2015 Stephen Foster Handicap Day Stakes Preview

The Triple Crown season is over. Now what?

Horse racing moves from its spring season to its summer season, although for the first time since the disco era there’s a Triple Crown winner to celebrate.  In fact, AMERICAN PHAROAH, who took down the June 6 Belmont Stakes to become that Triple Crown winner, will be publicly paraded on June 13th at Churchill Downs, set for the approximate time of 8:10 PM ET.  AMERICAN PHAROAH’s appearance is mixed with the live racing that day headlined by two races: the G1 Stephen Foster Handicap and the G2 Fleur de Lis Handicap.  The Stephen Foster and Fleur de lis serve as steppingstones to bigger prizes, specifically, the Breeders’ Cup program in October.  While the Foster winner gets a free spot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic gate and the Fleur de lis winner earns one in the Distaff, these races serve the dual purpose of being high-profile summertime goals while also providing clues to the Breeders’ Cup program in the fall.  Perhaps the biggest clue is the one not racing: for AMERICAN PHAROAH, the Breeders’ Cup would – should be attend – culminate his excellent sophomore year.

Beyond the Foster and Fleur de Lis, three-year-olds balance out the remaining part of the stakes action.  They take to Churchill with a pair of Grade Threes: the Matt Winn for males on the dirt and the Regret for fillies on the lawn.

It should be noted that this program is a “Downs After Dark” program, meaning the races will be contested at night rather than the typical daytime racing.  Nonetheless, NBC Sports Network will present a two-hour live televised program headed by the Foster and the Fleur de Lis from 8:00 pm ET to 10:00 PM ET.  That same time frame, 8-10 PM ET, features radio coverage from HRRN, the Horse Racing Radio Network.

Authorship of each race in this piece is denoted by initials at the end of the race, PM for Paul Mazur and NN for Nicolle Neulist.  All races in this preview are slated for Saturday June 13.

Edited on June 13 to reflect the scratch of ALABASTER from the Matt Winn.

Churchill Downs — Race 6 — G3 Regret  Stakes — One and one eighth miles on turf — post time 8:32 pm ET

Regret may serve as the answer to a trivia question (Who was the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby?), but her race campaign put her squarely among stars.  Her three-year-old season saw her win the Kentucky Derby, yet she swept – against males no less – all three juvenile stakes at Saratoga: the Saratoga Special, the Sanford, and the Hopeful.  After the Derby she would win the the Saranac, place in the Brooklyn Handicap at four and win the Gazelle at five.  (Grades are not mentioned, as race grading didn’t happen until the 1970s.) In 1970, this race was run for the first time, but would settle into its current stature on the sod in the late 1980s. Grading came in the 1990s.  A distance stretchout to nine furlongs occurred in 2003.  Two horses with stakes in their honor stand as the most notable winners of this race: Mrs. Revere (1984) and Keertana (2009).  For this discussion of the Grade Three $100,000 Regret Stakes, selections are given “turf only”.

On grass, DON’T LEAVE ME has yet to have a clean break.  But DON’T LEAVE ME has yet to set foot on grass at three, as her grass starts were at two at Woodbine.  Perhaps DON’T LEAVE ME is a more mature horse than what she was at two.  Moreover, those starts at Woodbine were around one turn, and maybe two turns is helpful for DON’T LEAVE ME.  In fact, her best starts have come while at three and around two turns.  A daughter of Lemon Drop Kid, the nine furlong distance of the Regret should be helpful to her.  In fact, it helped her before to win the G3 Bourbonette at nine furlongs. DON’T LEAVE ME projects to use her rally – like she did when annexing the G3 Bourbonette – to chase down targets like LADY ZUZU.  DON’T LEAVE ME ships south from Woodbine, bringing her 20% second off the layoff trainer with her.  PRADO’S SWEET RIDE was compromised last time by the no passing zones deployed on the Indiana Grass at the end of May.  After her first start at two on the Arlington grass, she went through conditions in the last stages of Arlington and Keeneland Fall before she came back first off the layoff this spring to knock down the N2X allowance (the race had an optional claiming tag) condition at Tampa Bay.  PRADO’S SWEET RIDE hails from competent sod trainer Chris Block, best known for his work in the Chicago area but a runner who’s shipped to Kentucky and taken down prizes before at square tote prices.  PRADO’S SWEET RIDE should loom a factor should she run back to the Tampa Bay start. This year’s iteration of the G3 Regret projects a two-speed race on paper, and LADY ZUZU appears the speed of the speed.  She cracked the podium in her last two grass starts, the G3 Edgewood and the Hilltop Stakes.  Both of her starts came on the undercards of the Derby and Preakness, respectively.  Now she appears on the Foster undercard.  She’s chased good fillies in her starts this spring: Miss Temple City is Ascot-bound, Feathered hit the board in the G1 American Oaks, Quality Rocks hit the board in the Penn Oaks.  If left alone on the front end she could prove tricky to run down, but CRISTINA’S JOURNEY could be fast enough early to scramble her chances.


