Blame and Quality Road battled down the stretch in the Whitney Handicap.

Blame and Quality Road battled down the stretch in the Whitney Handicap.

Coglianese Photos

Countdown to the Cup: And Then Came Blame

Blame helped celebrate Claiborne Farm's 100th anniversary with a dramatic Whitney win

Whether you’re a Quality Road  fan or not, you had to feel good for Blame  and Claiborne Farm, who combined not only to win the historic Whitney Handicap (gr. I), but turn back the clock to a time when homebreds ruled the sport – horses that were bred tough and ran tough.

In Blame, Claiborne has bred a near-perfect racing machine, a gritty, in-your-face type of horse who gets dirt kicked in his face and keeps coming at you – a strong-boned horse, sound, kind, and professional, who doesn’t let anything bother him. Watching him run is like going through a time portal back to the 1950s and ‘60s.

In the winner’s circle following Blame’s tenacious victory over 1-2 favorite Quality Road, trainer Al Stall’s younger brother, Andrew, hugged Claiborne Farm president Seth Hancock and basically said all there was to say in three words: “He’s a beast.”

He said later, “This horse just wins. He comes back all dirty, while Quality Road is all pretty and clean. But that’s him.”

Although Claiborne has won its share of major races over the years, this one was special, bringing out a rare public display of emotion from Hancock, who stood in front of the TV screen in the ground floor clubhouse, his fists clenched and arms raised straight in the air, as if lifting an invisible barbell.

It was special for two reasons. This is the 100th anniversary of the dynasty founded by his grandfather, Arthur Boyd Hancock Sr., and Seth had just watched Blame carry five generations of Claiborne blood to victory and vault to the top of the older horse division.

In an era where stallions are bred 150 to 200 times a year, some shuttling back and forth between the Northern and Southern hemispheres, Hancock has refused to compromise the integrity of Claiborne Farm, which has been operating the same way for a century under three generations of the Hancock family. Because it has refused to gorge itself by breeding its stallions to an excess of broodmares, Claiborne no longer is the force it once was, with big-name stallions going elsewhere. But Blame could be the future stallion that gets Claiborne back to prominence, enticing breeders who actually seek quality over quantity and the long-term welfare of the stallion.

Blame, one of the few horses who can match up with Quality Road muscle vs. muscle, as Al Stall puts it, has the very best of Claiborne blood coursing through his veins, which made this victory so special for Hancock, his sister Dell, and longtime partner and co-breeder Adele B. Dilschneider.

Blame's sire, Arch, was a multiple graded stakes winner, and his dam, Liable (by Claiborne stallion Seeking the Gold), was stakes-placed and a winner of six of 15 career starts.

Standing next to Hancock watching Blame run down Quality Road at the wire was former Claiborne trainer Frank Brothers, for whom Stall worked as an assistant.

“Frankie trained the mother, he trained the father, and he trained the trainer. How much better does it get for him?” Hancock said.

“This meant a lot to the Hancock family,” Brothers said. “It also meant a lot to me. Seth usually goes off by himself to watch a race and we both just happened to be down on the lower level standing next to each other at the same TV. It was a very emotional moment for both of us. Seth keeps within himself, but he was pretty happy there at the moment, I’ll tell you that.”

The talk prior to the Whitney was mostly about Quality Road, coming off brilliant victories in the grade I Metropolitan Handicap and Donn Handicap. D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Whitney starter Mine That Bird, all but conceded the race to the grand-looking son of Elusive Quality.

“He’s going to be on an easy lead, and with that cruising speed of his, no way anybody beats him,” Lukas said. “Bet the college fund on him.”

One person not quite ready to concede the race to Quality Road was Stall, who stood by the rail outside his Horse Haven barn on the Oklahoma training track the morning before the Whitney, while Blame grazed about 50 yards behind him.

He didn’t want to sound too confident, considering the pace of the race was out of his control, and admitted Blame’s long-range goal was the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I). But after the race, he expressed the thoughts of everyone around the colt.

“We all had a tremendous amount of confidence in him, because everything was going so well all year long,” Stall said. “My assistant felt we were the ones who were ‘driving the bus,’ but it’s not our style or Claiborne’s style or (jockey) Garrett Gomez’ style to come out and pop off like that. I feel this was his best race, but my gut tells me there might a little bit more in the tank.”

Gomez added, “We were super confident. It’s just one of those things you don’t want to say too much so you can let the horse do the talking. He’s trained magnificently for this race and every other race I’ve ridden him in. He’s a magnificent older horse and I can’t wait until we go farther.”

