ELMONT, N.Y. -- The champ still has some fight left in her.
Indian Blessing, a two-time Eclipse Award champion who had gone winless in three starts this year, called on all her class and courage to outfinish the upstart 3-year-old Sara Louise and win Saturday's Grade 2, $156,500 Gallant Bloom Handicap by half a head at Belmont Park. It was 3 1/2 lengths back to longshot Sky Haven in third.
In winning the Gallant Bloom for the second straight year, Indian Blessing ($4.80) ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15.29, the fastest of 14 runnings of this race at this distance. There were two prior runnings at six furlongs. It was the 10th win from 16 lifetime starts for Indian Blessing and the first-place purse of $93,900 pushed her career earnings to $2,999,420 for owners/breeders Hal and Patti Earnhardt.
The Gallant Bloom was a Win and You re In race, meaning Indian Blessing earned an automatic berth into the Breeders Cup Filly and Mare Sprint on Nov. 6 at Santa Anita. Indian Blessing finished second to Ventura in that race last year when the race was also at Santa Anita.
The connections of Indian Blessing, including trainer Bob Baffert, were confident that Indian Blessing would return to her championship form on Saturday. She needed to in order to win.
Under John Velazquez, Indian Blessing broke slowly, but quickly rushed up to race just behind Any Limit and just inside of Thunders Dove through an opening quarter of 22.29 seconds. Edgar Prado, aboard Sara Louise, raced outside of Indian Blessing and tried to keep her pinned in along the rail.
But at the three-eighths pole an opening developed between Any Limit and Thunders Dove, and Velazquez shot Indian Blessing on through. That forced Prado to have to go four wide on Sara Louise in order to keep up.
"When he got through it was time to go, I couldn't wait any longer," Prado said.
Indian Blessing, who was spotting Sara Louise six pounds, came into the stretch in front, but Sara Louise, despite drifting out slightly in the stretch, kept on charging at Indian Blessing. Sara Louise confronted Indian Blessing at the sixteenth pole and the two fillies dueled to the wire with Indian Blessing winning a head bob.
"Wow, my God!" Velazquez said. "She put everything she could into that. The other one kept coming at her and she just kept fighting on. It was a gutsy, gutsy effort."
"Can't spell fold," Baffert said by phone. "She had every reason to fold today and she didn't fold. She s an awesome filly. She looks like she's just starting to come around now. What a gut-wrencher. That's why you guys voted her champion last year."
Baffert said he would wait until Indian Blessing returned to California and watched her train before deciding whether to run in the Breeders Cup. Baffert said he does not think Indian Blessing handles Santa Anita s Pro-Ride surface as well as she does dirt.
Sara Louise, the last filly to beat Rachel Alexandra, was coming off a career-best effort in the Grade 3 Victory Ride Stakes at Saratoga last month, but she certainly didn't regress on Saturday.
"I didn't think she'd get beat today, she was training that well," said Rick Mettee, the assistant trainer for Godolphin Stable. "The other filly showed her class."