#1 DON’T LEAVE ME (3/1)


#3 LADY ZUZU (7/2)

Longshot: Let’s try a maiden winner in this G3 stakes.  #2 RETURN TO GRACE (7/2) hails from central casting, but her maiden win came at nine furlongs on the grass -the same surface and distance as the Regret.  After a meh debut at Gulfstream, she came back at Keeneland and was bested by a next out winner in career start two, then won at nine panels last out.  A Corey Lanerie/Mark Casse jockey/trainer production, this team has the win on RETURN ON GRACE and two more finishes in the four outs (including RETURN TO GRACE) they’ve worked together.  RETURN TO GRACE could project to get a nice trip on the inside tracking the speed of LADY ZUZU or CRISTINA’s JOURNEY.  But if neither go for the lead, she could get the lead no one wants and be the leader no one wants to chase down.  In a race with a dubious morning line, she could be the one that floats up on the tote.  –PM

Churchill Downs — Race 7 — G2  Fleur de Lis Handicap  — One and one sixteenth miles on dirt — post time 9:08 pm ET

Churchill Downs sits in Louisville, Kentucky and the city seal and state flag each contain a fleur de lis symbol.  You’ve probably seen the symbol with recognizing it: it’s the logo to the NFL’s New Orleans Saints.  So Churchill Downs, with an ode to its host city and a flag that flies among its twin spires, named a race after this symbol.  First run in 1975, the Fleur de Lis has been at two turns since 1977 and a graded race since 1988.  The race was elevated to Grade Two status in 2002.  Traditionally, the race has occupied a spot in June (aside from 2011, when not run) and in recent years has paired with the Stephen Foster.  As such, it offers (like the Foster for its division) a free spot in the Breeders’ Cup with the winner getting into the Distaff’s gate.  Escena (1998), Spain (2002), and Royal Delta (2012) have pulled off the Fleur de Lis-Breeders’ Cup Distaff double.  Other notable winners of this race – limited to those with stakes named after them – include Pago Hop (1976), Serena’s Song (1996), Adoration (2004), Happy Ticket (2006), and Rachel Alexandra (2010).

Two-time Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Royal Delta wins the 2012 Fleur de Lis. This win came between her BC scores in 2011, 2012. Video courtesy Youtube.

When handicapping, this space tries to ignore morning lines to have a clean slate and not look at what the line maker thinks the public will or won’t do.  This leads to the “morning lines not available at publish time” tagline that appears before lines are added in.  Such disclaimer is necessary because the top choice is the 30/1 longest shot on the track’s morning line.  The capping took place before morning lines were seen.  So before you readers think the author should put down the crackpipe at selecting the longest shot in the field, there is a legitimate argument for liking GLORYS LAST CHANCE, the longest shot on the board in the G2 Fleur de Lis.  On a traditionally speed-favoring Prairie Meadows oval, GLORYS LAST CHANCE has been in the same zip code as Diva’s Diamond, best known for being the runner-up in the G1 Apple Blossom and doing so as a rally-wide closer.  With her best races coming against the traditional flow of the Iowa oval, she’s still run up some nice form.  While she’s winless in over a year, she’s hit the board ten times in eighteen outs.  With speed in here from MY SWEET ADDICTION, GOLD MEDAL DANCER, and a host of others, the stage should be set for a one-run closer to have enough pace – which projects to be blazing from a plethora of speed – and she could mow them all down in the lane.  GLORYS LAST CHANCE may just flash the right form getting off the traditionally speed-friendly Prairie Meadows oval and do it at boxcar prices.  TIZ WINDY made a good closing run last time out over this course in the G1 La Troienne, and was fourth that day behind fellow entrants GOLD MEDAL DANCER and SHEER DRAMA.  Nine furlongs won’t flummox her, nor will the projected pace.  And she’s a two-time winner over the Churchill oval.  She rarely runs a bad race – her only one was in the G2 Royal Delta – but this space is thinking she could regress off the high speed figure earned on Oaks Day.  Nine furlongs was just fine for YAHILWA two back in the Sixty Sails – which was at Hawthorne, not Arlington as the host track mentions. Last out she was a credible second on Preakness Eve but likely faced a better horse in Stopchargingmaria, who would be a strong favorite in this race based on the composition of the Fleur de Lis.  She’s a forward type who was on the lead in the Du Pont last out, but showed in the Sixty Sails she doesn’t need the lead to fire her best shot.



