LOUISVILLE — Trainer Mark Casse came into Saturday's Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap hoping to get an education of sorts.
Casse wanted to find out if all the positive signs he was seeing from Pool Play in the morning were to be believed. More importantly, the Canadian-based conditioner was also hoping to discover if there were more ambitious plans to be made where the son of Silver Deputy was concerned.
"I wanted to learn something today," Casse said. "I wanted to learn do we have to stay on synthetic surfaces, do we go to the turf, or can we maybe dream about the Breeders' Cup (Classic)."
Casse is happy to report he got schooled in the best way possible. His 36-1 shot Pool Play unleashed a brilliant turn of foot in his first try over dirt to defeat Mission Impazible by a neck in the $561,300 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs.
The fact the 6-year-old Pool Play was even in the 11-horse field was due to a leap of faith on the part of Casse and owner Bill Farish.
While every one of the dark bay horse's 27 prior starts had come over a turf or synthetic surface — including a runner-up finish in the Grade II Elkhorn Stakes on the Keeneland turf April 29 — Casse was wildly impressed with the way Pool Play was training at Churchill since shipping in more than a month ago.
"He was working really well and I called Bill and told him we could go the grass route, but it'd be nice to see if he can run on the dirt because there is a little race they run here in the fall for $5 million," Casse said, referencing the Breeders' Cup Classic to be held at Churchill on Nov. 5. "I told him there might be more talented horses in the race but I find it hard to believe there was a horse training better than ours. If anything, I was worried the 11⁄8 miles might be a little short for him."
The only ones who needed to be worried were Pool Play's 10 Stephen Foster rivals.
Casse was stressing a bit, however, when jockey Miguel Mena had Pool Play at the rear of the field on the inside path while pacesetter and 9-2 race favorite Regal Ransom covered the opening half mile in a soft :48.74.
"I thought we had no chance," Casse said.
Pool Play was still sitting last as Mission Impazible, who had rated just off Regal Ransom in second, struck the front coming off the far turn and dug in for the stretch run. With a wall of horses to get around, Mena swung Pool Play out about nine-wide and ran down Mission Impazible inside the final sixteenth to score his sixth career win and first Grade I victory.
Final time for the 11⁄8-mile test was 1:50.52 over a fast track.
"The fractions were pretty soft so I didn't want to get too far back," said Mena, who earned his second career Grade I win. "He handled the track perfectly the whole time and turning for home, I wheeled him out, and he just exploded."
Mission Impazible, winner of the Grade II New Orleans Handicap in March, was 11/4 lengths clear of Apart in third. Giant Oak, the lone Grade I winner in the field going in, could do no better than fifth while Regal Ransom faded to last.
"I saw Pool Play was outside but my horse never saw the other horse when he went by," said Javier Castellano, who was aboard Mission Impazible. "I think (Pool Play) surprised him."
The 11/4-mile Breeders' Cup Classic is the new goal for Pool Play, but where he goes in between is still to be decided.
Part of the reason Casse picked this race is because the tighter Churchill surface usually plays kinder to turf and synthetic horses making the transition to dirt.
Casse doesn't know how well Pool Play would do over a sandier dirt track like Saratoga, but he loves the variety of options that are now at his feet.
"I have no idea (what is next) because we didn't know where we were going from here," Casse laughed. "Ideally we're going to concentrate on one thing and that's the Breeders' Cup so in between, we'll see."
In the day's other graded stakes races, Glen Hill Farm's Banned stamped himself as a force in the turf division when he captured the Grade III, 11⁄16-mile Jefferson Cup by 2 lengths. Banned became the fifth horse to sweep Churchill's pair of 3-year-old turf stakes events, having previously captured the Grade II American Turf on May 6.
Trainer Kenny McPeek dominated the two other stakes races, taking the Grade III Matt Winn Stakes going 11⁄16 miles on the main track with Scotus before saddling Catesby Clay's Bizzy Caroline to a 21/4-length triumph in the Grade III, 11⁄8-mile Regret Stakes on a yielding turf. Bizzy Caroline has now won three straight while Scotus triumphed in his stakes debut.
Churchill also hosted its first race for Arabian horses Saturday as T M Fred Texas drew past Dixies Valentine in the stretch to win the 11/4-mile, Grade I President of the United Arab Emirates Cup by 91/4 lengths.