06/07/2010 11:00PM

Blame aiming for the top

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Barbara D. Livingston
Blame has won five of his last six starts for trainer Al Stall Jr.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It will be one year ago Saturday when Blame finished a barely noticed third in a first-level allowance sprint at Churchill Downs.

"We thought the world of him even back then," said Al Stall Jr., who trains Blame for Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, who bred and own the 4-year-old colt in partnership. "Still, it is hard to imagine that he'd be the favorite for the Stephen Foster just a year later."

Blame has covered so much ground in the last year that he deserves to be favored Saturday, when the Grade 1, $600,000 Stephen Foster Handicap is renewed at Churchill. Guam Typhoon won that seven-furlong allowance race on June 12, 2009, with another Stall-trained horse, Map of the World, finishing second. Since then, Blame has won 5 of 6 starts, including the Grade 2 Clark Handicap at Churchill to end his 3-year-old season and the Grade 3 Schaefer Handicap on the Preakness undercard at Pimlico to begin his 4-year-old campaign.

"I thought he ran fine at Pimlico," said Seth Hancock, whose family owns Claiborne. "It was his first race off the bench, and he did everything right. His first start each season has been succeeded by a better race the next time, so I guess we're pretty optimistic about Saturday."

There aren't many older horses still in training in North America with Blame's credentials. Quality Road clearly is the division leader at the moment, but after him, the on-deck spot seems up for grabs.

Stall believes that Battle Plan, who could be the second wagering choice for trainer Todd Pletcher in a highly competitive 29th running of the 1 1/8-mile Foster, is a major threat for that honor. Stall said he "was really impressed" with Battle Plan when the 5-year-old extended his winning streak to four by winning the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds in his last start.

Nonetheless, Stall is a big believer in Blame, who will have Garrett Gomez aboard in a prospective field of 10.

"We feel very comfortable with where we are with him right now," said Stall. "This is exactly how Seth and I set it up last December, and we all know it's rare in this game that a plan stays together the way it has. We gave him some time off over the winter to let him develop physically and mentally. There were no issues, no surgeries, absolutely nothing. I thought he ran great at Pimlico. He's coming up to this race in the 90th percentile, and I'd expect that coming out of it he'll be ready for the rest of his year."

The second half of 2010 is what has Stall particularly enthused.

"We've got all the big East Coast dirt races in mind -- the Whitney, the Woodward, the Jockey Club Gold Cup," he said. "I'm looking forward to taking him back to Saratoga this summer. He really did well there. You'd think every horse in the world would thrive at Saratoga, but I've found in my 15 years of training that that's not the case. But this horse, he loves it there."

This would be an especially suitable year for Blame to emerge as a horse of national stature. Claiborne, the Paris, Ky., farm, is celebrating its 100-year anniversary with a new slogan, "A century of doing the usual unusually well."

Hancock, known for his low-key demeanor and a rigidity that comes from a lifetime in the rugged business of breeding and racing Thoroughbreds, can be hard to impress -- after all, he was just 23 when he put together the then-record $6.08 million syndication of Secretariat in 1973. But he enjoys having a good horse in the barn as much as anyone.

"Whether he can beat horses of the caliber he'll be running against Saturday, we'll have to see," said Hancock. "Then if we go in the Whitney, he's probably going to be running against Quality Road, and that's a tall mountain to climb. But we're going to see what happens with this one and make a plan from there."