2019 Stephen Foster Stakes Preview and Saturday Churchill Downs Selections

You might think every single stakes horse descended on Belmont last weekend, but you wouldn’t be quite right.  Just one week after Belmont day, Churchill Downs has another stakes-laden day of racing.  Their card on Saturday night features six races, including a pair of Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In races: the Stephen Foster S. (G2) for the Classic division, and the Fleur de Lis H. (G2) for the Distaff division.  The other stakes races include the Matt Winn S. (G3) for three-year-old dirt routers, the Wise Dan S. (G2) for older turf routers, the Regret S. (G3) for three-year-old turf fillies, and the President of the United Arab Emirates Cup (G1) for Arabian horses.

This piece will provide a full preview of the Stephen Foster.  In addition, we’ll share selections and longshots for every race on the card in a table below.

Churchill Downs – Saturday, June 5

Race 8: Stephen Foster Stakes (G2), three-year-olds and up, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 9:47pm EDT

This year marks the 38th 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”, 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 3 in 1988, a Grade 2 in 1995, a Grade 1 in 2002, and was brought back down to a Grade 2 as of this year.  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), Fort Larned (2013), and Gun Runner (2017) 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.

Gun Runner asserts his class in the 2017 Stephen Foster Handicap. He would go on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar later that year.

In addition to offering a $600,000 purse, the Stephen Foster Handicap is the first stateside Win And You’re In race of the year for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  (The first, the February Stakes, was at Tokyo Racecourse; Inti won it on February 17.) This year, twelve older horses plan to line up at the gate.

Among the twelve are two of the top starts of the handicap division: YOSHIDA and GIFT BOX.  They both come into the Stephen Foster with a bit to prove: YOSHIDA dazzled last fall, but has yet to run back to that when going sixth in both the Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) and the Dubai World Cup (G1).  GIFT BOX, ascendant this winner in California, met his match in Vino Rosso in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1).  Even so?  This is a pair of proper G1 horses vying for that bid into the Breeders’ Cup, despite the fact that the Stephen Foster itself has been made a G2 this year.

It’s a matter of slight preference between these two horses, as they’re emphatically the most likely winners.  The mile and an eighth distance, more than likely, plays into YOSHIDA’s hands.  Whether he is running on the lawn or the dirt, YOSHIDA is a stone-cold nine-furlong runner.  The ten furlongs of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which he covered over this very course last fall?  He wasn’t a bad fourth, but he didn’t have quite as much punch late as he has going a little bit shorter.  The one question is the pace, as YOSHIDA is an off-pace type and there isn’t a massive amount of speed in this year’s Foster, despite the massive field size.  But?  YOSHIDA doesn’t need a torrid pace in front of him to get rolling from the middle of the pace.  All in all, this looks a cozy spot for the versatile son of Heart’s Cry.

However, it’s hard to slight GIFT BOX.  Yes, he was the beaten favourite in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, but it’s hard to say that was any kind of dent in his form.  He did all the dirty work, battling on the front with Blitzkrieg early and being beaten less than a length (while Blitzkrieg faded to last).  Though GIFT BOX hasn’t won at a mile and an eighth before, he has hit the board in two of three tries, and he has not tried the distance since he got really, truly good.  The biggest question is how he’s going to be ridden.  GIFT BOX has a better chance if he sits back just a bit, but if he ends up doing more of the dirty work up front so as not to let TOM’S D’ETAT get it too easy, that may soften him up.  Either way, he’ll have to be on his best to beat YOSHIDA at his best distance, but it would be no surprise to see him at that best.

Speaking of TOM’S D’ETAT?  He could get a nice run of things in this.  If you toss his sloppy, perhaps-a-bit-too-long Pegasus World Cup, you get a horse with wonderfully consistent form. He has never run poorly in five starts over the Churchill dirt, and he is already a two-time winner at a mile and an eighth. He ran a good second behind McKinzie in the Alysheba; McKinzie played possum that day, drew off late, and then franked the form with an excellent second behind Mitole in the Met Mile last weekend.  If something strange happens and TOM’S D’ETAT doesn’t get the lead?  He doesn’t need it.  But, without any real front-end firecrackers in this field, he may well get it, and he’ll take catching.


#12 YOSHIDA (7/2)
#6 GIFT BOX (3/1)
#9 TOM’S D’ETAT (5/1)

Longshot: The race has a handful of longshots who might nab a share underneath. QUIP won’t be too far off the pace; THIRSTFORLIFE is in career form.  But, among them, #8 KING ZACHARY (12/1) appeals the most. KING ZACHARY does have some tables to turn; he ran third last out behind the aforementioned THIRSTFORLIFE.  But, that was KING ZACHARY’s first race since last September, and it only covered a mile.  He now comes second off the lay for his new trainer Graham Motion.  And, a mile (especially a one-turn mile!) is just too short for KING ZACHARY.  Now he stretches out to two turns at Churchill.  His career form is better at Churchill than anywhere else, and his last win came in the Matt Winn (G3) a year ago — a mile and a sixteenth in Louisville.  And, being by Curlin out of a Giant’s Causeway mare, it would be no surprise to see him stretch out well — as well as improve at age four.


Below are all of Nicolle Neulist’s selections for Saturday at Churchill Downs. If you have questions about the logic behind any of these picks, please leave a comment or tweet us at @picksponderings!

For anyone on a mobile device or another browser that struggles with embedded spreadsheets, read the standalone copy here.


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