01/06/2011 4:00PM

2010 Eclipse Awards Blame

Justin N. Lane
Blame narrowly beat Zenyatta in the BC Classic, but was nosed out for Horse of the Year.

It was March in New Orleans, and Al Stall spent part of every morning tinkering with Blame. A jog here, a gallop there; nothing too serious. Stall would look out across the Fair Grounds racetrack, not entirely pleased with the condition of the dirt surface. Here was an exercise in patience.

Four-year-old Blame had knocked around the track and the barn all winter, having come to Fair Grounds late in 2009 after breakthrough Kentucky wins in the Fayette at Keeneland and the Clark at Churchill. Stall had big plans. So did the colt’s owners, Adele Dilschneider and Claiborne Farm. And everyone was on the same page: Take things slowly in the spring, climb the mountain in the fall.

“We plotted all this out since last December, literally every race and just about every workout,” Stall said.

Long-term planning rarely holds together in the fragile world of the Thoroughbred. But Stall uttered those words at his Keeneland barn in October. A couple weeks later, Blame went out and won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a year-long game plan perfectly executed.

Stall and Blame’s owners played the patience game all along with Blame. Bred by Claiborne and Dilschneider, Blame is a foal of 2006 by the Claiborne stallion Arch and out of the mare Liable. Second time out, in October 2008, he won his maiden at Keeneland.

“He’s always been a horse who you could tell had a ton of class,” Stall said.

A foot problem slowed Blame early in 2009, and there would be no Triple Crown for the talented youngster. Blame got rolling over the summer. He made his stakes debut at Saratoga, winning the Curlin, and has been a graded-stakes competitor ever since.

The rough outline formed by Stall and Claiborne principal Seth Hancock had Blame making his 2010 debut in the Alysheba Stakes on April 30 at Churchill, but Stall’s cautious approach before shipping north put Blame slightly behind, so his connections fell back on their second option, the William Donald Schaefer on Preakness weekend at Pimlico. The Schaefer is a Grade 3 race that attracted a modest field of seven. Blame was a 6-5 favorite and expected to triumph. But his performance confirmed what he had suggested the previous autumn, that he would be a force in the 2010 handicap division. Riding the rails under Garrett Gomez, Blame came out in midstretch, niftily split horses with a quick move, and bounded on to victory.

“He ran good in his comeback race, but he didn’t have to kill himself,” Stall said.

That was the idea. Next up would be the June 12 Stephen Foster Handicap, where New Orleans Handicap winner Battle Plan was waiting. Battle Plan had a major pace edge in the Foster, leading through moderate fractions as the 9-5 favorite, but Blame commenced a powerful rally on the far turn and caught Battle Plan in the waning moments.

Battle Plan had injured himself in the Foster, and going into the race was only considered trainer Todd Pletcher’s second-best handicap horse. Quality Road, powerful winner of the Donn Handicap and the Met Mile, was thought to be the real beast. Handicappers made him a 1-2 favorite in the Grade 1 Whitney on Aug. 7 at Saratoga, while Blame barely was better than 7-2. But Blame did to Quality Road what he had done to Battle Plan, running him down despite having to rally into the favorite’s slow pace. It was Blame by a head, and Blame at the top of the older-horse division.

Instead of solidifying that position, Blame, finally favored in a major race, went out and threw everything into question, finishing a distant second to Haynsefield in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Blame’s travel schedule from Kentucky to New York had been messy because of a powerful storm, and Stall, while certainly trying to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup, had been frank in talking about the race as a Breeders’ Cup prep. But had Blame peaked too early? Or was this all part of that long-term plan?

It took 2:02.28 on the evening of Nov. 6 for Blame to answer such questions. Blame ran the race of his life in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, beating the horse of a lifetime, Zenyatta, in the race of the year. A cameraman captured Stall watching a video monitor, leaning with all his might as Blame and Zenyatta hit the wire together, trying to will Blame to victory. That was a memorable image. But months before in New Orleans, the foundation that had made the moment possible had been laid, far outside the camera’s frame.

PAST PERFORMANCES: Blame's 2010 season PPs (PDF)

KEY RACE REPLAY: Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs >>