William S Farish Jr’s Pool Play, the longest shot in the field of 11 older horses at 36-1, rallied from the back of the pack to beat Mission Impazible by a neck to win Saturday’s 30th running of the Grade I, $561,300 Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by Abu Dhabi at Churchill Downs.
Much like Animal Kingdom who won Kentucky Derby 137 after racing exclusively on turf and synthetic racing surfaces, Pool Play excelled in his dirt debut, which came in the 6-year-old’s 28th career start. He clocked 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.52 over a surface that was upgraded to “fast” after overnight rain caused the track to be rated “sloppy” for most of the 12-race card.
Pool Play paid $75.20, which was third highest winning payoff in the 30th running of the race. Seek Gold ($185.40) was the largest in 2006, followed by Colonial Colony ($127.20) in ’04.
Locally-based jockey Miguel Mena, who notched the second Grade I win of his career, rode the winner for Canadian-based trainer Mark Casse, who has a string of horses at Churchill Downs with his son and assistant Norman. It was Casse’s fourth Churchill Downs stakes win and first since winning the 1988 WHAS-11 with One That Got Away – the same year he won the Spring Meet title with 29 victories.
Regal Ransom, the mild 9-2 favorite, broke alertly in the competitive cast and led the field through the first three quarters of a mile through fractions of :23.96, :48.74 and 1:13.37 with Worldly, Mission Impazible and Crown of Thorns in close pursuit. Pool Play was unhurried into stride and settled near the tail of field, only to be ahead of Giant Oak, the 9-2 second choice and 122-pound starting high weight. Pool Play commenced his rally with three furlongs to run as Mission Impazible grabbed the lead from a weakening Regal Ransom and went head-and-head with Duke of Mischief at the top of stretch. Pool Play circled nine-wide into the stretch, hit his best stride with a powerful late kick and just got up to nail Mission Impazible in the final strides.
"I was a little concerned early in the race because I felt like the fractions were a little soft,” Casse said. “I was also afraid that Miguel was going to have to go really wide, but he did a great job and only had to swing him out on the final turn. It was a great ride by him and the horse ran great.”
Pool Play, a Canadian-bred son of Silver Deputy who carried 116 pounds, rewarded his backers handsomely with mutuels of $75.20, $29.40 and $14.60. Mission Impazible, ridden by Javier Castellano, returned $8.40 and $5 with Apart under Julien Leparoux another 1 ¼ lengths back in third returning $4.40.
Duke of Mischief was another half-length back in fourth and was followed in order by Giant Oak, Flat Out, Crown of Thorns, Worldly, Equestrio, El Caballo and Regal Ransom.
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. This was the third stakes win of the dark bay horse’s career, which began on July 5, 2008. His only other graded stakes win came in the Grade III Durham Cup at Woodbine in 2009. In his previous start, Pool Play finished second in the Grade II Elkhorn at Keeneland, 1 ¼ lengths behind Musketier-GER.
The Stephen Foster Handicap was one of five stakes races on a 12-race program sponsored by Abu Dhabi. Trainer Ken McPeek won the $138,500 Matt Winn Presented by Emirates Equestrian Federation (Grade III) with Scotus and the $138,135 Regret Presented by Ethiad Airways (GIII) with Bizzy Caroline. The 48-year-old conditioner has won the last five Churchill Downs graded stakes races that he’s entered. This month, he also won the Dogwood with Salty Strike, Aristides with Noble’s Promise and the Early Times Mint Julep Handicap with My Baby Baby – all Grade III events.
Also, Banned became the fifth horse in track history to complete the American Turf-Jefferson Cup double with a two-length triumph in the Grade III, $106,215 Jefferson Cup Presented by Abu Dhabi. The stakes parade began with T M Fred Texas becoming the first winner of an Arabian race at the world-famous home of the Kentucky Derby with a 9 ¼-length score in the Grade I, $52,500 President of the United Arab Emirates Cup.
Racing continues Sunday with a 10-race Father’s Day program that includes a Pick 6 carryover of $19,254 and a Super High 5 carryover of $13,407. The Pick 6 begins with Race 5 (post time 2:51 p.m. EDT) and the Super High 5 will take place during Race 10 (5:25 p.m.). First post is at 12:45 p.m.
STEPHEN FOSTER HANDICAP QUOTES
Mark Casse, trainer of Pool Play (winner): “I was a little concerned early in the race because I felt like the fractions were a little soft. I was also afraid that Miguel (Mena) was going to have to go really wide, but he did a great job and only had to swing him out on the final turn. It was a great ride by him and the horse ran great.”
