Trainer Al Stall Jr. believes Blame is right on the verge of being a star. A troublesome foot abscess kept him from achieving that status a year ago during the Triple Crown, but the son of Arch now seems poised to prove his trainer right, something he will try to do when seeking his first grade I win in the $600,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs June 12.
Blame, the 3-1 second choice on the morning line, will have no esy task against a proven field of 11 in the 1 1/8-mile Foster. His main challengers include last year’s winner Macho Again, Arson Squad, General Quarters, as well as another emerging star, Battle Plan, who has won his last four races since returning from inury for trainer Todd Pletcher and was pegged as the 5-2 favorite.
Post time for the Foster, which is one of five graded stakes on the Churchill program, is scheduled for 5:29 p.m. EST.
A homebred of Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, Blame was being pointed to the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) last year in hopes of making the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), but that severe abscess on his hind foot sidelined him for nearly eight months. At the time, it was a devastating blow to the connections, but in hindsight, Stall admitted it was probably a blessing for the late foal, who had the first half of 2009 to grow into his body. He has flourished ever since.
“He was a good 2-year-old; we liked him from the start,” said Stall. “He always had a nice turn of foot. The foot abscess was disappointing, but we’re very excited for this year. We feel like he is a Breeders’ Cup (Classic) kind of horse. That’s the plan now. We hope to show that on Saturday. But win, lose, or draw, we’re just hoping he stays on track for the rest of the year.”
Stall said ideally the rest of the summer will include the major races at Saratoga, specifically the Whitney Handicap and Woodward Stakes (both gr. I). And if Blame makes it to the Breeders’ Cup, he will have a nice advantage over many of the other starters. He already won twice over the Churchill main track, including the Clark Handicap (gr. II) last November when defeating older horses, a win that gave him four victories in six starts as a 3-year-old. The bay colt also scored in the Fayette Stakes (gr. II) on Keeneland’s Polytrack in October.
“He’s always acted good on the Polytrack too, so we briefly thought about the Dubai World Cup this year,” Stall admitted. “But we feel like we have a little bit of a home court advantage at Churchill, so we made the Breeders’ Cup our major goal.”
Blame, who is out of the Seeking the Gold mare Liable, returned off a nearly six-month layoff last month at Pimlico to win by 1 1/2 lengths in the William Donald Schaeffer (gr. II) in his season debut. The 1 1/16-mile race was one that Stall thinks will set him up very well for the Foster.
“It wasn’t a major surprise that he won, but you never know off a six-month layoff,” Stall said. “It was nice bit of seasoning for him, but didn’t take too much out of him. The track was deep that day, so I think that should set him up well for this race.”
Without a grade I win under his belt, Stall is a bit hesitant to compare Blame to some of the top older horses in the country right now, but he will admit the colt is the best handicap horse he has trained since starting out nearly 20 years ago.
“Joyeaux Dancer is the best horse I’ve trained, but he was a grass horse. I’ve never had a handicap horse like Blame,” said Stall, a New Orleans native who divides his year between Louisiana and Kentucky. “This is new territory for a lot of people. He has the looks and the pedigree to be very good.”
Blame, never off the board in nine starts with earnings of $676,747, will be ridden by Garret Gomez, who was aboard for the Schaeffer win. They will break from post 11.
Stall admitted his biggest concern in the Foster is Overbrook Farm’s homebred Battle Plan. According to Stall, Battle Plan is a “good horse who is getting better,” and even more worrisome is that he seems to be the “only speed in the race.”
A regally-bred 5-year-old son of Empire Maker—Flanders, by Seeking the Gold, Battle Plan missed nearly all of last season while recovering from a hairline fracture in his cannon bone. He returned after a full 12 months off Jan. 8, romping in a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park. He then rolled to a front-running five-length score in an optional claimer going 1 1/8 miles Feb. 18 over the same track, and again went wire-to-wire in his stakes debut in the March 27 New Orleans Handicap (gr. II) at Fair Grounds.
Javier Castellano guided Battle Plan to victory in the New Orleans Handicap and he will again be aboard for the Foster. They will break from post 2.
West Point Thoroughbreds’ Macho Again has not hit the winner’s circle since taking last year’s Foster by a length, though he was runner-up in both the Whitney and Woodward. The 5-year-old son of Macho Uno was a well-beaten ninth as the favorite in the Clark. He opened his 2010 campaign by finishing seventh in the Alysheba Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill Downs April 30.
Trainer Dallas Stewart will take the blinkers off Macho Again, who will break from post 9 under Robby Albarado. A three-time graded stakes winner, Macho Again has earned more than $1.8 million.
Tom McCarthy’s General Quarters has already raced four times in 2010, finishing second in his first three tries before taking the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (gr. IT) by a neck May 1 in only his second start on grass. Last year’s upset winner of the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), the son of Sky Mesa has earned more than $1 million for McCarthy, who also trains the colt. Alex Solis will be aboard for the first time on General Quarters, who will be attempting to join Lava Man as the only horse to win grade I races on dirt, grass, and a synthetic surface.
Jay Em Ess Stable’s 7-year-old Arson Squad, also a millionaire, comes in sharp as well, having won his last two. The Rick Dutrow Jr. trainee won twice in April, taking the Skip Away (gr. III) at Gulfstream at the start of the month and then conquering the Alysheba (gr. III)—both under current rider Paco Lopez. Fourth in last year’s Foster, Arson Squad is a five-time graded stakes winner.
HRTV will air the Stephen Foster and the other graded stakes on the June 12 Churchill card, including the appearance of Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra in the grade II Fleur de Lis. The horse racing network will also air complete coverage of the June 11 "Downs After Dark" card at the Louisville, Ky. oval.
The Horse Racing Radio Network will broadcast live of the Stephen Foster during a two-hour broadcast will air from 4-6 p.m. ET that will include coverage of the Northern Dancer and Regret Stakes, and taped coverage of the Fleur de Lis. The broadcasts are available thorugh the various HRRN affiliates, and can be heard worldwide with free live streaming provided on the HRRN website. A complete list of affiliates is available on the HRRN site.
$600,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I, Race 10, 5:29 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 1/8 Miles (Dirt) PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. A. U. Miner (KY), F C Torres, 113, C Hanna
2. Battle Plan (KY), J Castellano, 119, T A Pletcher
3. Giant Oak (IL), S Bridgmohan, 115, C M Block
4. Duke of Mischief (FL), E Coa, 116, D Fawkes
5. Arson Squad (PA), P Lopez, 120, R E Dutrow Jr.
6. General Quarters (KY), A O Solis, 120, T R McCarthy
7. Honest Man (KY), J Lezcano, 115, A W Dutrow
8. No Advantage (KY), C H Borel, 117, S S Beattie
9. Macho Again (FL), R Albarado, 116, D Stewart
10. Demarcation (KY), M Mena, 115, P J McGee
11. Blame (KY), G K Gomez, 120, A M Stall Jr.