2016 Stephen Foster Handicap Day Preview

The Triple Crown season is over. Now what?

Horse racing moves from its spring season to its summer season, and there’s a Kentucky Derby winner to celebrate. Trainer Doug O’Neill, who campaigned 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, will be on hand to accept his Kentucky Derby Trophy.  In fact, O’Neill’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.

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.  The program adds a fifth stakes in the G2 Wise Dan – where the namesake will lead the field out in the  post parade in this grassy mile.

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, HRRN, the Horse Racing Radio Network, will present a two-hour live program from 8:00 pm ET to 10:00 PM ET.

Throughout this week, Picks & Ponderings has been on the green and pondering races from across the pond at Royal Ascot.   And Picks & Ponderings previews the action from Royal Ascot, with Nicolle Neulist diving into the Friday and Saturday action.  Back stateside, the marquee big event at hometown Arlington is a pair of Illinois-bred stakes: the Spellman Memorial and the Black Tie Affair. Paul Mazur breaks down that program as well.

All races discussed are scheduled for Saturday June 18.  Races scheduled for the turf have selections made ‘turf only” with a zero rail setting at publish time.

Churchill Downs — Race 5 — G3 Matt Winn Stakes — One and one sixteenth miles on Dirt — post time 7:57 pm

Martin J. Winn became an honorary Kentucky Colonel for his role in turning the Kentucky Derby from just another race into the prominent race it is today.  Winn – better known by first name Matt than his birth name – introduced parimutuel wagering and two-dollar mnimum tickets to the Twin Spires and rescued a flogging Churchill Downs at the turn of the 20th century.  He convinced the owners of Regret (see below) to ship that filly to the Derby – creating hoopla for a race and sewing the seeds of Derby mystique.  While the race has always been for sophomores, it started its life as a sprint but moved to two turns in 2011.  It took over the naming of the Northern Dancer.  Since being a two-turn race named for Winn, Tapiture (2014), who later won the West Virginia Derby, stands as a notable hero of this Grade Three, $100,000 event.

The class of this field is GUN RUNNER, who won two pre-Derby prep races in New Orleans before a third in the Kentucky Derby.  The form is franked by the fact Exaggerator and Nyquist traded places in the Preakness, one race later.  But while GUN RUNNER is the class, one must be concerned with how Exaggerator ran in the Belmont: is he a tired spent horse?  Granted he ran third in the Derby, but he was in the same zip code as Danzing Candy’s crazy pace up front and he was still around on the podium.  That race was at ten furlongs and GUN RUNNER dials back to eight and a half.  Plus GUN RUNNER is back on the worktabs in the mornings and the works are in line with what he did pre-Derby.  So try as we might, we can’t suggest a better alternative than the heavy favorite sporting the colors of Winchell Thoroughbreds.  The Florent Geroux/Steve Asmussen production is the pick. Those who won’t bite the bullet on GUN RUNNER will find UNBRIDLED OUTLAW to appeal.  He ran evenly two back in the G3 Pat Day Mile on Derby Day and reported home in mid-pack.  Last time he was second in a first-level allowance.  However he goes back to two turns after being at one-turn miles in his last two and might be the controlling speed in a race lacking a one-dimensional type.  The jockey/trainer team is hitting at a strong 28% wins/52% in the money, and we can forgive his effort three back in the Arkansas Derby three back against tougher.  The raildrawn Illinois-bred YO CARM gets a look in this event.  Perhaps turf wasn’t his thing chasing around Surgical Strike last time on his home grounds in the G3 Arlington Classic, and he can be forgiven for a yucky break two back in the G3 Lexington.  If he runs back to his a-other-than score at Tampa Bay Downs in the winter he can be a player in this field.  He’s also going third off the layoff in this spot for a trainer that’s sneaky good in Churchill stakes.


#2 GUN RUNNER (3/5)


#1 YO CARM (20/1)

Longshot: Dallas Stewart clowned a lot of people (this space included) when Tom’s Ready won at seven panels on Belmont Stakes Day.  He also has a penchant (Tale of Verve, Golden Soul, Lemons Forever) for blowing up toteboards.  But Dallas Stewart apprenticed under D. Wayne Lukas, and the Coach has one here in #5 GRAY SKY (15/1).  When based in Arkansas, he chased around Cupid and Creator with wide trips and also had a wide trip in the G3 Pat Day Mile.  Perhaps six and a half was too short for him last time.  Though this space is making excuses beyond the excuses, he’s been run over his head in Arkansas and was too short last time.  He likes the Churchill surface (five outs, a win, two seconds), he’s got a nice draw, and the presence of James Graham being a 8% rider this meet (mostly due to restarting on the circuit) will keep him long on the tote.

