Blame: Time to Forgive But Not Forget

I would like to prepare all Zenyatta fans for the possibility that a son of Blame could win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) this year. Not only that, he (Nadal) could defeat a horse trained by John Shirreffs (Honor A.P.).

My request to all impassioned Zenyatta fans is this: Go to YouTube and watch the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) in its entirety. I know you have sworn never to watch that race again, that it makes you ill and causes severe depression. But after 10 years it is time to be strong and test your willpower. Fight your urge to erase that race from the annals of history and from the deepest recesses of your mind. I admit it is tough to see this great mare run arguably the best race of her life and get beat in a heartbreaking photo. But after an entire decade it is time to give Blame his due.

I will tell you why. It was not Blame that beat Zenyatta under darkening skies on that fateful November night. Remember the closing line from King Kong: “It was beauty killed the beast.” Well, just think of the 2010 Classic this way: “It was history defeated Zenyatta.” Blame was merely the instrument, just as those funny-looking little planes were when they caused poor Kong to fall to his death.

Once again, I bring this up because it is a son of Blame that has scaled the latest NTRA 3-year-old poll and displaced Tiz the Law as the No. 1 sophomore in the country. Sorry, Zenyatta fans, but you are going to have to live with the thought of a son of Blame winning this year’s Run for the Roses. It could happen, so I just want you to be prepared for the opening of old wounds when Nadal parades into the Churchill Downs winner’s circle. And God forbid if he should defeat Honor A.P., trained by John Shirreffs.

So, as a public service I am going to relive Blame’s thrilling victory and Zenyatta’s heartbreaking defeat and show what forces stood between victory and an undefeated career for America’s Amazonian sweetheart. I know it is tough, but try to read on with an open mind.

In arguably Zenyatta’s greatest performance, the great mare’s gallant quest for a 20-for-20 record fell a head short, as she was defeated not only by a magnificent horse in Blame but in many ways by the ghosts of Arthur B. Hancock and his son Arthur B. “Bull” Hancock Jr. on the 100th anniversary of their once-dominant breeding empire, Claiborne Farm, which for many years epitomized the rich and colorful tradition of Kentucky’s Bluegrass.

It was Claiborne Farm that imported two European horses named Nasrullah and Princequillo, who would change the face of American breeding and serve as the foundation for many of its future stars. They also imported Sir Gallahad from France, who went on to sire three Kentucky Derby winners, including Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox, and lead all broodmare sires a record 12 times.

It was Claiborne Farm who stood the great stallion Bold Ruler, who was the leading sire in the country eight times between 1963 and 1973 and who sired the legendary Secretariat and was the great-grandsire of the undefeated Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew.

Of course it was Claiborne Farm who stood Secretariat, and it was at Claiborne Farm that Ruffian was born and raised. The other names associated with Claiborne Farm over the years read like a Who’s Who of great racehorses and sires.

Claiborne has continued to represent the history of racing and breeding in the United States through the generations from A.B. Hancock to his son A.B. Jr., to his son Seth to his son Walker.

That is why on the farm’s 100th anniversary, Claiborne president Seth Hancock stood on the racetrack motionless and speechless following the victory of the farm’s homebred Blame over Zenyatta, oblivious to the almost-eerie hush that had engulfed Churchill Downs and the ensuing rousing ovation for Zenyatta upon her return.

Hancock could only come up with one word to express his emotions: “Indescribable. Indescribable.” Even then, the quaver in his voice made that one word difficult to get out, as he stared off in the distance, as if transfixed by the storied chapter he and his racing partner Adele Dilschneider, trainer Al Stall Jr., and, of course, Blame had just added to the Claiborne legacy.

“Just like the Derby gods, it’s almost like it was meant to be,” said Hancock, a man of few words.

As for Zenyatta, Henry Ward Beecher wrote, “It is defeat that turns bone to flint; it is defeat that turns gristle to muscle; it is defeat that makes men invincible.”

And apparently women. For Zenyatta, her defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic will be remembered as an affirmation of her greatness, a performance not dimmed in the slightest. As mentioned earlier, this was in one person’s opinion her finest, most courageous performance. In victory after victory she captured the heart. In her lone defeat she captured the soul.

Although she will not retire undefeated, Zenyatta proved in the end that perfection is not always measured in numbers.

But this is about Blame and the forces that guided him to a gutsy victory over a female battering ram idolized throughout the country

The script for the 2010 Classic had begun back on Aug. 7 when Blame ran down his biggest competitor in the older horse division, Quality Road, to win the Whitney Handicap (gr. I) at Saratoga the same day Zenyatta captured her third straight Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (gr. I) at Del Mar. It was apparent then that both horses were on a collision course to determine Horse of the Year in the Classic.

For 10 days leading up to the Breeders’ Cup, Zenyatta’s arrival in Louisville was a major topic of conversation. But until then, the big horse at Churchill Downs was Blame, who was on the track at 6 a.m. every morning like clockwork. If ever there was a horse with a home court advantage it was the son of Arch, out of Liable, by Seeking the Gold, who had won three of his four starts at Churchill, including the Stephen Foster (gr. I) and Clark (gr. II) handicaps.

