STEP ONE OF MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, CASSE AIMS FOR BREEDERS’ CUP CLASSIC WITH FOSTER WINNER POOL PLAY – Mark Casse’s decision to run William Farish Jr.’s Pool Play in Saturday’s 30th running of the $500,000-added Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by Abu Dhabi (Grade I) was not a wild stab or a whim, as racing fans across the country discovered when the 6-year-old son of Silver Deputy stormed through the stretch to edge Mission Impazible by a neck at 36-1 odds.
A three-time winner of the Sovereign Award that annually honors Canada’s top trainer, Casse sent Pool Play to the Foster with a specific mission: to determine if the distance-loving horse, after 27 races on synthetic and turf courses, would fare on a dirt course. If he ran as well over the Churchill Downs dirt as Casse hoped, step two would be a bid for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) at the Louisville track on Nov. 5.
Pool Play handled Saturday’s initial test with aplomb when he posted the third-largest upset in the three-decade history of the Stephen Foster. On Sunday, Casse was working up a plan to get him to the next step.
“It’s nice when things work, when you have a plan and it works,” Casse said on the morning after his most important win at Churchill Downs. “I understood him being that big a price. Here’s a horse running against some of the best older horses and they all had proven form on the dirt. Well, here we had a horse who had never ran on it, so could understand.”
Along with watching Pool Play blossom from an unknown factor to Breeders’ Cup Classic contender in the Foster, the Stephen Fsoter upset was special to Casse for personal reasons. The Indianapolis native spent his early years as a trainer beneath the historic Twin Spires, and has a 1988 Spring Meet training title so show for it.
"It was a real proud moment for a lot of reasons,” Casse said. “One is when you do something that’s a little unorthodox, that’s always nice. And Churchill is where I started. Churchill is special and always has been. To win a race like that at Churchill Downs means a lot.”
Casse believed that the Breeders’ Cup Classic’s 1 ¼-mile distance fits Pool Play perfectly, but the horse’s dirt prowess was a question mark. If Pool Play would handle any dirt course, Casse felt it would be the one-mile main track at Churchill Downs. Casse believes the course is extraordinarily kind to horses that run well on turf and synthetic courses. While Pool Play’s home base at Toronto’s Woodbine is a synthetic Polytrack surface, Casse sees difference in Woodbine’s manufactured footing and Mother Nature’s dirt at Churchill.
“I was out there (on the Churchill dirt) this morning watching horses train and you can see they get into the ground only about two inches, at most,” Casse said. “If you walk across Churchill Downs and you walk across Woodbine’s racetrack, that’s how much they penetrate the surface. It’s almost identical.”
It’s Casse’s opinion that the clay that is an important part of the make-up of Churchill Downs’ sandy loam surface is the key ingredient that makes the Louisville surface is comfortable to horses that do their best running on synthetic or turf courses, or possess pedigrees that point toward those surfaces.
Whatever the case, Casse’s plan worked well for Pool Play in the Stephen Foster. Now he’s looking to formulate a plant over the coming weeks that will get his veteran back to Churchill Downs and ready to offer his best effort against an expected international field the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“We’ve been planning to go to Saratoga with a string, so what I think I’ll do is take him to Saratoga and see how he trains over the dirt,” Casse said. “Just because you like the dirt at Churchill Downs doesn’t mean you’re going to like it at Saratoga. We’ll train him there and if he trains all right we’ll think about the Whitney (GI on Aug. 6 at Saratoga). Our number one goal will be the Breeders’ Cup. How we get there is kind of secondary, really. So everything we do from now on will be that kind of plan. I wouldn’t even be shocked if he ran on the grass again.”
The $327,127 winner’s share of the Stephen Foster purse boosted Pool Play’s career earnings to $909,556 with a record of 6-6-5 from 28 starts. His only other graded stakes win came in the 2009 Durham Cup (GIII) on Polytrack at Woodbine. In his previous start, Pool Play finished second on turf in the Grade II Elkhorn at Keeneland, where he was beaten by 1 ¼ lengths by Musketier-GER.