The start of the Whitney was delayed when Suburban Handicap (gr. I) winner Haynesfield broke through the gate, unseating jockey Ramon Dominguez, but was reeled in by an assistant starter, who prevented him from running off. That incident left some doubt about how far Haynesfield would be able to sustain his stalking speed.

Quality Road, as expected, went to the front after ducking in at the start, bumping with Blame, forcing him into Mine That Bird. Into the first turn, Quality Road was lapped by Haynesfield and Musket Man, who had to go three wide. Despite the pace pressure, he was allowed to get away with a slow opening quarter in :24.41 and half in :48.06.  Musket Man, who prefers coming from several lengths back, was put right up on the pace by Rajiv Maragh, tracking Quality Road, while being pushed along.

Gomez had Blame in good position in fourth, saving ground while only 3 1/2 lengths off the lead. Mine That Bird trailed the field of six, about eight lengths back. Around the turn, Quality Road was able to get some separation from Musket Man and Haynesfield, extending his lead to two lengths.

Approaching the quarter pole, Gomez took Blame off the rail and commenced his rally, swinging widest of all. John Velazquez appeared confident at the top of the stretch, looking back three times over both shoulders and seeing he had Haynesfield, on his inside, and Musket Man, on his outside, both measured.

But he wasn’t as confident in the final furlong when he kept peeking to his right and seeing Blame charging up just off his flank. He went to five right-handed whips from the eighth pole to the wire, but Blame kept coming with that relentless run of his. Gomez had thrown several crosses on Blame and actually dropped his right reins inside the eighth pole, but fortunately was able to get it right back. He continued to vigorously hand ride Blame, who got up to win by a head in 1:48.88, coming home his last eighth in :12 flat.

The hard-knocking Musket Man, who has never finished out of the money, hung tough to finish third, 1 3/4 lengths behind Quality Road. Haynesfield was another 9 1/2 lengths back in fourth, with Mine That Bird a non-factor, finishing fifth.

There was some question whether Velazquez should have allowed Quality Road to go so slow early. Although on paper that looked to be the proper move, Quality Road is known more for running his opponents dizzy with his exceptional cruising speed, and then closing well enough off fast fractions to keep distance between himself and the closers. But by setting slow fractions he allows top-class closers like Blame to be within striking distance turning for home, and you don’t want Blame, with his powerful kick and dogged determination, being that close to you a quarter of a mile out.

The only other time Quality Road set slow fractions was in the Hal’s Hope (gr. III), and he turned in more of a workmanlike effort to beat a so-so bunch by 2 3/4 lengths, earning his lowest winning Beyer speed figure since his career debut. It could be that Quality Road simply gets bored going slow without having anyone to run at. When you can cruise along in :46 and change and 1:10 and change and keep going, why go in :48 and take away your strength? Quality Road is all about speed and carrying it, while running his pursuers into the ground, not about rating in slow fractions. You can bet you won’t be seeing any :48 halfs from him in the Woodward (gr. I).

There is one trivial point, which probably means nothing, but if you watch the rerun close enough you can see Quality Road’s long braided forelock constantly hitting him on the side of the face right above his eye. As we said, it’s likely just a meaningless observation, but just mentioning it anyway, because it can’t be comfortable for the horse having that hitting him so close to his eye. Is it time for a nice little loop on there?

“The :48 half was a little nerve wracking,” Stall said, “but it kept us close. From the three-eighths pole home it sure looks like he can sprint to the wire with anybody. After the race, we were all hugging and banging on each other. That’s why we do this; that’s why we get up at 5 a.m. seven days a week, for something like this.”

Blame has always been the kind of horse no one notices, because of his no-nonsense demeanor and laid-back personality.

“He’s never been a look-at-me type,” Hancock said. “He’s always been just one of the guys. You see him walk in the paddock and he’s always cool and calm. That’s part of what makes him what he is. He’s got a terrific mind and a terrific will to win.”

Stall echoed those comments. “Every rider who’s ever been on him – from a jockey to an exercise boy to an exercise girl – gets off and says the same thing: ‘This is a monster.’ He’s just so smooth and so sound, and his stride is so long and comfortable, all the riders just love getting on him. The other day I was talking to Jane Dunne, who broke him, and she said. ‘I cant remember anything about this horse. I went back and checked my records and there wasn’t anything on there – no shins, no illness, nothing, which is what you want to see.”

Hancock did acknowledge the performance of Quality Road. “He gave us five pounds, so give him a lot of credit. He ran a super race.”

Blame’s next start will be in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), while Quality Road has a possible date with Rail Trip, MusketMan, and Mine That Bird in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I).

The morning after the Whitney, Blame was bright and alert, burrowing a hole in his hay rack and welcoming all visitors.