If the racing gods that Hancock alluded to had an agenda other than a Zenyatta victory, it would be to celebrate the anniversary of Claiborne at Kentucky’s most historic equine site in the year of the movie “Secretariat,” who stood at stud at Claiborne until his premature death in 1989. And there was no more appropriate horse to serve as the catalyst for that celebration than Blame, who had five generations of Claiborne blood coursing through his veins.

In an era when some stallions are bred up to 200 to 300 times a year, some shuttling back and forth between the Northern and Southern hemispheres, Seth Hancock refused to bend that far, feeling it would compromise the integrity of Claiborne Farm, which has been operating the old-fashioned way under three generations of the Hancock family. As a result, the farm that once housed the greatest stallions in the world no longer was the force it was, with the big-name stallion prospects going elsewhere.

But Hancock knew Blame could be the future stallion to help Claiborne return to prominence, enticing breeders who prefer quality over quantity and the long-term welfare of the horse.

When Zenyatta arrived at Churchill Downs four days before the Breeders’ Cup, Blame had already been stabled there for more than a week, having moved over from his home base at nearby Keeneland.

On Nov. 1, the day before Zenyatta was scheduled to arrive from California, Blame had his final work for the Classic, breezing a half-mile with jockey Garrett Gomez aboard.

Attending the 6 a.m. work was Adele Dilschneider, who has played such a major role in keeping quality blood at Claiborne.

Her most significant contribution was elbowing Hancock in the ribs at the 1996 Keeneland July yearling sale in an attempt to get him to up his bid to $710,000 for a yearling by Kris S., out of the Danzig mare Aurora, later to be named Arch. Dilschneider’s grandfather was the prominent Thoroughbred owner John M. Olin, who won the 100th Kentucky Derby with Cannonade.

“It was Adele who stepped in and perpetuated all this, partnering with Seth,” said Al Stall. “She said this is Blame’s final work and she wants to be here for it.”

“Who can sleep?” Dilschneider said. “I’m still pinching myself. I’ve been involved with the Hancock family for years, and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Seth. How many family-owned and -operated farms are there left? That’s the beauty of this. You can’t let it slip away. And they won’t. With Claiborne, the horse always comes first.”

As for her elbow into Hancock’s ribs, she said, “It worked. That was our first big one together, and it has led to this moment.”

Standing nearby was Seth’s sister Dell, who added, “A win would be so huge in our 100th year and Adele’s 20th year with us. To have a horse of this caliber at any time is huge, but what an exclamation to a milestone, especially from a family that has been in the Claiborne broodmare band for so many generations.”

What made the entire experience even more special was having a horse like Blame, who has endeared himself to everyone who has ever worked with him.

“He was always such a lovely horse to be around,” said Jane Dunne, who broke the colt. “You wish they were all like him. When I was at the yearling sale this year with Adele, I took her to see Blame, and here is this little lady standing right next to this big stud horse, hugging him and feeding him carrots and peppermints.

“Claiborne is so deserving to have a horse like this. They’ve never been swayed by money. It’s all about the horse. They’ve been willing to take some chances with stallions to try to get some outcrosses and help improve the breed. Some of them have bombed, but it takes a lot of guts to do that.”

That’s what made this race so important, and what prompted Hancock to say to Stall several days before the Classic, “I’ve won the Kentucky Derby, but this is the biggest race of my life.”

It was also the biggest race of Stall’s career. He had been recommended for the training job by his friend and longtime Claiborne trainer Frank Brothers. Getting pumped for the race was assistant trainer and exercise rider Randi Melton. As Blame returned to the barn following his half-mile work, Melton said, “He shines even in the dark.”

I recall visiting Blame earlier that year in Saratoga and how attached my daughter Mandy became to him as he stood there with ears pricked and let her pet him for as long as she wanted. His finely chiseled head and bright soulful eyes made for a stunning portrait of an endearing horse you loved to be around. I also recall Blame leaning his head over the webbing to allow Stall’s little daughter to reach up and pet him.

The only thing Blame’s connections had to come to terms with was the colt’s uninspired second-place finish in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), which ended his five-race winning streak. Following the race, Stall stood outside the test barn and said, “Maybe this was a blessing in disguise. The winner (Haynesfield) is a Belmont freak. We’re fine; he’s not going to run any negative (Sheets) number, so we’ll be good and fresh. We’ll get him back home and gear him up for the big one.”

Gomez said the colt wasn’t himself that day after having his flight delayed and arriving the day before the race. He was confident the real Blame would show up in the Classic.

“Zenyatta is a super horse,” he said. “What she’s done has been phenomenal. She’s great for the sport, but I’d like to send her to her first loss on Saturday. I’ll have the ’ol war horse down in there somewhere, and he can wear them all down with his :12-second eighths. One thing about him, he just keeps coming and coming.”

As Stall said, “He’s a quiet killer.”

Shortly after his workout, Blame was led in the dark to the Equine Hydrotherapy Spa several yards from Stall's barn, where he stood for about 15 minutes, as a bubbling mixture of 32-degree water, dissolved salts, and oxygen massaged the ankles, shins, and knees that would soon have to propel him in his quest to take down the mighty Zenyatta.

