The Stephen Foster Stakes tops the Churchill Downs card on Saturday and older horses get a shot for some big money. With the Triple Crown now in the history books, older horses and juveniles will get their chances to pad the bankroll in the coming weeks and months.
This is a $500,000 Grade 1 event for three-year-old runners and upward and it will be run at nine furlongs. Eight will face the starter and every single one of them is a proven stakes winner. This is a ‘win and you’re in’ race which means the hero of the event gets and automatic berth into the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Some solid runners have won this race over the years. Black Tie Affair, a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, cashed in this race in 1991. Bobby Frankel’s Saint Liam won this fray in 2005 and the great Curlin was found in the winner’s circle after the 2008 running.
Trainer Ian Wilkes won the Stephen Foster in 2014 with Fort Larned and he will be represented Saturday by the rail horse, Bird Song. The colt will be making his second start in a Grade 1 event and he caught a nice horse in that first venture into Grade 1 land. The winner that day, Drefong, proved it was no fluke by taking the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in his very next start. Bird Song has natural speed but he has come from off the pace sprinting. He was fried in a speed duel in his 2017 opener but was freshened and won his next start in the Grade 3 Fred Hopper. In his last race Bird Song controlled the pace and the outcome winning the Alysheba Stakes with a clever 100 Beyer Speed Figure. Julien Leparoux will be in the saddle.
Breaking Lucky will have to run like his name suggests. He has been handled by a number of today’s foes but he has trained forwardly in Canada with this race in mind. Trained by Reade Baker, this runner has only won once in the last two years and that win came on the synthetic at Woodbine.
Gun Runner is the one to beat in the Stephen Foster. The Steve Asmussen student was a double Grade 2 winner last year and was far from disgraced when a solid third in Nyquist’s Kentucky Derby. Three of his seven wins have come at Churchill and he ran into a buzz saw last time. In that March finale, Gun Runner chased the best horse in the world, Arrogate, in the $10 million Dubai World Cup.
Honorable Day has been patiently handled in his career. His trainer Brendan Walsh let this son of Distorted Humor go through his conditions and the runner won his 2016 finale. He opened 2017 winning the Grade 3 Mineshaft. And he proved it was no mirage as he won his next coming from 13 lengths back in the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap. The runner may not have liked the off going in his last race when he ran second to Bird Song.
Mo Tom is in the good hands of Tom Amoss but this runner has some work to do. He is zero for three this year and he has not won for nearly a year. That last win came at Thistledown in Ohio when he won the $300,000 Ohio Derby. Corey Lanerie will be aboard and you can never dismiss a runner from this barn. Amoss is hitting at a 24% clip this year.
Hawaakom pretty much knows all the tricks at the age of seven. He has won locally but his lone win this year came in the mud in a much softer race. This runner is speed challenged and backers have to hope that the pace is extremely hot, the leaders duel and then they fade into the sunset.
Texas Chrome is a nice horse. He has won nearly a million dollars but he was a tiring third in his only effort at Churchill. He has lost ground in the stretch in all three of his 2017 starts. He was flattered a bit when the horse he ran second to on May 7, Mor Spirit, returned to win the Met Mile. One angle backers can hang their hat on is the fact he will be ridden by C. J. McMahon, who was aloft for this racer’s last three victories.
Stanford has been in the exacta in eleven of his sixteen starts and could be looking at the same fate. He showed his class winning the opulent Charles Town Classic last year and he has not ducked anybody his career. He chased the talented Frosted in the Met Mile last year but will be making his first start at Churchill.
The best way to attack this race or any race is try to visualize how the race will set up. There is a lot of speed in this race and that could even the playing field a bit. Bird Song will probably have to be used early from his rail post position. He can give his rider a: 45 and change half if in the mood and would expect his rider to be aggressive.
Honorable Duty has some semblance of speed but it’s hard to envision him making the lead Saturday. Stanford’s hand is probably forced a bit by his drawing the extreme outside slot. His rider Jorge Velazquez will have to make an early decision to send this one from the sound of the bell or try to stalk and pounce when it counts.
The reason Gun Runner looks so potent in the Stephen Foster is that he has valid speed but can adapt to any kind of scenario. The earner of over $4.3 million came from fifth to win the Risen Star last year but won the Grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill leading from the get go. This professional has been gone for several months but he is repeatedly proven off the layoff. That Risen Star victory came off a November to February vacation and Gun Runner took the Grade 3 Razorback in his 2017 debut also off a November to February hiatus. His works coming to the Stephen Foster are ideally spaced and he should be able to be the master of his own destiny.
Key him in the exotics first and second and walk to the bar with confidence.
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