In a battle of the two highest-ranked male handicap horses in the nation, Blame closed relentlessly through the lane to nab front-running Quality Road by a head in a thrilling Whitney Invitational Handicap (gr. I) (VIDEO) at Saratoga Aug. 7.
Rallying from fourth for jockey Garrett Gomez in the 1 1/8-mile main track test, Blame was able to wear down Quality Road at the wire even though the 1-2 favorite was able to dictate an easy pace in the $750,000 event. The final time was 1:48.88 over a fast track. Musket Man, who challenged Quality Road in the stretch as well, held on for third.
Albert Stall Jr. trains Blame, a 4-year-old son of Arch--Liable, by Seeking the Gold, for co-owners and breeders Adele Dilschneider and Claiborne Farm.
Winner of the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs in his last start, Blame, at odds of 3-1, snapped a three-race winning streak for Quality Road, who was ultra-impressive in capturing the Donn (gr. I) and Metropolitan (gr. I) handicaps this year.
Blame, who earned a berth in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) , has now won five races in a row since a second-place finish to Regal Ransom in the Super Derby (gr. II) at Louisiana Downs last September.
Stall said Blame would race once more before the Nov. 6 Classic at Churchill Downs. "It might be the Woodward (gr. I, Sept. 4 at Saratoga), the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I, Oct. 2 at Belmont Park) or the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II, Oct. 2 in Illinois). The breeders want to do the New York stuff--which I do, too.”
A hard-to-hold Haynesfield, who broke through the gate after being loaded to delay the start briefly, led at the break with Quality Road and Musket Man making it three abreast. Quality Road, along the inside with regular rider John Velazquez aboard, would soon get the lead and slowed the pace through strolling fractions of :24.41, :48.06, and 1:11.92.
Quality Road, inching clear on the final turn, was seemingly in command as he reached the head of the stretch. But Musket Man, ridden by Rajiv Maragh, wasn't done, mounting a challenge on the outside with Haynesfield clinging close in third.
Blame, running easily in fourth on the inside much of the way, came off the rail near the quarter pole and had about four lengths to make up in the stretch. He closed in the middle of the track and continued to draw closer as Gomez shook the reins at his charge aggressively. Gomez chose not to go to the whip as Blame drew close while drifting inward in deep stretch under strong handling. They got up in the final couple of jumps in a tremendous effort.
Stall said the slow fractions worried him, but noted that they also kept Blame closer to Quality Road as they rounded the final bend.
“I’m thrilled to death for everyone involved," said the trainer, who expressed confidence heading into the Whitney. "The fact we were within four or five lengths from the three-eighths pole to the wire – he’s pretty tough. He’s got a great turn of foot. If he’s within striking distance of a horse, he usually gets there. That’s what I’ve learned about him in the last six months or so."
Gomez added: "He’s been 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. If you watched me ride him, I never hit him. I actually moved up at about the three-eighths pole and I felt pretty confident then.
"I was just biding my time until we turned for home. I just didn’t want to sit too long because he’s got a long consistent run and just keeps coming. I just wanted to make sure that when we turned for home I did have him in a good place. He kept staying on and in that last eighth of a mile, when I finally got right to (Quality Road), I said ‘I got him’.”
Velazquez felt Quality Road wasn't quite on his game this time.
“I tried to put him into the bridle, but he was just going through the motions, which is strange for him," he said. "I was hoping there’d be nobody there, so I got to drifting. I was trying to make it more difficult for the horse on the outside.”
Blame is now two-for-two at Saratoga after taking the 1 1/8-mile Curlin Stakes last summer. He has won five of six starts at the distance, including Keeneland's Fayette Stakes (gr. II) and Clark Handicap (gr. II) at Churchill Downs last fall to close his 3-year-old campaign.
The bay colt won the William D. Schaefer Stakes (gr. III) at Pimlico May 15 to begin his 2010 season. He then came from off the pace with a big late burst to take the Stephen Foster by three-quarters of a length at Churchill June 12 for his first grade I victory. Overall, Blame has won eight of 11 races in his career with earnings of $1,518,214. He banked $450,000 for the Whitney triumph.
Though he had things his way, it was nonetheless a heartbreaking loss for Quality Road, who refused to yield in a determined effort. Edward Evans' homebred suffered his first defeat since finishing second to Summer Bird over a sloppy Belmont Park strip in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) Oct. 3. He carried top weight of 126 pounds, five more than Blame.
“We had a comfortable trip, set reasonable fractions, and just got run down at the wire," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "(Blame) ran a big race.”
After beginning the year with a ridden out win in the Hal's Hope Stakes (gr. III) at Gulfstream Park in January, Quality Road broke loose with an eye-popping 12 3/4-length victory in the Donn Handicap (gr. I). The 4-year-old Elusive Quality colt was equally impressive in a front-running 1 1/2-length score in the Met Mile May 31, clocking a dazzling time of 1:33.11 while defeating Musket Man. The Whitney was his first start in more than two months.
Musket Man, who rarely prompts the pace, turned in another big effort in finishing a clear third. He was 1 3/4 lengths behind the first two after a wide journey.
“The pace was slower than anticipated, so I put my horse closer to the pace because I wanted to be in a winning position turning for home," Maragh said. "I thought I was in the right spot if I was going to win the race, and my horse tried hard all the way today, he just couldn’t get there.”
It was 9 1/2 lengths to fourth-place finisher Haynesfield. Mine that Bird and Jardim followed.
Second choice Blame paid $8.80, $3, and $2.20 while topping the $18.20 exacta. Quality Road returned $2.40 and $2.10, and Musket Man paid $2.50.