Barn Notes for Indiana Derby Week

By Jennie Rees, Eclipse Award-winning freelance writer


As great as the unbeaten Hall of Fame filly Personal Ensign was on the racetrack, she was as memorable as a broodmare, an extremely rare combination.

Now, six years after Personal Ensign’s death, she could play a role in Saturday’s $500,000 Indiana Derby at Indiana Grand. Seeking Blame, who comes into the 1 1/16-mile, Grade II stakes off a strong maiden victory at Churchill Downs, is a son of Personal Ensign’s daughter Title Seeker.

Personal Ensign thrilled the racing world when, after rebounding from a potentially career-ending hind leg fracture at age 2, she got up on the last stride in the mud to beat Kentucky Derby heroine Winning Colors by a nose in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. It remains one of the Breeders’ Cup’s most memorable races and allowed Personal Ensign to retire 13 for 13.

She was equally influential as a mom and grandma, producing two-time Grade I winner My Flag, who in turn produced the champion filly Storm Flag Flying — marking three generations of Breeders’ Cup winners. Personal Ensign also gave birth to Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Miner’s Mark, Grade I Oaklawn Handicap winner Traditionally and Our Emblem, a useful horse best known as the sire of 2002 Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem.

Personal Ensign’s nine foals to race all proved winners for owner-breeder Ogden Phipps and his family. Title Seeker, by 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos, did not race and instead was sold as a 3-year-old at Keeneland’s November sale for $1.7 million to Charles Fipke, the geologist who helped found Canada’s first diamond mine. Title Seeker already has produced a graded-stakes winner in Seeking the Title.

“She’s done him pretty well,” said Churchill Downs-based Dallas Stewart, who trains Seeking Blame and has had many of his equine relatives for Fipke.

It’s probably a good thing that Seeking Blame is by the Claiborne Farm stallion Blame, the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner over the previously unbeaten mare Zenyatta. That’s because Fipke, who likes to name his horses after both the sire and dam, might have run out of options after breeding so many of his mares to his stallion Perfect Soul.

You need a flow chart to keep it straight. But Title Seeker’s offspring also include Perfect Title, Ensign’s Soul and Soul Title.  Seeking the Title’s babies include Seeking the Soul and Seekingtheperfect (both also by Perfect Soul). Seeking the Soul, also 3, won a Churchill maiden race in his third start and from there ran in the Belmont Stakes, finishing 12th.

If you think those Fipke horses have confusing names because of the repeated use of a few words in various combinations, Stewart had in his barn at the same time the Grade I winners Unbridled Forever and Forever Unbridled. They both are daughters of his 2006 Kentucky Oaks winner Lemons Forever, whom Fipke bought for $2.5 million in 2007. Both were sired by the late Unbridled’s Song.

Making only his third start, Seeking Blame can carry on the family legacy. He was third in his debut May 14 at Churchill to another Indiana Derby contender, The Player, who went on to win a mile allowance race in his next start. Seeking Blame then won a 1 1/16-mile maiden race by 3 3/4 lengths under Brian Hernandez Jr., who is back aboard Saturday.

“He’s been in training a long time, had a bit of a setback this winter,” Stewart said. “But he ran well twice at Churchill. For $500,000, you’re going to get horses that can run. (But) it’s not like there’s a marquee horse in there who looks like he’d be 3-5 and we’re running for second money. The race is up for grabs. It’s $500,000, a graded stakes and we’ve already won at a mile and a sixteenth and he was pretty impressive. We’ve liked this horse all along so we’re going to give him a shot.”


General A Rod possible for dirt or grass stakes

Skychai Racing and Sand Dollar Racing’s General A Rod is looking to run in a dirt stakes Saturday, but it could be either the $100,000 Michael G. Schaefer Memorial at a mile and 70 yards or the $100,000 Warrior Veterans, in hopes that 1 1/16-mile stakes comes off the turf with a forecast for thunderstorms much of the week.

“It looks like he’s not the horse we hoped he be,” Maker said. “But he’s still going to be a nice, useful horse in lower, Grade III stakes and listed stakes.”

General A Rod started out like a top horse, winning two of his first three starts, including the 2014 Gulfstream Park Derby, then finishing second by a head in the Grade II Fountain of Youth and third in the Grade I Florida Derby. He was sold right before the Kentucky Derby to the Skychai and Starlight Racing partnerships, while staying in the barn with Mike Maker. General A Rod was 11th in the Derby, fourth in the Preakness and seventh in the Belmont (though losing by only five lengths) as one of the few horses to complete the entire Triple Crown.

Turned over to Todd Pletcher at age 4, General A Rod won a small stakes at Tampa and a Gulfstream allowance race but failed to hit the board in his four graded-stakes attempts, including the Santa Anita Handicap. Skychai and Sand Dollar bought out Starlight’s share, and General A Rod returned to Maker. In his only start so far for his new/old team, the General won a June 5 allowance race at Churchill Downs.

