Stephen Foster might be famous to Kentucky horseplayers for writing lyrics about his Bluegrass home, but the stakes run in his name June 16 at Churchill Downs turned into a travelogue of trips taken and not taken.
The wanderer furthest afield, Captain Steve, had set sail for Dubai in March to claim the world's largest stakes bounty, the $6-million Dubai World Cup (UAE-I). Like a previous Bob Baffert-trained runner, Silver Charm, Captain Steve was given time off to recover from winning half a world away, and made his return in the nine-furlong, $831,000 Stephen Foster (gr. II).
The affable Irishman Niall O'Callaghan, though, was making and breaking travel plans of his own. Taking the name of his horse, Guided Tour, literally, O'Callaghan was figuring to ship to Maryland to collect the winner's share of the $140,000 Baltimore Ravens Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. III). However, he was talked into staying in Louisville by his assistant Jennifer Brown, who reasoned that a second-place finish in the Foster was worth more than the win in Maryland, and Guided Tour already owned a trio of wins over the Churchill strip.
The betting public agreed O'Callaghan should have shipped, sending Guided Tour off at nearly 16-1. And nothing in the first part of the race offered evidence they were wrong as Guided Tour sat an unhurried fifth in the field of eight. Duckhorn, the only early speed, took over the running directly, opening up two lengths on Captain Steve, with Brahms and Graeme Hall next, and last year's Travers (gr. I) victor Unshaded unhurried farther back of Guided Tour.
Duckhorn made all the calls up the backstretch, going an honest tempo of :23.58 and :46.92, but just when it looked like he might be formidable, Jerry Bailey asked Captain Steve, and the Fly So Free colt inhaled the leader and took dead aim on the wire. But the hesitant traveler, Guided Tour, had other plans. Under Larry Melancon, the Hansel gelding, in receipt of 10 pounds from the Captain, hit his best stride and assumed the lead at the eighth pole, proving best by a half-length under the wire. Brahms ran evenly, but unthreateningly, for third. The winning time was 1:47.74.
O'Callaghan was having a grand time as the guest of honor in the winner's circle, backslapping a CBS correspondent with gusto and trying to explain his good fortune.
"Was I surprised to win? Yes!" he laughed. "I was stunned. But the three horses who we felt were the ones to beat all had something that could go wrong timing-wise, and I figured we had a good chance for third, which would have been worth $80,000. That justifies running here. After that, things happen, and maybe they don't run their races. It worked out for us. Even if you don't have the best horse you have to keep them in some of these races to keep everyone honest. It was an opportunistic moment. Nothing genius about it."
It may not have been genius, but O'Callaghan's analysis was right on the money. Captain Steve, like Silver Charm, needed the race after the post-Dubai layoff. He lost nothing in defeat and remains a huge force in the handicap division. Bailey made no excuses.
"Sure, it's a long road to Dubai and back, but I thought we would win turning for home. He was giving me a nice kick, and I was surprised when the other one passed me. But there are other races this year."
Brahms was trying dirt for the first time in 19 months, when he was a well-beaten seventh in the 1999 Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I). Unshaded, who won an allowance comeback over the track a month ago, never got involved in the Foster.
Guided Tour races in Morton Fink's name, but his co-owners include William Teinowitz, Mort Cohen, Eliah Kahn, and Howard and Larry Kempler. Although Fink was in Chicago one day after successful surgery, he was part of O'Callaghan's stand-up routine.
"Because Guided Tour is a gelding, he doesn't have a career reputation, so when he loses no one knows except the owner, and he fires you."
Asked if he had talked to Fink before the race, O'Callaghan went on, "No, because Horrible Evening finished third earlier in the day, and I never like to talk to owners between races in case they start to complain about the first one losing."
There were no such worries with Guided Tour, who achieved millionaire ($1,390,233) status with the Foster under his belt. Bred in Kentucky by Woodlynn Farm, the 5-year-old has won 10 of 27 career starts, most recently the grade II San Antonio in February at Santa Anita. A subsequent try in the Big 'Cap (gr. I) proved he was no match for last year's Horse of the Year Tiznow, and O'Callaghan has been carefully plotting his itinerary. He had since run second in the National Jockey Club Handicap (gr. III) at Sportsman's Park and was a disappointing third last out in the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II).
Asked what's next for Guided Tour, O'Callaghan didn't hesitate.
"I'm gonna buy him some sunglasses, a cigar, and a bathing suit, and I'm sending him to the south of France."
The way O'Callaghan's travel plans are working out, don't bet against it.
)Continued . . .