#3 TIZ WINDY (8/1)

#4 YAHILWA (15/1)

Longshot: Not often the morning line quote here less than the top selection, but apparently the selector above is going all Gap Band on us and dropping a bomb. One of the best things about living in America is you can do that.  And the horse, #1 AMERICA (10/1), is profiled as the longshot to watch.  Quality humans of Joel Rosario and Bill Mott get together on this runner that won a $100K race on New Year’s Day and then resurfaced with a clunker in the La Troienne.  Maybe she needed the first start off the four month respite, and she’ll wheel back second off in this Grade Two.  While she got good at Aqueduct over the winter, she also is a swing-wide off-the-pace type who may get taken back if all the speed from GOLD MEDAL DANCER, MY SWEET ADDICTION, and HOUSE RULES.  That may just put her in the mix turning for home.  — PM

Churchill Downs — Race 8 — G1 Stephen Foster Handicap — One and one-eighth miles on dirt — post time 9:42 pm ET

This year marks the 34th running of the Stephen Foster Handicap.  The race takes its name from composer Stephen Foster.  Though Stephen Foster himself hailed from the north, he wrote “My Old Kentucky Home”: Kentucky’s state song, and the traditional air sung before the Kentucky Derby.  It has been run at 1 1/8 miles on the Churchill Downs dirt since its inception in 1982, and always in June.  It earned a Grade III in 1988, a Grade II in 1995, and has been a Grade I since 2002.  Through its history, it has been a rich source of Breeders’ Cup Classic winners: Black Tie Affair (1991), Awesome Again (1998), Saint Liam (2005), Blame (2010), and Fort Larned (2013) all won the Foster the same year they won the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  In addition, Curlin (2008) won the Classic the year before he won the Foster.

Blame fires just in time to beat Battle Plan in the 2010 Foster.  Illinois-bred Giant Oak finished fourth.

In addition to offering a $500,000 purse, the Stephen Foster Handicap is the first Win And You’re In race of the year for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  Any Breeders’ Cup nominated horse who wins the Foster will win an automatic position in the starting gate for the Classic, paid pre-entry and entry fees, and a travel allowance if the horse is not based in Kentucky.  This year, seven older horses plan to line up at the gate.

Three marquee names grace this field of seven: COMMISSIONER, LEA, and HOPPERTUNITY.  Among this trio, two horses seem like the goods.  One doesnot look like all his short odds will make him out to be.  Rail-drawn COMMISSIONER falls into that latter category.  This mile and an eighth trip, particularly against real mile and an eighth horses, may prove to be too short for COMMISSIONER.  He is a good horse and a fast one, but would likely have thrived with a stretch out from — not a cutback from — the mile and three sixteenths he covered last out in the Pimlico Special (GII).  LEA and HOPPERTUNITY both comes in off of layoffs, but both come from barns who tend to send their runners in fit off the layoff, and both have shown form off of a layoff.  Between the two, LEA’s just-off-the-lay form has been better, particularly since the switch to the Bill Mott barn.  LEA should be able to stalk off the speed, help ensure the fractions are not too cozy, and move in on the far turn or in shallow stretch.  The frequent and sharpening works suggest that LEA is coming into this race well, and the rain in the forecast only makes LEA better set, given his win over the Churchill slop earlier in his career.  HOPPERTUNITY has been on the shelf since February’s San Antonio Stakes (GII) at Santa Anita, where he finished a distant third behind Shared Belief and California Chrome.  He faces some good horses here, though none are of quite that calibre.  HOPPERTUNITY has hit the board in all three career attempts at nine furlongs, and won the Clark (at this distance) in his only attempt over the Churchill track.  Depending on how much rain falls, that may be a question, but he did win his only start over wet-fast going.  Despite some minor issues since the San Antonio, he has been regularly on the worktab since April, and those works are getting sharp.  His stalking to midpack style should keep him out of any fights on the front end, but keep him well enough in striking range to battle down the stretch.  HOPPERTUNITY’s stablemate, fellow Bob Baffert trainee CAT BURGLAR, also deserves a look.  Though he has yet to win in two starts back off of a yearlong lay, he did show improvement between his allowance return and his last start in the Pimlico Special, where he finished third behind COMMISSIONER.  The cut back from 1 3/16 miles to 1 1/8 may help him; at the very least it will not hurt him, as he has shown form at just shorter and just longer than that distance.  He has back races from before the layoff that would be imposing against this field, and if he takes a step forward third off the lay, he could at least hit the board (if not win) at a square price.  Baffert’s 26% strike rate third off the lay suggests that to be a live part of his charges’ form cycles.


