Will Farish’s Pool Play lure Europe to Churchill?

| June 22, 2011

When William Farish Jr.’s Pool Play came rolling home on Saturday for a 36-1 upset in the 30th running of the $500,000-added Stephen Foster Handicap, more than a few fans were left scratching their heads.

After all, here was a 6-year-old horse that had never competed on dirt in 27 career races and had never been a factor on races at the top level in his previous experience on synthetic courses and grass. But in the Stephen Foster – a race with a field touted by many as the strongest of the year in a race for older horses – he rallied from far back in the stretch and just got up to win the $500,000, Grade I Foster by a neck.

How? How?

How could a horse that had never competed on Mother Nature’s dirt turn in a performance like that at such an advanced racing age?

That’s a natural question that was surely uttered by more than a few bettors that did not have Pool Play atop – or anywhere – on their mutuel tickets.

But any fans who had read the comments of trainer Mark Casse regarding Pool Play coming into the Foster had to at least give the longshot the benefit of the doubt. And European trainers with horses in their care that might fit the profile of Pool Play should pay attention to Casse’s comments with the Breeders’ Cup World Championships set to return to Churchill Downs on Nov. 4 and 5.

Liked distance

While Pool Play had never excelled at the top level for Casse, his trainer was sure about one thing: his horse loved longer distances, and the 1 1/4 miles of the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic was right down his alley.

The distance question hovers over all horses and the answer is usually revealed about the middle of the homestretch at a mile and a quarter. Look back to last year’s Classic, where Blame and Zenyatta were not only the most talented horses, but also best-suited to the distance.

Preakness winner and 3-year-old champion Lookin at Lucky was, in my opinion, not a mile and a quarter horse and was exposed at the distance in that race. Much is made of his troubled trip as the Kentucky Derby favorite earlier in the year, but I don’t believe he would have won the race with a perfect trip. He was not a mile and a quarter horse.

Good in Canada

Casse, a three-time winner of the Sovereign Award that goes to Canada’s top trainer, has a long relationship with Churchill Downs. The Indianapolis native launched his training career at the track and earned a “leading trainer” crown in the 1988 Spring Meet before heading to Canada.

Through that experience, Casse is among the small number of people who are convinced that horses with an affinity for synthetic or grass courses – or a pedigree that strongly points in either direction – will fare better on the one-mile dirt course at Churchill Downs perhaps than any other natural dirt surface in the sport.

Successful trial

So Casse took a swing. With the Breeders’ Cup Classic and its $5 million purse on the schedule for the fall, he brought his distance-loving veteran to Churchill Downs to test his theory. If Pool Play stepped up and ran well on the new surface – and he worked brilliantly over the surface in the weeks leading up to the race – Casse would map out a return trip to Churchill Downs in the fall.

“It’s nice when things work, when you have a plan and it works,” Casse said on the morning after his most important win – yet – at Churchill Downs. “It was a real proud moment for a lot of reasons. 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 believes that clay that is relatively small portion of the materials that make up Churchill Downs Track Superintendent Butch Lehr’s track is the key to making it a course of most horses. On the morning after Pool Play’s win, Casse watched horses on the track and was struck again by how horses get over the natural dirt course much like the synthetic Polytrack course he trains over each day at Toronto’s Woodbine.

Like Woodbine

“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.”

If Casse is right – and regular readers of this column know I have long believed that the Churchill Downs dirt is kind to turf and synthetic horses – his opinion should catch the attention of European owners and trainers who have shied from the notion of bringing horses to Louisville for Breeders’ Cup races on the dirt.

The victory by Animal Kingdom in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands should provide more food for thought. He won the Derby in his first race on dirt after racing on synthetic and grass courses, but carries a pedigree that is turf-oriented.  While his Preakness run was good, he was still beaten by Shackleford, a horse he soundly whipped on Derby Day. We’ll look for evidence through the summer and fall whether Animal Kingdom is truly as adept on dirt as the other surfaces, or if it’s Churchill Downs dirt that he loves.

Signature moments

The European owners fared well in back-to-back synthetic Breeders’ Cups at Santa Anita – with the 1-2 Euro finish by Raven’s Pass and Henrythenavigator in the 2008 Classic being their greatest non-grass Cup moment – but their numbers dropped considerably when the Cup returned to Churchill Downs last year.  And they have fared well on dirt at Churchill Downs, with main track wins by Arazi, Sheikh Albadou and Classic near-upsets by Giant’s Causeway and Swain being signature moments beneath the Twin Spires.

The Europeans had an advantage over the synthetic course at Santa Anita because horses that had raced and trained over traditional dirt through the year fared poorly. No traditional dirt horse hit the board in any of the synthetic races at Santa Anita in 2008.

Not at Churchill

They won’t find that advantage at Churchill Downs, as most dirt horses handle the Louisville track’s dirt course. But what the Europeans will find at Churchill Downs is a dirt course over which their turf course can thrive if given the chance and, if they are thinking about a trip to Louisville and a try on the dirt beneath the Twin Spires, they should listen to Mark Casse and seriously consider that option.

But with Casse aiming Pool Play toward the Classic and its $5 million purse, he has one request of the European forces should they reconsider a Breeders’ Cup invasion of Churchill Downs.

“I hope they stay away for another year,” Casse said.

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