“He’s so incredibly smart and classy and makes everything easy for us,” said assistant trainer and exercise rider Randi Melton. "He never gets upset. He’s just a beautiful, beautiful animal. Glen Brookfield, our Lexington assistant, who has spent the most time with him, and our Fair Grounds assistant, Kim Fitzgerald, both came up for the race, and we’re all still kind of in a daze.

“Glen couldn’t help himself, this is like his child, and when he stopped by the barn around 12:30 last night to look in on Blame he was eating hay, head over the gate, ears forward, looking at the grandstand. And that’s just how I found him when I got here this morning, when it was still pitch black out. He’s s so alert and just loves the attention. Some horses get agitated and nervous and washy with so many people around, but he eats every second of it up. He’s just an extraordinary horse.”

California Here I Stay?

Zenyatta won the Clement Hirsch (gr. I) for the third time, narrowly defeating Midwest shipper Rinterval, winner of three of her 22 career starts, and she did it by overcoming yet another dawdling pace – 1:15 for six furlongs barely separates Thoroughbreds from harness horses. By comparison, the race before the Hirsch, a one-mile allowance/optional claimer, was run in fractions of :45.59 and 1:10.66. That's some 22 lengths faster than the Hirsch. So, does anyone have any clue what makes Del Mar’s Polytrack tick? As John Shirreffs commented in the San Diego Times-Union on the material he picked up one morning, “What planet is this from?”

Heck, we don’t even know what planet Zenyatta is from, so maybe they’re a match.

That’s really about all you can say about the Clement Hirsch. Victory No. 18 is pretty much the story of the race. Yes, she won by a neck, but only Zenyatta can make a neck victory seem like three lengths. Who else can win in a photo and never appear to be in any danger of getting beat?

Now will it be on to the (ugh!) Zenyatta Stakes? There is something quite disturbing and bizarre about running Zenyatta in a race bearing her name. Oak Tree’s decision to give Lady’s Secret the boot “10 minutes” after the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) was a bad move in itself, but refusing to change it back until Zenyatta retires is pigheaded. And running Zenyatta in the Zenyatta is only asking for trouble. But all signs right now are pointing in that direction, as she apparently is remaining in California to follow the same schedule she did the past two years. You can bet John Shirreffs is not afraid of offending the racing gods. He is too firmly attached to the ground to ponder such nonsense.

When the year started, the word was that Zenyatta would be traveling and be shown off to fans in other parts of the country. Other than a return trip to Oaklawn Park, that apparently is not going to happen. Most people have come to the realization that neither Zenyatta’s camp nor Rachel Alexandra’s camp have any desire to go looking for the other.

It’s now so far into the year that it is only about the Breeders’ Cup. Whether the goal is to get Zenyatta to Louisville undefeated or with as little stress as possible, or both, only Shirreffs can say for sure. Although the journey, or lack of, has been criticized in many circles, if Zenyatta wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic again, no one will care how she got there. Her provincialism will prove insignificant in the vast scope of another Breeders’ Cup Classic victory, especially with the race being run on the dirt this year. In short, if Zenyatta wins the Classic, praise will be heaped upon Shirreffs for getting her there in the best possible shape – mentally and physically. Everything else will be forgotten.

No Test for Champagne

There were several other top-class performances over the weekend that should have major Breeders’ Cup implications, most notably Champagne d’Oro’s brilliant and gutsy score in the Test Stakes (gr. I) and Majesticperfection’s spectacular display of early and late speed in winning the A.G. Vanderbilt (gr. I), in which he rocketed out of the gate, outsprinted the fastest horses in the East and then flew home his last two eighths in :11.29 and :11.74. That spells unbeatable.

Champagne d'Oro had every reason to call it quits after battling with favored Pica Slew through a torrid half-mile in :44.50. Although Pica Slew staggered home in eighth, Champagne d’Oro just kept on going, drawing off to a 4 1/2-length victory in 1:22.71.

Speaking of 3-year-old filly sprinters, we could also mention Lisa's Booby Trap’s powerful score in the seven-furlong Loudonville Stakes at Saratoga, but any mention of this remarkable filly and her remarkable owner and trainer, and their remarkable story would take at least 5,000 words, so that will come at another time.

Bob Baffert may have lost Lookin At Lucky  for a while, but it’s nice to have a horse like Concord Point come along and take home the $750,000 West Virginia Derby (gr. II). Concord Point only won by a length, but the victory must be measured against who he beat, and holding off the determined bid of the classy Exhi , who dogged him the entire way and finished 8 1/2 lengths ahead of the third horse, bodes well for the quality of his performance. Exhi proved himself equally as proficient on dirt as he has on synthetics, so there are now a lot of avenues open to him.

To comment on this column, click here.