She came. She conquered.
Bob Baffert stabled Indian Blessing in Saratoga with one race on her agenda. The Grade I Test Stakes, going 7 furlongs for $250,000. The daughter of Indian Charlie went off 1-4 and looked 1-10 with a flawless effort in the 83rd running of the Test. Under John Velazquez, Indian Blessing toyed with five rivals to improve her career record to 7-for-9 and nearly $2 million in earnings. Owned and bred by Hal and Patti Earnhardt, Indian Blessing improved her 2008 mark to 4-for-6 with two seconds. She earned an Eclipse Award last year as top juvenile filly and has returned to her stellar best after two defeats earlier this year made her look vulnerable.
There was nothing in the Test to threaten her invincibility.
Breaking from the outside, she achieved a perfect spot from the outset. Velazquez braced against her withers, holding her off Palanka City and J Z Warrior while they battled through the first quarter in 22.62 seconds and a half in 45.33. Sweet Hope rated in behind the trio while Tequilas Dayjur sat on the rail and Ms. Margaret H. toiled on her own in the six-horse field.
“I got her into the bridle and I rode her like I had the best horse. I had a good tight hold, I don’t want to choke her down, she was comfortable enough. She was strong, but she wasn’t rank. Controllable,” Velazquez said. “I put good pressure on her and she didn’t want to fight me. She wasn’t in a fighting mood. Any time you can get them to take a hold of you but don’t fight you, you’re winning the battle.”
Velazquez waited until the 3/8-pole and then dropped the bomb. It was over in a matter of yards as Indian Blessing rolled to the lead. You know it’s easy, when the jockey looks back before he reaches the lead. Velazquez sneaked a glance rounding into the stretch and saw nothing but fading green barns.
Indian Blessing lowered her already low stride and widened all the way down the lane. Velazquez gave her one quick smack with the whip – more a look disguised as a smack. That was all he had to do as Indian Blessing drew off to win by 7-lengths over Sweet Hope and Ms. Margaret H. Indian Blessing finished 7 furlongs in 1:22.70.
Hal Earnhardt missed Indian Blessing’s victorious debut at Saratoga last summer.
He wasn’t missing this one.
“This is the first time our family has been to Saratoga, so we planned it as a vacation. We came in Wednesday, took my granddaughter to the Great Escape, been to the Carousel, it’s been great at Saratoga,” Earnhardt said. “She’s learned to rate a little bit. Bobby’s worked on her a lot and it’s really helped. The filly is something special and it’s special that we have the family.”
The Earnhardts campaigned Indian Charlie and campaign Indian Blessing’s family.
Her half-brother, Spaniard, finished second earlier on the card.
“It’s good when it’s all in the family,” Earnhardt said. “It’s special being here in Saratoga. We love it. It’s more pressure on us when you’re 1-4, not that you don’t like being that, you like having a champion filly. In another degree you don’t like to be 1-4 It’s so tough, I’ve been 1-4 and done the low crawl out of here, it is horse racing, that’s why we’re here.”
Baffert credited a victory in the 6-furlong Prioress in July for Indian Blessing’s new-found weaponry. Shortened for the first time since breaking her maiden, Indian Blessing broke a step slow and was forced to wait, the first time she had been off the heat in her career.
“The key race was the sprint race, because they outfooted away from her. We had never taken her back, because every race was a big race and you’re afraid to grab her,” Baffert said. “There’s so much pressure every time you run her, she’s bet off the board. When they got away from her, and he got her behind horses, and she handled it. Whoa, we’ve got a new dimension to her. We were hoping she would, but now we know she will.”
Velazquez had watched his buddy, Garrett Gomez, ride Indian Blessing throughout her career. Corner-mates in the New York jocks’ room, Velazquez and Gomez never talked about the filly. But when it came time to upend her in the Acorn, Velazquez knew what to do. Aboard Zaftig, Velazquez never allowed Indian Blessing a break.
“When I beat him in the mile race, he said, ‘You know this horse too well.’ He knew I knew,” Velazquez said. “I kidded him before the race, I said I’m going to chirp at you the whole way, make you run. I didn’t do that, but I was right there the whole time, I wasn’t going to let him get an easy lead. I’ve been watching her for a looong time. If you can be close without using your horse too much, you’ve got a better chance of beating her.”
In the Test, there was no chance of anybody beating Indian Blessing. The fillies in front of her got cooked and the ones behind her couldn’t stoke enough fire to get close. On paper, they didn’t match Indian Blessing’s ability or record. All she needed was a clean trip, no heroics on the front end, no traffic.
“She was going well the whole time, I had a really good post with her. I didn’t want to get in a speed duel, 21, 44, I just wanted to give her a little chance and it worked out. They went 22 and 45 and I was sitting right next to them. At the three eighths pole, I gave her head and said, ‘All right Mama, it’s all yours.’ ”
For Earnhardt, it was rewarding to see his homebred champion back on her game. When you breed, raise and race a filly who wins her first five starts, watching her lose two in a row can burn.
“They were tough, but we got beat by two great horses. Proud Spell, phenomenal. Zaftig, ran one of the biggest numbers all year,” Earnhardt said. “The 3-year-old filly deal this year, Music Note, her, Proud Spell, Zaftig and unfortunate, Eight Belles. Talk about a stellar group, sometimes they say groups don’t have it, this group has it.”
• • •
Hey, John Velazquez, what’s Indian Blessing’s best distance?
“The seven eighths is probably a little easier on her, she doesn’t have to run that hard. Three quarters is a little bit too short because you have to go that much faster. A mile is pushing it, but if she’ll rate going a mile like she’s done the last two times, you’ll have a better chance.”