Every time he's asked her, trainer Art Sherman says Ultra Blend has met the challenge. In the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (gr. I) at Del Mar Aug. 6, the 5-year-old California-bred mare will be asked to take her biggest step yet.
Sherman knows the company in the 1 1/16-mile Polytrack test for fillies and mares includes grade I winners Switch and Zazu, as well as the speedy Bob Baffert-trained mare Freedom Star. The Clement Hirsch is a race that last season's Horse of the Year Zenyatta won three consecutive times.
"But you know, it gives me a chance to find out what kind of mare I've really got, too," says the 74-year-old Sherman. "She just doesn't know the company she keeps, you know what I mean?"
As part of the Breeders' Cup Challenge series, the Hirsch carries a guaranteed starting berth in the 2011 Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (gr. I) to the winner at Churchill Downs Nov. 4.
The late-running Ultra Blend has made a career out of beating state-bred company while compiling a remarkably consistent overall mark of 10-5-5 in 22 races with earnings of $665,646.
Nels Erickson's daughter of Richly Blended stepped out of her comfort zone in the past two starts at Hollywood with hardly predictable results.
Second in the 1 1/16-mile Milady Handicap (gr. II) behind Hirsch entrant St Trinians May 21, she was bumped up to first on disqualification. In the July 16 A Gleam Handicap (gr. II) at seven furlongs, she charged home late as is her custom and hit the wire by a nose behind the victorious Irish Gypsy.
"I always say, 'Well I don't know, I'll put her up to the next level and see how she runs,' and she always runs a big one," Sherman says. "So I really kind of deep in my heart think that I've got a shot in this race."
Seven are entered in the Clement Hirsch, the eighth race on the card at 5:30 p.m. PDT, and at least they won't have to face Blind Luck. The star filly's trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, is apparently leaning toward the Personal Ensign Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga Aug. 28 or the $1 million Pacific Classic (gr. I) against males at Del Mar on the same day.
Not that Blind Luck would scare off Switch, who battled last year's 3-year-old filly champion successfully in the Hollywood Oaks (gr. II) and missed by only a half-length to her in Hollywood's Vanity Handicap (gr. I) June 18.
Switch, trained by John Sadler for C R K Stable, won the La Brea and Santa Monica (gr. I) stakes consecutively. Since those victories, the 4-year-old Quiet American filly has three successive grade I runner-up finishes in the Santa Margarita, the Apple Blossom, and the Vanity. She lost them by a combined 1 1/4 lengths.
Teamed once more with Joel Rosario, Switch is poised to surpass the $1 million in career earnings. She has a total of $992,600 while posting a 5-6-2 mark in 15 starts. Under allowance conditions, Switch gets a break at the weights with 119 pounds, two fewer than Ultra Blend and four less than Freedom Star. She also owns a win over the track in last year's Torrey Pines Stakes.
Sadler also entered 3-year-old filly Zazu, who faces older horses for the first time. Jerry and Ann Moss' daughter of Tapit won the Hollywood Oaks (gr. II) June 25 and the Las Virgenes Stakes (gr. I) this spring. In between those two victories she finished second by a neck in the Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I) and third in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I). Garrett Gomez replaces Rosario aboard the strapping gray.
Healthy Addiction won this race for Sadler in 2006.
George Krikorian's Freedom Star has a three-race win streak, though only one of those has occurred this year. The 5-year-old Street Cry mare captured the Iowa Distaff June 24 at Prairie Meadows. Among her victories last year was Oaklawn Park's Azeri Stakes (gr. III) by 3 3/4 lengths. She has won six of her 11 starts.
The speedy bay drew the rail and seems certain to go for the lead, though a second Baffert trainee, Ellafitz, lines up on the far outside and may also want to be in front with Mike Smith. The 4-year-old Tiznow filly, racing for D & E Racing, went gate-to-wire for a 5 1/2-length victory over an optional claiming allowance field at the Hirsch distance July 1 at Hollywood.
St Trinians returned from her DQ in the Milady to finish fourth in the Vanity, beaten by two lengths. Trained by Mike Mitchell, the 6-year-old British-bred mare has lost six in a row since taking the Santa Maria Handicap (gr. II) at Santa Anita in February 2010.
Rounding out the field is the Hollendorfer-trained Washington Bridge, winner of last December's Bayakoa Handicap (gr. II) at Hollywood but without a victory in six tries in 2011.
$300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (gr. I, Race 8, 5:30 p.m.), Fillies & Mares 3 & Up, 1 1/16 Miles (All Weather)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Freedom Star (KY), A Quinonez, 123, B Baffert
2. Washington Bridge (KY), P A Valenzuela, 119, J Hollendorfer
3. Zazu (KY), G K Gomez, 119, J W Sadler
4. Switch (KY), J Rosario, 119, J W Sadler
5. Ultra Blend (CA), T Baze, 121, A Sherman
6. St Trinians (GB), C Sutherland, 119, M R Mitchell
7. Ellafitz (KY), M E Smith, 119, B Baffert
Blinkers On: Washington Bridge