On Fire Baby puts versatility to the test in Grade I Spinster

The only time Anita Cauley’s On Fire Baby ran over a synthetic surface, it resulted in one of the sounder defeats of her career –  a fifth-place finish  in the 2011 edition of the Grade I Darley Alcibiades at Keeneland.

When trainer Gary “Red Dog” Hartlage reflects on that day, however, he recalls saddling a 2-year-old filly trying to find herself in just her second career start rather than a horse who was spinning her wheels over the track. He also remembers thinking the daughter of Smoke Glacken would eventually develop into the best horse he’s trained. And in her nine starts since that outing, she has made it difficult to dispute that line of thought.

Hartlage is counting on On Fire Baby now proving she can indeed run over any surface when she tries Polytrack for the second time in Sunday’s Grade I, $500,000 Juddmonte Spinster Stakes at Keeneland.

This April saw On Fire Baby stun many when she returned from an 11-month layoff to win the Grade I Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park. After getting beat a short  head by the Authenticity in the Grade II La Troienne at Churchill Downs in May, the 4-year-old gray filly tried in vain to take it to champion Royal Delta in the Grade I Personal Ensign, but faded to fourth in her third outing this year.

Hartlage says he has seen a more aggressive side of On Fire Baby since the Personal Ensign, however. Given the small sample he has to draw from regarding her synthetic track form, he doesn’t think surface will necessarily be the biggest obstacle in her way.

“I always thought she was the best horse I ever had, and I still say that today, she’s the best horse I ever had,” Hartlage said during a teleconference this week. “We had high hopes in her from the beginning and it’s been like that ever since. She’s ran in the maiden races and ever since her maiden race, she’s ran in stakes. She never has run an allowance race.

“I think she’ll handle the Poly. I think she’ll handle the grass too. We entered her for a grass allowance race at Churchill that didn’t fill before this race. I don’t think the surface matters to her.”

More than the surface test, the 1 1/8-miles Spinster figures to be a test of On Fire Baby’s stamina as she has never won beyond a 1 1/16-miles.

Morning-line favorite Emollient, by contrast, proved she loved Keeneland when she won the Grade I Ashland Stakes by nine lengths this April and answered the distance question when the Juddmonte-owned filly took the Grade I, 1 1/4-miles  American Oaks at Hollywood Park in July.

Despite some distance questions in On Fire Baby’s pedigree, Hartlage feels her class is at a point right now where it can outrun what the limitations her bloodlines may suggest.

“She’s showing every sign that she’s back to 100%, so we’re going to find out what happens here,” Hartlage said. “Now she’s kind of getting back into the groove, where she’s just—she wants to be the boss and I guess we’re going to find out Sunday how that is going to work out.”