06/19/2011 11:58AM

Foster, Vanity, and Phipps Thoughts

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There was so much hope!

Twirling Candy was lights out winning his return at Hollywood. Friend Or Foe and Rail Trip battled it out in their comebacks at Belmont in the manner of those intent on breaking big – in the case of Rail Trip, it would be breaking big again – in their division. Tizway had everyone chasing him wondering which way he went in the Met Mile. It seemed, after months of mediocrity, the handicap division was finally ready to be the marquee division it is expected to be.

And then Saturday’s Stephen Foster Handicap happened.

In a classic case of one step forward, two steps back, Pool Play’s upset of the Foster as the longest shot in the field of 11 at 36-1 seemed to stop the delicate momentum the handicap had just begun to build up. And it’s hard to say what was more surprising about the Foster, that Pool Play won it, or that Pool Play won it the way he did.

Never before had Pool Play raced on a dirt track, which means much more in his case. Instead of being a lightly raced horse who had not explored his potential and possibilities, Pool Play is a 6-year-old who had already accumulated 27 career starts before Saturday. Pool Play had never won anywhere other than at Woodbine. And his only prior two stakes wins came in the Canadian Grade 3 Durham Cup in October of 2009, and in the listed Valedictory last December.

Now, take that horse, and put him dead last, even last still at the top of the stretch. Put him behind a pace that included fractions of 48.74 and 1:13.37 which, while run on a Churchill Downs main track that was drying out and perhaps a bit tricky, nevertheless seemed totally pedestrian. Nevertheless, Pool Play somehow blew past everyone through the drive to get up in the last couple of jumps.

Whatever Pool Play’s Foster shocker says about him, I think it says more about those he defeated. Runner up Mission Impazible is a useful horse, but he is certainly no superstar. Third place finisher Apart looked like he was going to finish well off the board in upper stretch, only to come again late. Often, when a horse runs a yo yo race like that, it is a sign that the race wasn’t too good. And Giant Oak’s fifth place finish was more evidence that his big win in the Donn last February was purely a function of a tremendous pace set up.

For me, the biggest disappointment in the Foster, beside my longshot stab of Equestio (who proved not much of a longshot, going off at 7-1, and who proved not much of a stab, finishing ninth), was Crown of Thorns. Crown of Thorns shipped in with strong California form, but finished a dull seventh. This was Crown of Thorns’s second career start on dirt, and like his first try on dirt, it turned out to be one of the worst performances of an otherwise fine career. So one could surmise after the Foster that Crown of Thorns is a synthetic track horse who hates dirt, or that the California older male form is overrated, or that it is some combination of the two.

Fortunately, the older mares did more than their part Saturday to help clean up this mess. Almost every top member of this division saw action, with two notable exceptions: Divisional leader Havre de Grace, who ran last Saturday, winning her prep for next month’s Delaware Handicap, and Unrivaled Belle, who was to have run in the Ogden Phipps Handicap at Belmont, but who was injured in the paddock and has been retired. And what we saw Saturday suggests that the older female division has a depth of quality that the handicap division can only wish for right now.

The Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park was a tremendous race, featuring three top 10 older females, and was the vehicle for a compelling performance by Blind Luck. Blind Luck, last year’s champion 3-year-old filly, got off to a slow start this year, finishing a soundly beaten second in her first three starts of 2011. But Blind Luck indicated she was coming around last time out when she won the La Trioenne at Churchill on Kentucky Oaks day over Unrivaled Belle, winner of last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic over – you guessed it – Blind Luck. And Blind Luck took another big step forward in the Vanity.

With a very slow early pace putting her seriously up against it, Blind Luck still rallied from last to impressively outkick everyone. Switch, who was farther back early than she figured to be considering her positional speed, ran on gamely to be a close second, and did more in this outing to dispel doubts about her at nine furlongs than she had previously. St Trinians, the Vanity’s third big gun, just couldn’t kick with the top two late despite having every chance. She finished fourth, yet was beaten only two lengths for it all.

In the Phipps, Awesome Maria dominated, making it 4 for 4 in 2011, and making amends for a surprising close call last time out in the Shuvee. In truth, Awesome Maria didn’t beat anywhere near the field Blind Luck did – runner up Payton d’Oro and third-place finisher Super Espresso are a decided cut below, and fourth place finisher Life At ten is a shell of what she used to be. Still, there is something about Awesome Maria that makes you think she is certainly on Blind Luck's level.