Ron the Greek, charging through the stretch along the inside, came from off the pace to nip odds-on favorite Wise Dan at the wire in the $437,200 Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) under the lights at Churchill Downs June 16 (VIDEO).
The Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) winner gave trainer Bill Mott his second major win on the "Downs After Dark" program after champion filly Royal Delta returned to top form with her dominant victory in the Fleur de Lis Handicap (gr. II) a race earlier. The Foster, in its 31st renewal, was contested at night for the first time before crowd announced at 25,417.
Ron the Greek, ridden by Jose Lezcano, won by a head over Wise Dan while overlooked at odds of 9-1 in a stellar field of eight. Jack T. Hammer's 5-year-old Florida homebred son of Full Mandate surpassed $1 million in career earnings with the victory. The big bay, out of the Fortunate Prospect mare Flambe, is also owned by Brous Stable and Wachtel Stable.
Wise Dan finished second, followed by pacesetter Nates Mineshaft. The final time for the 1 1/8-mile test was 1:50.51 on a fast main track.
The victory guarantees Ron the Greek a spot in the starting gate at Santa Anita Park in November for the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I). After the race, Mott said he planned to give Ron the Greek a bit of a break in order to have him fresh for the fall classics, mentioning the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) as a likely destination before the Breeders' Cup.
Mott was also feeling confident after the race, knowing how well Ron the Greek took to the Santa Anita main track in capturing the 1 1/4-mile Big 'Cap by 3 1/2 lengths on March 3. Ron the Greek had one start since then prior to the Foster, finishing second to Alternation in the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) April 14.
"We felt pretty good after he won the race out there, but it's good to see him come back and run two good races since the Santa Anita Handicap," said Mott, the all-time leading trainer at Churchill Downs with 664 victories. "He seems like he's an improving horse and you'd have to say he's one of the top handicap horses in the country. It was a very good field tonight and I feel proud of our horse that he was able to beat such a good field."
Wise Dan, winner of last fall's Clark Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill, was sent off as the 9-10 favorite while top-weighted at 123 pounds following his record-smashing 10 1/2-length victory in the Ben Ali Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland in his seasonal debut April 22.
Nates Mineshaft, ridden by Miguel Mena (filling in for Jesse Campbell), got the lead as expected over Wise Dan, Fort Larned , and Alternation while drifting out early and bothering his rivals. Nates Mineshaft was able to gear down while maintaining about a one-length advantage through quarter-mile splits of :23.66, :47.27, and 1:10.95.
Ron the Greek was steadied in rough traffic in the early going and settled into sixth for Lezcano when angled to the inside. Nates Mineshaft, meanwhile, picked up the pace on the front end while rounding the final turn to lead by two lengths, an advantage he extended to 2 1/2 by the time they reached mid-stretch. Nates Mineshaft would tire after that, however, drifting out and leaving plenty of room for Lezcano to exploit on Ron the Greek, who commenced his rally on the far turn.
Wise Dan, carried out a couple of times by Nates Mineshaft in the final furlong, persevered for John Velazquez to get a narrow edge while drifting in late. In a rough finish, he just missed in the final couple of strides as Ron the Greek got up under steady encouragement from Lezcano. Wise Dan finished three-quarters of length in front of Nates Mineshaft.
“Everything went right for me tonight,” said Lezcano, who scored his first Stephen Foster victory. “The whole way I saw the hole on the rail and I thought I could get through. I asked him and he gave me a great run.”
Manny Cruz, riding fourth-place finisher Rogue Romance, alleged interference in deep stretch against Velazquez and Wise Dan but stewards disallowed the objection. Rogue Romance lost by two lengths.
Alternation finished fifth, followed by Nehro, Mission Impazible , and Fort Larned.
Ron the Greek, who was making his Churchill Downs debut in the Stephen Foster, has two wins and two seconds in four starts this year. He started the year with a runner-up finish behind Mucho Macho Man in the Sunshine Millions Classic Jan. 28. Ron the Greek earned $262,932 for the victory, extending his career total to $1,112,597. His lifetime record stands at seven wins, four seconds, and one third in 19 races.
The winner carried 119 pounds and paid $20.80, $6.40, $5.40. Morton Fink's Wise Dan, whose three-race win streak came to an end for trainer Charles Lopresti, returned $3 and $2.80. The exacta was worth $57.20. Nates Mineshaft paid $8 to show.
“Johnny said he was concentrating on putting the other horse (Nates Mineshaft) away,” Lopresti said. “He put the other horse away, but he never saw that horse (Ron the Greek) coming. He thought he had it won and he just never saw the horse coming.”
Fink's Successful Dan, entered as a back-up for Wise Dan, was scratched.