#2 LEA (7/5)


#7 CAT BURGLAR (8/1)

Longshot:  Lightly-raced four-year-old #3 PAGANOL (20/1) stunned an allowance field on the Kentucky Derby undercard in his last start.  He will have to take a step forward from that to beat this far better bunch, but the meteorologist may be his friend.  That last-out win came over a dry track, but his maiden win came over good going, and his first-level allowance win came over the slop.  He does his best work on the lead, and sending and hoping he handles the slop better than NOBLE BIRD and COMMISSIONER may be his best chance.  However, PAGANOL’s maiden win suggests he is not a one-dimensional speed.  That time out he was slow out of the gate, near the back early, and able to close up ground.  From off the pace, he won that race by a nose.  If the front becomes too treacherous, or PAGANOL does not get out of the gate as well as he could, this suggests he can stay engaged in the race. — NN

Churchill Downs — Race 9 — G3 Matt Winn Stakes — One and one sixteenth miles on dirt — post time 10:13 pm ET

Col. Matt Winn did not invent the Kentucky Derby, but he did more than any single person to make it the big event it is today.  He saw Aristides win the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, and was part of a group who bought Churchill Downs in 1902, when it was failing.  From then until his death in 1949, Winn served as the track’s president and general manager.  His greatest legacy came with the marketing of the Kentucky Derby.  In perhaps his greatest marketing coup, he convinced Harry Payne Whitney to ship Regret out for the Kentucky Derby in 1915; Regret became the first filly to win the race.  Churchill Downs has named a stakes after Winn since 2002; the race has been a Grade III since 2011.  Restricted to three-year-olds, this year’s edition retains the Grade III, and offers a purse of $100,000.  Scotus, who won the Matt Winn that first year it was graded, came to Arlington and finished third behind Havelock in the Hanshin Cup (GIII) the next year.  Other prominent winners of the Matt Winn have included New York stallion Posse (2003), King’s Bishop (GI) winner Capt. Candyman Can (2009), and Tapiture (2014), who finished second behind Goldencents in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (GI) last year.

Between FAME AND POWER, HENRY JONES, and ALABASTER, this race has three horses who have shown their best work being able to take a race wire-to-wire.  Though FAME AND POWER will likely be the speed of the speed, all three prefer an unmolested lead, and none will get it.  Given that, consider the merits of some off-the-pace types.  ISLAND TOWN closed to win last out in a seven-furlong allowance on the Derby undercard, after Lewys Vaporizer set some too-fast splits early.  Both of his career wins have come over this Churchill dirt.  He stretches out to two turns for the first time, but being by Hard Spun out of a Distorted Humor mare, this distance should suit him just fine.  Though he has never raced on an off track, that breeding suggests he would not have a hard time handling some mud.  With a fight on the front end, if he runs back to what he showed last out, he could be the one rolling best of all late, with a nice price to boot.  Another one likely to be running late, whether the rain comes heavily or lightly, is BOLD CONQUEST.  This son of Curlin closed for second in the Sir Barton last year, but FAME AND POWER’s path on the front end should be somewhat more fraught than it was at Pimlico.  That will only help BOLD CONQUEST, who does his best work near the middle or back of the pack early, and has late pace to rival ISLAND TOWN’s best.  He has hit the board in four of five starts at this distance, and finished second beaten just a neck at this distance in his only try over the Churchill dirt.  Those suggest he will handle two turns at Churchill, and if rider Ricardo Santana times the move right, he could close strongly.  FAME AND POWER is the fastest and classiest of the speed, and benefits from the scratch of ALABASTER.  This Bob Baffert trainee won the Sir Barton Stakes last out, showing he can handle the distance and the ship out of California.  Though FAME AND POWER will get contention from HENRY JONES, he has proven to be the fastest of the speed brigade to date, and also has a race in which he was beaten just a half length despite being a couple of lengths off the pace early.  The combination of that speed and that potential for versatility makes FAME AND POWER the most attractive of the speed horses.


#2 ISLAND TOWN (6/1)



Longshot:  This space endorses the runner brought to you by the same owner and trainer who brought you 2008 winner Eaton’s Gift: #3 NILEATOR (8/1).  Sure, NILEATOR is a bit less accomplished than the previous winner campaigned by trainer Dale Romans and owner Zayat Stables; Eaton’s Gift had won the Swale that year.  NILEATOR remains a maiden after four starts.  However, his best start so far has come over a sloppy Churchill Downs track.  The rain in the forecast should only help him.  Furthermore, he has never shown the tendency to go to the early lead.  This should help with FAME AND POWER and HENRY JONES all having shown their best on the front end; in light of the scratch of ALABASTER, drafting in the next flight would make sense.  As long as rider Javier Castellano keeps him stalking within range, he should be able to take advantage if the pace gets too quick — especially if the rain in the forecast comes to fruition. — NN


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