So Pool Play’s victory is clearly the high point of the career of his racing career to date, but all that could change on Nov. 5 when, if all has gone well, Casse’s horse gets a chance to shine again on the Churchill Downs dirt in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“What I’m trying to do is get there with a happy horse in the fall,” Casse said. “He showed what we needed him to show yesterday, and that is that he belongs. I’ve said all the along the mile and a quarter will be right up his alley. So he may go to Toronto and run on the grass, he may run in the Whitney – I’m not sure yet. Obviously you always like to win, but our number one goal is to be the best he can be on Breeders’ Cup Day.”
STEPHEN FOSTER DAY UNDERCARD WINNERS EXIT RACES IN GOOD ORDER – Stephen Foster Day Presented by Abu Dhabi was highlighted by the Grade I Stephen Foster, but also featured four other exciting graded stakes races, including the first Arabian horserace in the history of Churchill Downs. The winners of the three undercard stakes for Thoroughbreds all came out of their respective races in good order and their connections are looking forward to the rest of their 2011 campaigns.
Glen Hill Farm’s Banned captured the Grade III Jefferson Cup Presented by Abu Dhabi to complete the American Turf – Jefferson Cup double and improve his record to 4-0-1 from seven starts with earnings of $299,076. “He came out of the race good and we’re ready to rock and roll,” trainer Tom Proctor said. “We’re going to the Virginia Derby (Grade II at Colonial Downs on July 16).”
The two other graded stakes races for Thoroughbreds were won by horses from the Ken McPeek barn; giving the 48-year-old trainer wins in five consecutive graded stakes races he has entered at Churchill Downs. Peter Callahan’s Scotus notched McPeek’s first graded stakes winner of the afternoon in the Grade III Matt Winn Presented by Emirates Equestrian Federation. A 3-year-old son of Successful Appeal made a successful stakes debut in the Matt Winn and improved his record to 2-1-2 from five starts with earnings of $121,054.
“He (Scotus) is doing fine,” assistant trainer Philip Bauer said. “He ate all his feed and walked well this morning. We aren’t sure where we will go with him from here. There are a lot of different options and, at this time, no decision has been made.”
The other graded stakes winner for McPeek came with Catesby Clay’s Bizzy Caroline in the Grade III Regret Presented by Etihad Airways. The victory, which gave Bizzy Caroline, a 3-year-old daughter of Afleet Alex, her third win in a row and first stakes triumph, improved her record to 3-0-1 from six starts with earnings of $148,497.
“No decision has been made for Bizzy Caroline either,” Bauer said. “She came out of the race well. She shipped back to Keeneland with Sassy’s Dream and she’ll be trained there for her next start.”
Livin the Dream Racing 2009, LLC’s Sassy’s Dream, a 3-year-old daughter of Flower Alley, won the fourth race Saturday for McPeek under Alan Garcia.
MCPEEK’S CHURCHILL STAKES STREAK CONTINUES, BUT DONE FOR SPRING – While Stephen Foster Day Presented by Abu Dhabi was notable for the upset by 36-1 shot Pool Play in the day’s main event; the win by T M Fred Texas in the first race for Arabians in the 137-year history of Churchill Downs and another dazzling run by Glen Hill Farm’s rising 3-year-old turf star Banned, the big day cannot be discussed seriously without the mention of the continuation of trainer Ken McPeek’s remarkable stakes streak.
The Lexington native secured two stakes wins to extend his streak of graded stakes wins at the historic track to five. Numbers four and five in the streak were wins by Peter J. Callahan’s Scotus in the Matt Winn (GIII) for 3-year-olds and Catesby W. Clay’s Bizzy Caroline in the Regret (GIII) for 3-year-old fillies on turf.
Previous winners in the streak were Noble’s Promise in the Aristides (GIII) for older horses at six furlongs, Salty Strike in the Dogwood (GIII) for 3-year-old fillies at a mile, and My Baby Baby in last week’s Early Times Mint Julep (GIII) for older fillies and mares on turf.
“I’m proud of it, but we’re not going to dwell on it,” McPeek by telephone from Lexington when asked about the streak on Sunday. “We’re going to keep going.”
