LOUISVILLE — Al Stall Jr. is used to things not always going according to the plan. Such is the life when one makes a living conditioning talented yet hot-blooded Thoroughbreds.
No matter how carefully a trainer maps things out, there are often setbacks, whether it be an untimely injury or an unexpected loss that derails grandiose dreams.
"It's like strawberries, they can spoil overnight, as Charlie Whittingham told me one time," Stall said Monday, recalling the wisdom of the late Hall of Fame trainer.
Last December, Stall and Claiborne Farm's Seth Hancock ambitiously mapped out a path they hoped would make their colt Blame one of the best handicap horses in the country by the time the Breeders' Cup World Championships hit Churchill Downs.
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Remarkably, the bay son of Arch has followed that ambitious script almost to perfection.
It was nearly a year ago that Blame gave the first indication of his ability when the late-blooming 3-year-old defeated elders to win the Grade II Clark Handicap in November at Churchill Downs.
On Saturday, Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider's homebred will be back under the Twin Spires trying to finish off his connections' grand scheme when he will be part of what could go down as one of the deepest Breeders' Cup Classic fields.
While undefeated champion and defending Classic winner Zenyatta appears to be the horse to beat in the $5 million Classic, the handsomely built and regally bred Blame is the contender many pundits say could ruin the grand dame's flawless career.
Since winning the 11⁄8-mile Clark last season, Blame has blossomed into everything his team had hoped for — a multiple Grade I winner who has defeated most of his main competition.
"It is very much luck that's gotten us here because it doesn't usually go that way," Stall said. "When we thought he was an elite horse last summer, we had in the back of our minds the Breeders' Cup at the end of his 4-year-old year at Churchill Downs. We put a big "X" on that date.
"I feel like we're every bit as good or even better than those horses. We're ready for them, and we're not going to back down at all."
The product of Claiborne's classic bloodlines and Stall's patient handling, Blame missed the Triple Crown trail last year because of a hoof abscess, but he has rarely had a bad day since.
After opening his 4-year-old campaign with a triumph in the Grade III William Donald Schaefer Stakes at Pimlico on May 15, Blame won the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill in June and ran down multiple Grade I winner Quality Road to take the prestigious Whitney Handicap at Saratoga in August.
The only setback came when he finished second as the heavy favorite to Haynesfield — who was fourth in the Whitney — in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont after travel issues prevented him from getting onto the track until the morning of the race.
Perhaps distracted by the vastness of Belmont and compromised by a tepid pace up front, Blame was beaten by 4 lengths that day. It wasn't the way his people wanted his final prep to go, but it didn't detract from their confidence in him.
"We didn't make a whole lot of excuses but ... he wasn't quite himself that day," said jockey Garrett Gomez, who has been aboard Blame for each of his four starts this year and who guided the colt through a4-furlong move in :494⁄5 Monday morning. "I like to call him a war horse. He gets in the trenches and eyeballs other horses the whole way around. He did what he was supposed to and turned into a really good racehorse. Now we hope he turns into a great one."
While not the stone-cold closer Zenyatta is, Blame figures to be around midpack in the Classic and has the kind of turn of foot that can get him home even if the opening fractions are less than lightening fast.
In 12 lifetime starts, Blame has never been off the board, and in four career outings at Churchill, he has been victorious three times.
There is also the matter of having some positive karma as this season marks the 100th anniversary of Claiborne Farm.
Blame will retire to stud at the famed breeding and racing operation in Bourbon County after the Classic. Considering Claiborne's long-running association with success, they couldn't have asked for a better representative to carry their colors in their milestone year.
"It gives you a world of confidence just to watch him," said Claiborne's Dell Hancock. "It would be good any year, but we're definitely tickled to death and excited. It's going to be a war, that race, but I wouldn't trade places with anybody."