With Triple Crown season in the books, attention turns to a strong handicap division and the $400,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs June 16.
The 31st running of the 1 1/8-mile event sets up as a faceoff between two of the country’s top older horses– Pin Oak Stable’s Pimlico Special (gr. III) winner Alternation , undefeated in four starts this year, and Morton Fink’s 123-pound highweight Wise Dan, who last took the April 22 Ben Ali Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland by 10 1/2 lengths in track record time.
Wise Dan, a 5-year-old homebred son of Wiseman's Ferry–Lisa Danielle, by Wolf Power, also won the 2011 Clark Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill for trainer Charles Lopresti. His 6-year-old half-brother, Successful Dan, is entered in the 1 1/8-mile event for 3-year-olds and up as well, but only as what Lopresti termed a “backup plan” should Wise Dan fail to start.
“After watching I'll Have Another scratch from the Belmont the day before the race, I told Mr. Fink, ‘We’ve got two really good older horses and there’s no sense in running them against each other, but God forbid Wise Dan gets hurt before the race, we’ve got the other one just sitting in the barn,’” Lopresti explained. “There’s nothing wrong with Wise Dan; he’s been training really well and he’s been very strong in workouts, but I guess you could just sort of call it insurance.”
The trainer said Successful Dan, winner of the May 4 Alysheba Stakes (gr. III) in track record fashion last time out, will point to the June 30 Cornhusker Handicap (gr. II) at Prairie Meadows or the July 7 Suburban Handicap (gr. II) at Belmont Park provided his stablemate competes in the Stephen Foster as planned.
“There are some good contenders coming in to the Foster,” he continued. “it’s going to be stiff competition and I think it’s good for racing to have all of these older horses matching up against each other.”
Alternation leads the challenge. Carrying just one pound less than Wise Dan, he seeks the first grade I win of his career after last running down Zayat Stables’ Nehro to score by a nose with a late-closing run in the May 18 Pimlico Special. The 4-year-old son of Distorted Humor previously registered three successive victories at Oaklawn Park: the Essex Handicap, the Razorback Handicap (gr. III), and the Oaklawn Park Handicap (gr. II).
“He’s been beating grade I winners the last few times, and we’d love to get a grade I win for him,” trainer Donnie Von Hemel remarked. “Wise Dan will be a very difficult assignment for anybody in this race since he’s run a couple monster efforts the last two outs, and he looks to be a very worthy opponent, but we’re very much looking forward to Saturday. We’re happy and healthy and ready to go.”
Also ready to go is 5-year-old Nate’s Mineshaft, a Cobra Farm-bred son of Mineshaft owned by Windy Hill Farm and trained by Austin Smith.
A 7 1/4-length winner of both the Lone Star Park Handicap (gr. III) in his most recent start and the New Orleans Handicap (gr. II) over Mission Impazible at Fair Grounds April 1, Nate’s Mineshaft emerged victorious in four of five starts this year under jockey Jesse Campbell, including the grade III event at Fair Grounds named after his sire. The ridgling’s lone off-the-board performance in 2012 came when he ran sixth of eight in Churchill’s May 4 Alysheba Stakes (gr. II), but Smith said an attempt to harness his frontrunning style took him out of his game.
“That was more my fault than the horse’s,” he remarked. “There was some speed in the race and I told Jesse to rate him. At Lone Star we let him roll on the lead and it worked out a lot better.”
Other familiar names from the handicap ranks include Nehro, the 4-year-old Mineshaft runner who barely missed that Pimlico Special win; Twin Creeks Racing Stables’ aforementioned 5-year-old horse Mission Impazible , trained by Todd Pletcher; and Ron The Greek, a 5-year-old son of Full Mandate who upset the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) and finished second by 2 1/2 lengths in the Oaklawn Handicap last out for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott and owners Brous Stable, Wachtel Stable, and Jack T. Hammer.
Janis R. Whitham’s Fort Larned , a homebred son of E Dubai, exits a runner-up finish one length behind Successful Dan in the Alysheba for trainer Ian Wilkes. Catesby Clay’s Rogue Romance, a 4-year-old by Smarty Jones , completes the field off a May 20 Churchill allowance score for trainer Ken McPeek.
The 31st edition of the Stephen Foster will be the first renewal of the race to be run under lights as the main attraction of a Downs After Dark card with a first post of 6 p.m. ET. It will also mark the first time the race is a part of the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series, with the victor receiving an automatic berth in the Nov. 3 Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) at Santa Anita and a $10,000 travel allowance.
$400,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I, Race 9, 9:39 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 1/8 Miles
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Nate’s Mineshaft (KY), J Campbell, 118, A Smith
2. Fort Larned (KY), J Leparoux, 117, I Wilkes
3. a-Wise Dan (KY), J Velazquez, 123, C Lopresti
4. Nehro (KY), C Nakatani, 116, S Asmussen
5. Ron The Greek (FL), J Lezcano, 119, W Mott
6. Rogue Romance (KY), M Cruz, 115, K McPeek
7. Mission Impazible (KY), J Castellano, 116, T Pletcher
8. Alternation (KY), L Quinonez, 122, D Von Hemel
9. a-Successful Dan (KY), J Velazquez, 119, C Lopresti
a- Morton Fink-owned entry