Churchill Downs — Race 6 — G2  Fleur de Lis Handicap  — One and one sixteenth miles on dirt — post time 8:30 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 $200,000 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.

Though a field of six is signed up for the Fleur de Lis, perhaps Florent Geroux got a bit too close to to the pace last time and got the lead no one wanted in the G1 Apple Blossom.  Maybe he takes back on his mount, and that sets the stage for the speed of the speed in a short field – PAID UP SUBSCRIBER.  You only get to be a first-time stretchout once, and it’s first time around two turns with a very nice two-turn pedigree (by Candy Ride o/o Street Cry Mare).  Winner of a twice-other-than last time going a one-turn mile at Churchill, Geroux jumps off PAID UP SUBSCRIBER to ride UNTAPABLE – last seen on that pace she didn’t want to be on in the Apple Blossom.  So PAID UP SUBSCRIBER gets the services of Ricardo Santana, Jr. to ride this Al Stall trainee.  With first time two turns, she could be winging it on the front end with a clean break from her spot and without a lot of speed to contend with her, she could free and clear.  Aided by a favorable one time, one time only situation and two-turn pedigree PAID UP SUBSCRIBER could steal this event.  One of the wagering favorites in this event will be AHH CHOCOLATE, who won the DuPont Distaff during Preakness week.  Nine furlongs is a nice fit for her, but she’s fine in the mile category as well and has a fondness for Churchill (three starts, two wins and a second).  But while PAID UP SUBSCRIBER could be her target she might not do well without a true contested pace on the front end.  Still, AHH CHOCOLATE makes sense as a foundation of tickets.  We’ll use her but we’ll try to spring the upset.  AHH CHOCOLATE is a more offensive use than UNTAPABLE.  Perhaps she got the lead no one wanted in the G1 Apple Blossom last time, or perhaps she’s become a transparent type, or perhaps she’s getting long in the tooth.  While she’s got a full dancecard at the highest level, it is a caution flag that the last time she won was in the 2015 G1 Apple Blossom – though she did close out her year losing in a photo in the G1 Spinster.  She does reliably fire – the question is her best is truly better than the rest.




#1 UNTAPABLE (7/5)

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Churchill Downs — Race 7 — G2 Wise Dan Stakes — One and one-sixteenth miles on Turf — post time 9:05 pm ET

Before 2016, this race was known as the Firecracker Handicap and contested close to the Fourth of July at the end of the Churchill spring-summer meet.  For 2016, the race moves up two weeks in the calendar to the Foster Day program. The race has Grade Two status and a $200,000 purse.  It honors Wise Dan, who is slated to lead the post parade for this race.  The gelding held local ties too, owned by Northbrook denizen Morton Fink.  The Charles LoPresti trainee won this race twice  and stood tall on the American Turf Mile division during his prime.  In both 2012 and 2013 Wise Dan took home Breeders’ Cup Mile and  Horse of the Year trophies, as well as Eclipse honors for Older Male Horse and Male Turf Horse.   The Firecracker began in 1991 and while Wise Dan (2011, 2013) is its only double winner, he’s not the only one to parlay a Firecracker win in to a Breeders’ Cup Mile win (as Wise Dan did in 2013);  Miesque’s Approval (2006) pulled the double as well.  One year before, Kitten’s Joy (2005) also took home the Firecracker before becoming a ubiquitous turf sire.

