dog”. “I have no problem with the way she’s been training. We’ll see if this puts us on that road.”
Few are the fillies that ever compete in the Kentucky Derby. This weekend’s Honeybee Stakes will determine if trainer Hartiage will still be “walking the dog” on that same path to Louisville.