Saturday’s $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (GI) at Churchill Downs marks the last grade 1 of the rich spring meet at the Louisville oval, but it also represents one of the last true handicaps left in North America. This year a field of eight will race the nine furlongs, with all of them looking to gain entry to the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) on Nov. 4 at Del Mar thanks to the race’s status as a “Win and You’re In” event, which guarantees the winner a spot in the gate for the $6 million feature on Racing’s Championship Day.
The Stephen Foster was first run in 1982 and named for the famed composter, who penned the historic song “My Old Kentucky Home”, which is played every year on the first Saturday in May as the Kentucky Derby (GI) horses make their way toward the starting gate.
The list of winners of the Foster is impressive and includes three eventual Horse of the Year title winners and four Breeders’ Cup Classic champs. Names on the list even the casual fan will recognize include Fort Larned, Blame, Curlin, Saint Liam, Perfect Drift, Street Cry, Victory Gallop, Awesome Again and Black Tie Affair.
The Louisville weather for Saturday night is steamy, with a strong chance for afternoon thunderstorms lasting past dusk and an evening temperature in the mid- to upper 80s. The chance for an off track is great, so handicapping for a wet main oval is probably a good idea.
Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm’s Gun Runner is the early 4-5 favorite in the field of solid handicap runners and returns to what is arguably his favorite surface judging by his record of 5-3-0-1 under the Twin Spires, which includes a win in last year’s Clark Handicap (GI) and Matt Winn Stakes (GIII). The Steve Asmussen-trained son of Candy Ride is making his first start since his impressive runner-up finish to division leader Arrogate in the March 25 Dubai World Cup (GI) and, after a good rest of about six weeks, returned to serious training just before the Kentucky Derby.
It’s easy to see why this horse, who has banked more than $4.2 million, is the favorite on race record alone, since he’s only finished worse than third twice in his 14-race career. But he also owns top class and pace figures to go along with regular triple-digit speed numbers; and he also has a versatile running style, so he can adapt to the pace, either on the lead or sitting just off it if need be. He will again have top jock Florent Geroux in the irons and the pair will break from post 3. He’s not won in two career starts on an off track, but he has trained well on it, judging by his steady stream of impressive workouts. He carries top weight of 124 pounds, which is about what he’s used to carrying over his past few starts.
The confirmed frontrunner Bird Song returns here for trainer Ian Wilkes off a nice win in the Alysheba Stakes (GII) on Kentucky Oaks Day last month. The son of Unbridled’s Song and the champion filly Birdtown, who is also a half-sister to Belmont Stakes (GI) winner Birdstone, is an improving type facing the stiffest rival of his career so far in Gun Runner, but if he runs to his ability and repeats his last or even his performance from two back, when he won the Fred Hooper Stakes (GIII) at Gulfstream Park, he will be tough. He likely won’t have his way on the lead this time if he goes right to the front under jockey Julien Leparoux after breaking from the innermost post, but if he can withstand the pressure he will be tough to run down. He should improve on a wet track, seeing as how his last was over a wet surface, and he may offer a decent price at post time with all the attention going to Gun Runner. His 119-pound impost is five fewer than the favorite and may help him a bit here.
Texas Chrome was a force to be reckoned with last year in Texas and Oklahoma, but had a bit of trouble when stepped up to the big leagues, finishing last of nine in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (GI) at Santa Anita in November. This year, he’s finished a disappointing sixth in the Oaklawn Handicap (GI) and second twice to two of trainer Bob Baffert’s handicap stars — Mor Spirit in the Steve Sexton Mile (GIII) and Danzing Candy in the Lone Star Park Handicap (GIII) last month. Now with new trainer Allen Milligan, his connections are hoping he returns to the form he showed winning graded stakes a year ago. Jockey C.J. McMahon returns, which is a bonus as he likes to win with Texas Chrome, and if this Texas-bred son of Grashopper runs to his ability he looks strong to pick up a larger share of the pot. He has two wins from three starts on an off track, including the Ohio Derby (GIII) last year. He carries 117 pounds here.
Stonestreet, Tabor, Magnier and Smith’s Grade 2 winner Stanford hails from the red-hot barn of Todd Pletcher and heads postward in his first grade 1 of the year off a very dismal fifth-place showing as the 6-5 favorite in the Charles Town Classic (GII) back in April. Not sure what happened that day, but, after nearly eight weeks off, he’s back and ready to show what his connections have said he’s capable of all along. His speed and pace figures are competitive with most of this field and he only benefits from Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez aboard. He’ll be either setting the pace or sitting just behind whoever takes command early with his connections hoping he finally finds the right time to show his class and have a say in the outcome here. Hopefully, his last disappointing performance wasn’t because of an off track. He also totes 117 pounds.
Honorable Duty returns off a nice second to Bird Song in the Alysheba last out. The multiple graded stakes winner, who is trained by Brendan Walsh, is consistent and tough and gets the benefit of Eclipse winner Javier Castellano aboard for the first time today. His New Orleans Handicap (GII) win from off the pace was pretty spectacular and earned him a huge speed figure. If he repeats that here after sitting off what figures to be a torrid pace early, he is dangerous. He will benefit from the receipt of five pounds from the favorite here.
Breaking Lucky was second to Honorable Duty two back and then fifth after a bumpy trip to him and Bird Song in the Alysheba last out. He has some amazing back class, including a second to Gun Runner in the Clark last November, and if he can find that form he figures strongly for a piece of the pie on Saturday. He’ll tote 117 pounds.
Hawaakom is a good horse who, unfortunately, normally finishes behind the likes of the top runners here. His best, though, makes him a must-use in the exotics. He will be carrying 115 pounds, including jockey Miguel Mena.
We thought so much of Mo Tom last year on the Triple Crown trail, but unfortunately he hasn’t done much in four starts since winning the Ohio Derby nearly a year ago. It’s hard to bet this one with a lot of confidence off recent form. Corey Lanerie rides again and makes up most of Mo Tom’s 115-pound impost.