This space gets to wax poetic yet again on THE PIZZA MAN – who gets popped in the oven for the start of his 2016 summer/fall campaign.  And like pizza paired with breadsticks, everyone’s favorite Grade One winning Illinois-bred gets the return services of Florent Geroux.  That’s a plus considering THE PIZZA MAN went one too many times to the well down at Gulfstream, but that Castellano took him too far back in the G1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap.  Expect a more tasty effort (and more cheesy puns and crusty turf writers complaining about tweets mentioning delivering).  There should be pace to set up his rally and he’s starting his campaign very much like last year.  One wonders if he’s holding back until bigger prizes (Arlington Million, Breeders’ Cup Turf), but the time off, a return to Geroux, and a middling bunch beyond him all lead to a win.  Just don’t act surprised when the Roger Brueggemann trainee is on the toteboard at a depressed price.  With a Chris Block trainee in the Matt Winn, the Midwest Thoroughbred silks on THE PIZZA MAN, and a Vanier entrant in here – you’d think this was Arlington.  Instead it’s Churchill.  But we digress because those Vanier silks are on R. GREAT ADVENTURE.  Perhaps the pace is quick enough that R. GREAT ADVENTURE can press off it, but without a one-way nutty speed he could get the first jump on the closers.  For R. GREAT ADVENTURE, he’ll round into his third start of the layoff.  Two back he won a stakes-quality allowance besting Recount – recent winner of the Cammack and last time won an N3X AOC – the highest level of allowances at Arlington.   While the water is deeper here than facing Recount or Lewis Vale or others in upper level allowances,  he’s never been in better shape.  The local prep to this race is the Opening Verse, and the winner of that event – THATCHER STREET – returns.  A true horse for the course (five outs, three wins, two seconds), he rides a two-race win streak into the G2 Wise Dan.  He’s another that fits given a moderate pace in here as those fractions were present in the Opening Verse.  While that race was at a mile, he was able to crack the superfectas last autumn at longer distances.  Second off the spring freshening for this runner that drew the rail.


#2 THE PIZZA MAN (6/5)



Longshot: Perhaps the second time works out better in the G2 Wise Dan for #11 BEHESHT (20/1), a Rusty Arnold trainee.  While he “showed little” in his first start, sometimes the Europeans need a start to adjust to American paces.  So we’ll give him a second chance in this event despite the class hike from a listed stakes to a G2.  Rider switch in play here to Corey Lanerie as well, and BEHESHT did have form in longer twelve furlong races in France.  The extra sixteenth of a mile could also help him as well.  Not often we get the meet’s leading rider taking a call on a horse like this – and that means a good bit here.

Churchill Downs — Race 8 — G1 Stephen Foster Handicap — One and one-eighth miles on Dirt — post time 9:39 pm ET

Born in Pittsburgh, Stephen Foster (1826-1864) composed over 200 songs, primarily for minstrel shows and theater performances in the nineteenth century.   One of Foster’s best-known compositions,  “My Old Kentucky Home”, was published in 1853.  Written without the taboos of today with respect to race (and then-legal slavery), “My Old Kentucky Home” would be christened the state song of Kentucky.  Typically, the song is played while one tastes their first (or tenth) mint julep on the First Saturday in May.  The handicap race in Foster’s honor has always been nine furlongs on the dirt since its initial running in 1982. Graded in 1988, the race became a Grade One in 2002.  A half million dollars is the purse.  The winner of this race also receives a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic starting gate.  While locals such as Black Tie Affair and Recoup the Cash (1994-95) have taken down the Foster, it now plays a big role (and as a Win and You’re In) on the handicap stage: Black Tie Affair (1991), Saint Liam (2005) and Blame (2010) have taken down the Foster and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the same year.  A year after his BC Classic win, Curlin (2008) annexed the Foster.

Blame times the rally right to beat Battle Plan in the 2010 Foster. Illinois-bred Giant Oak reported home fourth.

The EFFINEX of 2015 that valiantly ran second in the BC Classic and won three graded stakes appears to have carried over to 2016 as he was third in a weak renewal of the Big Cap while battling hives and turned the tables on the G1 Santa Anita Handicap winner in the G2 Oaklawn Handicap.  Don’t be alarmed at the rider change, folks: Mike Smith has an obligation to ride Songbird in the G2 Summertime Oaks so he’s not the pilot.  EFFINEX is the field’s class and wasn’t lured by boatloads of money to try the Met Mile last weekend.  A true two-turn type, he makes sense in this field.  Though his recent body of work off layoffs isn’t great he’s had excuses (bad break in the Woodward, hives in the Big Cap).  The Jimmy Jerkens trainee will be favored and rightfully so, and he’s a must use in the all-stakes pick five.  Maybe the now horse, more than EFFINEX, is EAGLE.  He ran a credile second in the G2 Alysheba behind MAJESTIC HARBOR and two back won the Ben Ali, besting Noble Bird (who won the G3 Pimlico Special with ease next out).  While the team is scorching in recent times (38% wins, 62% in he money, solid ROI) it’s only in a thirteen-start sample.  With BRADESTER in the box there should be a target for him.  One concern: he’s been in steady training since last September and the possibility exists he throws a clunker and needs a break.  Canadian-based ARE YOU KIDDING ME tries the dirt after making cash in middle distance races up at Woodbine.  A gate-to-wire winner last time of a slow paced G3-CDN Eclipse Stakes, he did win at nine panels on sod last year and was in the same zip code as a G1-CDN winner last summer going ten panels.  He hasn’t been on dirt in eons, but he does have the underlying breeding for it on both sides of the gene pool.  It’s third off the layoff for ARE YOU KIDDING ME who might have needed one in the G1 Makers 46 Mile on sod.