The 2010 Classic attracted a deep, talented field that consisted of seven grade 1 winners and three grade 2 winners.

Two days before the Classic, Gomez was involved in a nasty spill and was in a great deal of pain on race day, having to keep his shoulder in ice for two hours.

The morning of the race Blame stood in his stall, his head over the webbing and his eyes half-closed.

“He knows what’s going on,” Melton said. “He’s so intelligent; he knows he’s running today. When he was coming off the track this morning, he was all coiled up. Walking home, he’s usually loose and languid behind, but today he was hitting the ground like one of those Transformers. It was unreal; he had a totally different step to him. Al’s training to get him here has been a masterpiece. It’s a Picasso the way he trained this horse.”

Zenyatta was sent off as the even-money favorite, with Lookin At Lucky second choice at 9-2 and Blame at 5-1.

The cheers actually started well before the Classic, as Zenyatta performed her patented dance step in front of the emotion-packed grandstand on her way to the paddock. The cheers grew louder when she stepped foot on the track for the post parade.

But a hush came over the crowd when Zenyatta was squeezed back at the start and quickly dropped far off the pace. The track had been termed loose and cuppy in places by trainers and jockeys, and this was Zenyatta' first time over that kind of surface. There was no way she could spot 11 of the best males in the country that much ground. Despite the presence of several stone closers who normally come from far back, Zenyatta still was some six or seven lengths behind the next-to-last horse going by the finish line the first time.

Zenyatta looked to be in big trouble, as she still trailed by 15 lengths in last going into the far turn. Lookin At Lucky made a big move to reach contention at the quarter pole, as Blame began to close in. Zenyatta began picking off horses along the inside but had to steady slightly to avoid a backing-up Quality Road.

Smith angled her out into the clear, hitting her several times left-handed, which caused her to drift out. He switched to a right-handed whip and she began to gobble up ground with that enormous stride. Blame had stormed past Lookin At Lucky on the inside, about four off the rail, and the battle was on. Zenyatta was relentless, coming home her final quarter over the deep, loose surface in :23 4/5. It looked as if she was about to pull off another heart-stopping victory in the final strides, but Blame dug in gamely and just held her off.

Returning to the winner’s circle, Gomez tried to encourage the crowd to pay tribute to the winner, but his pleas for the most part fell silent, as most everyone was pretty much deflated by then.

Shirreffs seemed deflated as well, as he watched the replay of the finish on the infield screen. “Oh, man” was all he could say at first, shaking his head in disbelief. “I am just so proud of her. She ran her heart out. Congratulations to Blame.”

Mike Smith took it a lot worse and was in tears after the race. “If I have to blame anybody, it would be me,” he said. “I feel like I let her down by giving her too much to do. This hurts more than I can explain, because it was my fault. She should have won, and it hurts. She broke sluggishly and got squeezed back, and wasn’t used to the dirt kicking her in the face. I believe she ranks up there with the greatest of all time. To come up a nose short is just…it’s too hard. It’s hard.”

For Blame’s connections a whole year of planning for this one moment came to fruition.

“It’s just an unbelievable feeling,” Hancock said. “We made a game plan a year ago to point for this, and usually when you make plans like that in the horse business, they never work out. You don’t even make the race. But the closer we got to the race, we realized we were going to make it and knew who we were going to be running against. We were filled with anticipation of what might be. And then to see it come true, it’s a feeling I can’t describe.

“I’m proud to win the race, but I take no pride in beating Zenyatta. She is awesome, and she’s been great for racing. Her connections are wonderful people, and I feel bad for them. But we owe it to ourselves and to the racing public to send our horse out there and try to give him the best chance we can. I’m sorry that we had to beat her because she is something special. But we had to give it all we had.”

A short distance away Adele Dilschneider was draped in the victory blanket. “I love my new shawl,” she said. “I’m still having trouble believing it. It’s going to take a while for it to sink in.”

Dell Hancock put Zenyatta’s defeat in perspective. “I think sometimes horses are more valiant in defeat than when they win,” she said. “She lost nothing in defeat. The Mosses and John Shirreffs have been great for the game. She ran her guts out.”

As for Blame, she said, “He’s going in his granddaddy Seeking the Gold’s stall.”

Seth Hancock then hugged Dilschneider goodbye and said, “See you at the farm. We’ll have to do this again sometime.”

The following morning over at Stall’s barn, Blame had cleaned out his feed tub and as usual had his head over the webbing watching all the activity. Stall and his wife, Nicole, were getting ready to leave in a few hours for New Orleans for the winter. Melton was preparing to leave for Florida to take care of her grandmother, while continuing to exercise horses. And Blame was just days away from heading to his new life at Claiborne Farm.

Now, on the 10th anniversary of his biggest triumph, he has one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby. After a decade, the name Blame should no longer send chills up the spines of Zenyatta fans or cause their blood pressure to rise.

He had 100 years of history riding on his back that night and it guided him to a victory  that should be embraced, for it demonstrated the courage of the horse and brought to the present cloudless images of a bygone era. And, yes, it solidified the true greatness of a very special mare.

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