McPeek clearly appreciates the unusual string of good fortune in stakes competition and is quick to credit his team for its work in getting those horses into the winner’s circle in those races. But McPeek also believes it was past time for his stable to enjoy a good run.
"The truth is that we were very due,” McPeek said. “Over the last year or year and a half, we had a rash of seconds and thirds in so many nice races – Breeders’ Cup races and Derby preps. It just seemed like every time we were second, third, second, third. We were hitting, numbers wise, in our normal percentages in-the-money, but we weren’t winning. We were just due, and they came in a flourish.”
After his latest win by Bizzy Caroline, McPeek’s Churchill Downs stakes run appears to have ended until the Oct. 30-Nov. 27 Fall Meet. He has no candidates for the three races that close out the Spring Meet stakes schedule: the $100,000 Bashford Manor (GIII) for 2-year-olds, the $100,000 Debutante (GIII) for 2-year-old fillies and the $175,000 Firecracker (GII) for older horses at a mile on turf.
As special as a string of five consecutive stakes wins with horses hailing from five different divisions of competition is, McPeek takes and extra measure of satisfaction in the fact that all of those winners are pure products of his operation.
“What I’m most proud of is that we developed them all from scratch,” McPeek said. “They all started in our system as yearlings – every one of them. That’s what I do.”
BARN TALK – Jockey Robby Albarado, who has 922 career wins at Churchill Downs, is just three victories away from tying Hall of Famer Don Brumfield for third all-time in wins beneath the Twin Spires. Albarado has six mounts Sunday (Races 4-7, 9-10). …
With two wins on Saturday’s Stephen Foster Day Presented by Abu Dhabi card and 11 wins in the last week, jockey Julien Leparoux, who has won seven riding titles beneath the Twin Spires, is quickly closing the gap between him and leading rider Corey Lanerie. Leparoux will enter Sunday’s 10-race program with 34 victories, three behind Lanerie. …
Nominations for the final two graded stakes races of the 39-day Spring Meet at Churchill Downs closed Saturday. The nominations for the Grade III, $100,000-added Bashford Manor to be run July 2 and the Grade II, $175,000-added Firecracker Handicap to be run July 4 will be announced Sunday. …
Sunday’s 10-race program will feature a Pick 6 carryover of $19,254 and a Super High 5 carryover of $13,407. The Pick 6 will begin with Race 5 at 2:51 p.m. EDT and the Super High 5 will take place on Race 10 at 5:25 p.m. …
WHO’S HOT – The hottest jockeys over the last five racing days (June 11-18) are Julien Leparoux (11-for-22) and Manny Cruz (9-for-34). Ken McPeek (4-for-9) and Tom Amoss (3-for-8) are the hottest trainers over the same period. No owner has won more than one race during the past week.
WORKTAB – Robert Baker and William Mack’s Dublin worked five furlongs in 1:00.20 on a fast main track at Churchill Downs on Sunday morning for trainer D. Wayne Lukas in preparation for his return to competition in the $76,600-added Kelly’s Landing overnight stakes on Friday’s “Downs After Dark” program. Dublin, a 4-year-old son of Afleet Alex who won Saratoga’s Hopeful (GI) at two, has not raced since a fifth-place finish in the 2010 Preakness (GI).
Dublin drew the rail in a strong field of eight for the seven furlong race that also attracted Forego (GI) winner and defending Kelly’s Landing winner Here Comes Ben; Captain Cherokee, the runner-up in the Portero Grande (GII), San Carlos (GII) and Palos Verde GII) at Santa Anita; and Cool Bullet, runner-up to Churchill Downs (GII) winner Aikenite in Keeneland’s Commonwealth (GII).
WEATHER – Sunday: partly sunny with a 30% chance of showers and thunderstorms, 86. Monday: partly sunny and hot with a 20% chance of showers and thunderstorms, 95. Tuesday: mostly sunny and hot with a 30% chance of showers and thunderstorms, 95. Wednesday: mostly cloudy with a 50% chance of showers and thunderstorms, 88. Thursday: partly sunny with a 30% chance of showers and thunderstorms, 84. Friday: partly sunny, 83. Saturday: mostly sunny, 85.