On first race over dirt surface: “It all started when he was training at Palm Meadows over the dirt surface there and Norman (Casse) would call me and say, ‘Dad, this horse loves the dirt!’ We didn’t get to run him on the dirt down there (Gulfstream Park), but then we brought him here and started thinking about it again. He was working really well and I called (owner) Bill (Farish Jr.) and told him that we could go the grass route, but it’d be nice to see if he can run over the dirt because there is a little race they’ll run here in the fall for $5 million (Breeders’ Cup Classic).”
Where to go from here: “I’ll talk it over with Bill and we’ll discuss our options. I am not sure that he will like every dirt surface so we’ll have to talk it over. He is actually over at Royal Ascot right now and it’s a shame he isn’t here. I called him right after the race to tell him we won and he said, ‘You’re kidding!’”
Miguel Mena, jockey of Pool Play (winner): “The fractions were pretty soft so I didn’t want to get him too far back. I tried to save some ground with him and not go too wide. He was handling the track perfectly the whole time and turning for home I wheeled him out and he just exploded.
“This is probably the biggest win of my career. It is my second Grade I win (note: he previously won 2010 Grade I Test at Saratoga aboard Champagne d’Oro), but this time is more special because it’s at my home track, Churchill Downs. Louisville is my home and I’m very happy to win such a big race here.
“I am going to ride at Saratoga this summer and hopefully a win like this will help my business up there and get me some good horses.”
Todd Pletcher, trainer of Mission Impazible (runner-up): “It was a tough loss but a big effort.”
He had run poorly as the favorite in his previous start here in the Alysheba. Did you find any excuse for that effort and what convinced you to come back and try again in the Stephen Foster? “The horse has always trained pretty well at Churchill and we were kind of perplexed by his race. On that day the track was maybe a little dry and cuppy and he didn’t seem to love it, but he’s been training well and we’re looking for that Grade I with him, so we thought we’d give it another shot. We thought it would help if we got some rain leading into the race, then it was upgraded to fast (before the race). But it had some moisture in it, which I think helped him.”
Did you think you had it, or did you see Pool Play coming on the outside? “I knew it was going to be close. I thought we had a big shot and it was going to be close and that he would see that horse in time to kind of rally again. He got a good trip from the outside post and definitely ran his race.”
Where does Mission Impazible go now in this wide-open division? “I think we’ll probably take a look at the Whitney (at Saratoga) next and see how he comes out of it. We’ll take a look at that and go from there.”
Javier Castellano, jockey of Mission Impazible (runner-up): “He ran huge. It was a big race and a great performance. I’m so happy with the way he did it today. Unfortunately we lost the race by a bob, but I give all the credit to my horse. He’s a very nice horse and the way he traveled today made me so happy. He enjoyed when he got to the lead – he was just galloping. And when I asked him he took off. I thought I had it. I saw the horse (Pool Play) way outside, my horse never saw the other horse when he went by. I think he (Pool Play) surprised him. He’s a great horse and I think he belongs with this group. I think we can have a lot of fun with him.”
Al Stall Jr., trainer of Apart (third): “He’s shown us time and time again that he’s spotty, and that’s exactly what happened. Julien (Leparoux) said down the backside he wouldn’t trade places with anybody and it was great – he was as confident as he could be. Then Duke of Mischief came zooming on his outside and Julien said he just waited a little bit. He said maybe if he’d gone on and made him do it, he would have gone on. It looked like he was going to run in the middle of the pack, and he got beat a length, or a length and a quarter – whatever it was. He’s just done that to us. That’s why we always think maybe, maybe he’s going to turn the corner on us. There’s definitely something else there. There’s no question. He’s not cheating – he’s really just not there yet. Like I said, I’m thinking he’s ‘Deadsville’ and next thing he’s coming right back at ‘em.”
Julien Leparoux, jockey of Apart (third): “He ran great. It was the first time I had ridden him, so I didn’t know him that much. I thought I had so much horse, I could not wait to go. But when I asked him the other one (Duke of Mischief) came around me and kind of took my spot, and by the time he got going it was too late. I think if I would have asked him a little earlier he would have won it. I know him now, so next time he’ll be tough.”
David Fawkes, trainer of Duke of Mischief (fourth): “He ran his butt off all the way to the wire, he just finally got outrun a little bit. I’ve got no complaints. I really can’t complain. I’d love to win, but I got outrun.”
Joe Bravo, jockey of Duke of Mischief (fourth): “He ran great and he got everybody excited.”
Chris Block, trainer of Giant Oak (fifth): “He just flattened out. I don’t know. I’ll have to scope him and see if there’s an excuse.”
Shaun Bridgmohan, jockey of Giant Oak (fifth): “He was on the bridle early on. The winner was behind me and I thought he was in comfortable position, but I got spun a little wide around the second turn – but he was running. In the last part he kind of leveled out. He didn’t quite follow through with the run that he’s always given me. I had a good set-up for him, because obviously the winner came from behind me.”