“Looking back, running in all three Triple Crown races took the starch out of him,” Maker said. “When I had him, he never seemed quite himself after that. It was good to get him back on track with the allowance win.”

Maker also is running Pinson in the Indiana Derby. That son of Majestic Warrior, purchased for $75,000 as a weanling by owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey, was third in The Players’ mile allowance victory and then a good second to Forevamo in his last start. The Indiana Derby will be Pinson’s first stakes.

“Typical Ramsey horse,” Maker said. “Great big, late-maturing horse. Getting better with every out, I think. Forevamo was second in graded stakes, and he beat Pinson by three-quarters of a length, and I think that horse fits in here. He can run either way. When Pinson won at the Fair Grounds, he was very game on the lead, but he can do a lot of different things.”

Pinson won that two-turn maiden race in New Orleans at 39-1 after losing his prior two starts by double-digit margins, including 21 lengths in the slop at Churchill.

“He’d gotten sick and it just took him a long time to get over it,” Maker said.


Romans running Takeittotheedge with Cherry Wine

Trainer Dale Romans does a lot of things instinctively and isn’t adverse to changing his mind late in the game. And so he said Tuesday that he will run Takeittotheedge in the Indiana Derby instead of Belmont’s Easy Goer runner-up Race Me Home, along with Preakness runner-up Cherry Wine as previously announced.

Romans said Luis Saez will ride Cherry Wine, with Miguel Mena on Takeittotheedge, who in his last start was third behind Forevamo and Pinson in a strong Churchill allowance race at the Indiana Derby distance.

Takeittotheedge, a son of Broken Vow owned by Sub-Zero Freezer Company president Jim Bakke, won his first start by 7 3/4 lengths at Gulfstream on March 5 Romans ran him back in the Florida Derby, won by eventual Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, but Takeittotheedge stumbled badly out of the gate.

“He ripped part of his foot off,” Romans said. “It took him a long time to get back to the races. I just think he’s a horse with a lot of talent and worth taking a shot at a good 3-year-old race. He can run.”


The Player flies in final work

The Player, winner of his last two starts to be one of likely favorites for the Indiana Derby, flew five-eighths of a mile in a minute flat Monday at Churchill Downs with retired Hall of Fame jockey Calvin Borel working the horse in a pinch-hit for regular rider Shaun Bridgmohan.

Buff Bradley, the trainer as well as the colt’s co-owner and co-breeder with long-time client Carl Hurst, acknowledged it was faster than he had planned five days before the Indiana Derby.  Still, he anticipated The Player might want to do too much, and so he instructed Borel not to have an extended gallop out.

“It was a little quicker, but we’re almost into the sixth day out because I think the race is about 10 o’clock at night,” Bradley said. “Guess I look at it that way, too. I mean, Calvin said, ‘I never even squeezed on him, and he was begging for it, too.’ I said, ‘Good, I wanted you to tick him off a little bit. That’s why I wanted you to pull him up a little short.’

“I think he’s ready to go for this race. He’s done everything right, we’re ready to go. We’re excited to run in it Just hope we have the same result as I had 12 years ago.”

That was when another horse that Bradley trained, co-owned and bred — Brass Hat — won the Indiana Derby, then held at Hoosier Park. At the time it was the biggest purse Bradley had ever won, coming in the first year the Indiana Derby offered a $500,000 pot. The Indiana Derby launched the gelding to a seven-season career during which he earned $2.17 million, including winning Keeneland’s Grade III Sycamore at age 10.

Now Bradley could become the first owner to win the Indiana Derby twice. Since Brass Hat’s victory at Hoosier, Bradley has won multiple Grade I races, including the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint twice with champion Groupie Doll, another top horse raced by Bradley in partnership with his late father, Fred.


Dream Dance works for Indiana Oaks

Dream Dance, third in what proved to be a deep allowance race when its top two finishers were 1-2 in the Iowa Oaks, had her last major training move Monday at Churchill, cruising a half-mile in 48 4/5 seconds — third-fastest of 32 at the distance. Brian Hernandez Jr. was up for the work and has the mount.

“She worked beautiful,” said Neil Howard, who trains Dream Dance for Stoneway Farm. “She’s been training really, really well. Her last race was a key race, I thought, relative to how the two fillies that beat her ran after that. We decided just to give her a little more time between races, so we’re happy with her.”

Dream Dance was third in last fall’s Grade II Golden Rod and second in this spring’s Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks. After an allowance victory, she finished eighth in the Kentucky Oaks after encountering some trouble at the top of the stretch.

“She’s been a nice filly. All these races are tough, as we know, but she’s doing well. She’s very consistent, very honest. I’m glad she had this extra time, though, because I’m seeing a positive difference in her.”