Bill Farish recalls being at Royal Ascot in England in June 2011, unable to access the Internet to see how his horse, the Mark Casse-trained Pool Play, would run in the grade I Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.
"Mark called me and told me he won," Farish said. "It was Mark's idea to run him in the race, and he did exactly what Mark thought he would do: He took to dirt."
It may seem odd, but Pool Play, who was 6 in 2011, didn't race on dirt until his 28th start. The now 7-year-old Silver Deputy horse is an Ontario-bred, however, which led to him making most of his starts at Woodbine, where Casse is based for most of the year.
Pool Play in his first 27 starts captured one stakes–the Durham Cup (Can-III). He also finished second on the turf in the grade II Elkhorn Stakes at Keeneland, but most of his starts had come on the Polytrack at Woodbine, several at marathon distances.
After the Stephen Foster, it appeared Farish and Casse had more options for Pool Play, including the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) at Churchill, but a tendon injury was discovered a few days after the Stephen Foster. It was believed to be career-ending, but Casse had other ideas.
"We thought he was done racing," Farish said. "But Mark said, 'Let me try to bring him back again.' There are some things that can help (a tendon injury), but nothing compares with giving a horse time. We wanted to be really confident in bringing him back to the races."
The comeback started July 2 of this year with a decent fourth-place finish in the Ontario Jockey Club, a seven-furlong turf stakes for Ontario-bred runners, followed by another fourth in the Seagram Cup (Can-II) at 1 1/16 miles on Polytrack. Next up was the Washington Park Handicap (gr. III) at 1 1/8 miles on Polytrack at Arlington Park, and Pool Play finished third.
On Oct. 6, in his fourth start after the layoff, Pool Play was dismissed at 16-1 in the grade II Hawthorne Gold Cup. He rallied from last in a field of six to win and put his record at two-for-two on dirt.
"We wanted to keep him off dirt and get him fit, and it worked out well," Farish said. "We really didn't have any choice."
Farish said a possible start in the Nov. 3 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) was the "unmentioned plan" for Pool Play. Casse said it "was the dream," and he proved able to get the horse back into form enough to enter him.
Farish and Casse said the Breeders' Cup Marathon (gr. II), also on dirt but at 1 3/4 miles, wasn't really on the radar screen even though Pool Play has won at the distance, and even farther. They said the Classic, at 1 1/4 miles, should have a much faster pace, thus aiding Pool Play's late kick.
Pool Play drew post 1 in the 12-horse Classic field with morning-line odds of 30-1. Miguel Mena, who has ridden him to his two dirt victories, is named to ride again.
When asked if he plans to stand Pool Play at stud perhaps next year, Farish said the answer to the question would have to wait, given developments of the past year or so.
"I'll tell you after Saturday," he said.