HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — The last time Anita Cauley's homebred mare On Fire Baby turned up in a salty Oaklawn Park stakes seeking to regain her groove following a layoff, the gray daughter of Smoke Glacken managed to etch her most significant career triumph.
The 5-year-old mare is in a similar situation this Saturday as the Grade I-winner makes her first start of 2014 in the Grade II, $200,000 Azeri Stakes against a top-quality bunch of six other distaffers at Oaklawn Park.
The 11⁄16-miles Azeri joins the Grade III Razorback on the undercard of the track's Grade II Rebel Stakes lineup.
A year ago, On Fire Baby emerged from an 11-month hiatus to capture the Grade I Apple Blossom at Oaklawn over eventual Eclipse Award finalist Tiz Miz Sue. The Gary Hartlage-trainee would lose her three subsequent starts in 2013, however, including an 11th-place finish in the Grade I Juddmonte Spinster last October.
Though she showed no outward signs of illness, Cauley's sense that something was off with her mare was confirmed when the horse was found to be battling ulcers, despite taking ulcer medication.
"Like humans, certain drugs work better for certain people and the one she was on was not working for her," Cauley said Friday morning. "She didn't have any of the signs, she ate everything in sight ... but I knew something was not right. Once we changed her medication, she turned around in about 30-35 days.
"She feels good now, she's put on even more weight since she's come off the farm and so she looks the part."
On Fire Baby is facing strong rivals in her return. Multiple Grade I winner Close Hatches is making her first start since running second in the Breeders' Cup Distaff last November while Grade II winner Don't Tell Sophia, second in the Azeri a year ago, enters off back-to-back scores in the Pippin and Bayakoa Stakes at Oaklawn this year.
"She has to step it up a little bit more this time," said Phil Sims, trainer of Don't Tell Sophia. "She likes the atmosphere here."