When Indian Blessing romped in the Gallant Bloom Handicap (gr. II) last year she was in the top form of her career and on her way to another Eclipse Award, this one as the nation’s top female sprinter.
But things are quite different entering the 2009 edition of the race. Likely nearing retirement, Indian Blessing is winless in three starts this season and will need a solid effort to prove that she deserves a return trip to Santa Anita for the Nov. 6 Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. The 4-year-old daughter of Indian Charlie will get that opportunity against six rivals in the $150,000 Gallant Bloom Sept. 26 at Belmont. The 6 1/2-furlong contest, which is a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" event, is slated to go to post at 5:15 p.m. EDT.
Indian Blessing will not have a walkover. She’ll face a solid group of fillies and mares, including 3-year-old Sara Louise
, who came back off a nine-month layoff to score the Aug. 29 Victory Ride (gr. III) in the slop at Saratoga. Sara Louise still has the distinction of being the last horse to defeat Rachel Alexandra
Also in the field is multiple graded stakes winner Any Limit
and Thunders Dove
, who enters riding a five-race win streak for Nick Zito.
Owned and bred by Hal and Patti Earnhardt, and trained by Bob Baffert, Indian Blessing has had an eventful season despite racing just three times. The dark bay filly opened her season against males by finishing second in the Dubai Golden Shaheen (UAE-I) in March. Baffert gave her two and half months off after that effort before bringing her back in Hollywood Park’s Desert Stormer, where she ran fourth on the Cushion Track surface as the 1-2 favorite. It was the first time in 14 starts that the two-time champion ran out of the money.
Indian Blessing, who is out of the Flying Chevron mare Shameful, came out of the Desert Stormer with a couple of minor ailments. After being shipped to New York, she missed more training time with a foot abscess and was not up to her best when running second to Music Note by more than five lengths in the Aug. 29 Ballerina (gr. I) at Saratoga.
"I think she’s finally come full circle,” Baffert said. "She had some problems with her feet and we lost time with her. We were a little short coming into the Ballerina and that showed in the last part when the serious running started. She got tired the last eighth of a mile.
"That day, you saw about eighty percent of Indian Blessing. This time, we’re hoping you’ll see that extra twenty percent."
Indications are that Indian Blessing is ready to run back to her old form in the Gallant Bloom, a race she won by 6 1/4 lengths as the 3-10 favorite a year ago. She has turned in two sharp workouts at Belmont since the Ballerina and seems poised for a repeat victory. If that is the result, the $2.9 million earner will likely head back to California to face Ventura once again in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. Ventura beat her by four lengths in 2008.
“She’s back to her old self," the Hall of Fame trainer added. "When she’s doing fantastic, she just needs racing luck. I expect a really big effort from her Saturday.”
Indian Blessing, who will be ridden by John Velazquez, will likely be retired at the end of the season, according to Baffert.
Godolphin Stable’s Sara Louise is certainly heading into the race the right way. The talented daughter of Malibu Moon
, who defeated Rachel Alexandra as a juvenile in Churchill Downs' Golden Rod (gr. II), returned razor sharp in the Victory Ride after being shelved for the first half of the season due to tendon issues in her front legs. The bay filly rolled to a two-length score in that six-furlong race, and based on her most recent work, is ready for another big effort. On Sept. 21, Sara Louise turned in a four-furlong work in :47.82 at Belmont, the best of 44 that day.
Now trained by Saeed bin Suroor, who took over after she was bought by Godolphin, Sara Louise broke her maiden at Belmont last September. The 7-5 morning-line choice will be ridden by Edgar Prado and will get six pounds from Indian Blessing.
“In a perfect world, we’d probably keep her against three-year old fillies,” said Rick Mettee, assistant to bin Suroor. “But this is simply the best spot we could find for her right now and Saeed thought that if she could run against older fillies going six and a half furlongs, we could have a chance going seven-eighths in the Breeders’ Cup."
Joseph Fields Jr.’s Any Limit knows Belmont well. The 6-year-old Limit Out mare has made 11 of her 27 career starts at the New York track, winning four times. One of those wins came in last year’s First Flight Handicap (gr. II), which came just prior to her Honorable Miss Handicap (gr. II) triumph at the Spa.
An early speed demon, Any Limit has won one of four starts in 2009, that coming in the Hurrican Bertie Handicap (gr. III) in February at Gulfstream Park. The bay mare has been off since May when she ran fourth in the Vagrancy Handicap (gr. II) at Belmont. Cornelio Velasquez will ride for Allen Jerkens.
Windmill Manor Farm’s Thunders Dove will make her graded stakes debut in a tough spot. Also likely to be part of hot pace, the 5-year-old Thunderello mare was sharp in her first start of the season, as she rolled to a four-length score in the restricted Addison Mallery Stakes Aug. 16 at Saratoga. That came after being off for nearly 10 months.
$150,000 Gallant Bloom Handicap (gr. II, Race 9, 5:15 p.m.), Fillies & Mares 3 & Up, 6 1/2 Furlongs (Dirt)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. American Queen (VA), J Lezcano, 113, A Iwinski
2. Indian Blessing (KY), J R Velazquez, 123, B Baffert
3. Sara Louise (KY), E S Prado, 117, S bin Suroor
4. Sky Haven (PA), A Garcia, 113, S M Asmussen
5. Any Limit (KY), C H Velasquez, 119, H A Jerkens
6. Thunders Dove (KY), R Maragh, 116, N P Zito
7. P. S. U. Grad (KY), K J Desormeaux, 116, B Baffert