#3 EFFINEX (1/1)

#7 EAGLE (6/1)


Longshot: You know where #2 BRADESTER (5/1) is going to be.  He’s going to be out front,on the lead, making the pace.   But those who remember last year’s Foster noted that the track played kindly to forward types.  And while it seems we’re fighting the battle after the war is over, no one else really wants the lead in this year’s Foster.  Not EL KABEIR after stopping and popping the Dixie.  MAJESTIC HARBOR might go for it, but he doesn’t need it.  BRADESTER needs it, but with his inside draw he might scoot away and be clear on an easy lead.  Joe Bravo was aboard last time and put this plan in motion to win a $75K stakes at Monmouth.  The waters get deeper here, but the Eddie Kenneally trainee moves up if the Churchill track plays like a carousel.

Churchill Downs — Race 9 — G3 Regret  Stakes — One and one eighth miles on turf — post time 10:11 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 at Churchill Downs stand as the most notable winners of this race, a Grade Three with a $100,000 purse: Mrs. Revere (1984), Keertana (2009). In addition, locally based and Illinois-bred Prado’s Sweet Ride took down the 2015 renewal.

Nearly anything Chad Brown puts on the turf merits a look.  And given the pasteboard nature of Gulfstream turf, NOBLE BEAUTY’s closing kick in the $75K Honey Ryder Stakes there makes her the choice.  Being by a Mineshaft mare the extra distance shouldn’t be an issue.  While she’s still eligible for a N1X she did graduate at first asking down at Gulfstream and stepped to the listed stakes level last out, second beaten less than a length.  The figure stayed solid so if she can replicate the South Florida efforts she makes sense.  Gulfstream form can be dodgy, but this space gets a full field and turf form is more reciprocal to this observer.  Julian Leparoux has the mount on this Chad Brown-trained sophomore filly making career start three.  GONE AWAY comes back after a mild upset at 14-1 last time on Black-Eyed Susan Day in the $100K Hilltop Stakes.   She’ll go third off the winter freshening and doesn’t lose any points being in the same zip code as Catch A Glimpse earlier in the year.  Maybe the soft turf two back did her in at Keeneland as the firm turf at Pimlico got her back on the beam.  Keep on the eye on the weather with her, but she makes sense if it’s firm going on Foster night.  With Gary Stevens in to ride  EFFINEX (and others) one race prior, it makes sense he pick up a mount afterward.  TRY YOUR LUCK does have a win over the nine furlong configuration of the Regret and does have it over the local sod.  TRY YOUR LUCK has blossomed since moving to Kentucky as the zillionth horse Mike Maker has claimed to have found succcess under his care.  While she was closer to the pace two back in the maiden race, this space likes how she took back when the pace was slower to clear the N1X condition last time out  – hinting at some tactics and showing she might have some gears.



#1 GONE AWAY (6/1)

#6 TRY YOUR LUCK (7/2)

Longshot: Third off the layoff is in play for GONE AWAY but also in play for #2 QUIET BUSINESS (30/1).  A Rusty Arnold trainee with Calumet Silks, she will have Joe Rocco, Jr. to pilot.  QUIET BUSINESS is first time turf and that reason alone is enough to make the toteboard price high.  But nine furlongs should be fine based on the breeding and the fact she graduated at the distance last time, and turf should be fine given the mare has thrown a grass winner.  And Rusty Arnold knows what to do with a turf female – see Centre Court.  The humans wanted this one the turf last time (the race was an off-turf race washed off to the main) and they get their wish here.  Bettors get a wish as she will be much higher than the 5/2 she was last time when breaking her maiden.

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