For Steve Asmussen, the perfect scenario in the June 14 Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) goes something like this: clean break, good position, powerful move, and a romp home under wraps from Curlin, the 2007 Horse of the Year. But whether the trainer will get that result in the 1 1/8-mile test at Churchill Downs is another question.
The Stephen Foster, which will be televised live on HorseRacing TV, has drawn nine other older horses pursuing a purse of $1-million – the event’s original $750,000 pot bolstered by a $250,000 bonus offered by Churchill Downs to lure Curlin, or any other grade I winner. Now in its’ 27th year, the race serves as the centerpiece of “Stephen Foster Super Saturday,” an 11-race card that features six graded stakes races with total purses of $2,025,000. First post time is 1:15 p.m., with the Stephen Foster scheduled to go off at 5:51 p.m.
As racing fans witnessed last week with Big Brown’s lackluster effort in the June 7 Belmont Stakes (gr. I), this game makes no guarantees. And while Curlin has been training well since his return from a March 29 victory in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) – clocking a half-mile in :49 flat June 9 – the 4-year-old son of Smart Strike
will have had to rebound from an overseas trip that often drains the competitive efforts of horses returning to the U.S.
Factor in a 128-pound assignment which has the none-too-pleased Asmussen trainee giving between 10 and 15 pounds to every horse in the field, consider the fact he starts from an inside post for the first time in his career (he has left post two three times, resulting in two wins and a runner-up effort), and you can see why the colt may be in a vulnerable position. Still, given every effort we’ve seen from Curlin thus far, it is not a position he can’t overcome.
In 11 starts for majority owner Jess Jackson and Midnight Cry Stables, the 4-year-old son of Smart Strike has eight wins, including grade I scores in the World Cup, the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), and the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). Bred in Kentucky by Fares Farm out of the Deputy Minister mare Sheriff's Deputy, he has never finished off the board. Running in Dubai in a prep for the World Cup, he trounced the competition while laden with a hefty 132 pounds, and his most recent start resulted in a 7 ¾-length romp under wraps while carrying 126. He has earnings of more than $8.8 million to his credit, is on track to eclipse the record of $9,999,815 set by the mighty Cigar, and is widely recognized as the best Thoroughbred racing in the world at this time.
Once the field breaks from the gate, all eyes will be on Curlin and jockey Robby Albarado, who has been aboard for all but Curlin's debut. Albarado, whose career has scaled to new heights thanks to his association with the colt, said he anticipates a professional effort as they break from the rail.
“We’ll see how he reacts to being inside, but hopefully we’ll get a clean break and let that work to our advantage so we can save ground,” the jockey remarked. “He’s running a little more forwardly-placed than he did last year. In a perfect world, he lays third, fourth, or even fifth and I’m up close riding behind them. Hopefully we’ll ease out at the half-mile pole and try to make a bid at them by the three-eighths – and then find our way clear to the wire.”
The rest of the field, from the rail out:
Hobeau Farm’s homebred Delightful Kiss, winner of the 2007 Ohio Derby (gr. II) and Iowa Derby, missed running against Curlin in last year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) when he did not score enough graded earnings to make the field. The 4-year-old son of Kissin Kris comes off a runner-up finish in the one-mile Blazing Sword Stakes at Calder for trainer Pete Anderson May 24.
Starlight Stable and Donald Lucarelli’s 4-year-old Sam P., the Todd Pletcher trainee who ran winless in 2007 (including a ninth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby), nabbed his first score of this year last time out in a 1 1/16-mile Churchill allowance May 24. He is a son of Cat Thief bred in Kentucky by Whisper Hill Farm.
Midnight Cry Stable’s Einstein would be the most ironic runner to take Curlin down – a proven turf contender who has only raced over dirt twice in his life, he comes from the barn of trainer Helen Pitts, who conditioned Curlin to his 12 ¾-length maiden score before the colt was purchased by Jackson and moved to Asmussen’s string.
“This horse needs to run and I couldn’t run him last weekend,” said Pitts, whose attempt to enter Einstein in New York’s Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT) was stymied by the licensing issues of jailed attorney Shirley Cunningham, a Midnight Cry principal who allowed his New York owner’s license to expire. “He’s pretty tough and he gets over this surface here very well; I know (dirt) is not his forte but sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do and he’s keen and ready to run.”
Einstein, a 6-year-old son of Spend a Buck, got his most recent score by a length in Churchill’s May 3 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic Stakes (gr. IT). He is a perfect one-for-one over the Louisville oval’s dirt surface, having won his maiden there in 2005 by 5 ¾-lengths going a mile. In his only other attempt off the grass, the old campaigner ran sixth in this year’s 1 1/8-mile Donn Handicap (gr. I) at Gulfstream Park. He turned in his final prep for the Stephen Foster under Pitts June 8, sizzling through five furlongs in what his trainer called an “awesome” :59 flat.
Still seeking his first grade I score after missing the 2007 Travers Stakes (gr. I) by a nose to Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense
is the Neil Howard-trained Grasshopper
. In his last start, the May 16 Pimlico Special Handicap (gr. I), he was fifth for owner William S. Farish and partners. It was the only off-the-board finish this year for the 4-year-old son of Mineshaft
, who finished second in the Westchester and New Orleans Handicaps (both gr. II) and won the Feb. 9 Mineshaft Handicap (gr. III) in his first start of the season.
Dixiana Stable’s 4-year-old High Blues, who has been racing over synthetic surfaces and won the March 15 Tejano Run Stakes at Turfway going 1 1/8-miles, has never been worse than second for trainer Rusty Arnold at Churchill Downs.
Asmussen’s own former claimer, the 7-year-old Numerous gelding Red Rock Creek, has proven to be consistent and versatile on turf and dirt and comes off a third-place finish in the Dallas Turf Cup Handicap (gr. IIIT).
Michael Langford’s Jonesboro, a grade III winner, comes off back-to-back sixth-place finishes in the May 6 Alysheba Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill and the April 11 Fifth Season Stakes at Oaklawn Park and seeks to return to the winning form that saw him capture Oaklawn’s Razorback Stakes (gr. III) for trainer Randy Morse this March. He is a 6-year-old son of Sefapiano.
J. Paul Reddam’s Barcola, a 5-year-old son of Old Trieste, tackles graded company again after winning the May 10 Brandywine Stakes at Delaware Park for trainer Mark Hennig. Barcola was bred by Jess Jackson’s Stonerside Stable. He also ran in Dubai, finishing 12th in the Etisalat Godolphin Mile (UAE-II). His closest thing to a graded win was a runner-up finish by a head to Evening Attire in Aqueduct’s Queen’s County Handicap (gr. III) last December.
The other grade I winner looking to chase down the Horse of the Year is Fred Bradley’s homebred Brass Hat, who returns to the dirt after finishing fourth in the May 24 Louisville Handicap (gr. IIIT) and third in the April 25 Elkhorn Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Keeneland. Trained by William “Buff” Bradley, Brass Hat seeks his first score since winning the Massachusetts Handicap in September of 2007. The 7-year-old Prized gelding won an allowance race over the Churchill surface last July while breaking a track record at 1 1/16 miles. He also turned in a runner-up effort, three-quarters of a length behind A.P. Arrow, in the 2007 edition of the Clark Handicap (gr. II). He finished fifth in the 2006 edition of the Stephen Foster.