Nearly six months into the season, the handicap division is still looking for a clear-cut leader. With a breakout performance in the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) June 18 at Churchill Downs, there is an opportunity for someone to assume that role.
A large and competitive field of 11 was drawn for the 1 1/8-mile Stephen Foster, which is the headliner on a Churchill program that features four graded stakes. The Foster program will include the first race in track history for Arabian horses. Post time for the feature is set for 6:25 p.m. EDT.
It is a difficult task to separate the top contenders, which include Apart, Crown of Thorns, and Duke of Mischief—all of them coming off graded stakes victories. Regal Ransom, the improving Equestrio, two-time grade I winner Giant Oak, and Mission Impazible all enter off losing efforts in the May 6 Alysheba (gr. III), but are all capable of taking home top honors. Giant Oak will carry top weight of 122 pounds and was pegged as the 7-2 morning-line favorite.
Others horses of interest are turf/synthetic specialist Pool Play, who makes his dirt debut in his 28th start, and Worldly, a two-time winner at Churchill.
After winning three stakes in the second half of 2010, many expected Adele Dilschneider’s homebred Apart to take control of the handicap division in 2011. The son of Flatter did not run poorly in any of his first three starts this year at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, but fell a little short in all of them, including a third in the Mineshaft Handicap (gr. III) and second to Mission Impazible in the New Orleans Handicap (gr. II).
But the 4-year-old colt rebounded in his most recent start, scoring in the May 21 William Donald Schaeffer Memorial (gr. III) at Pimlico Race Course by a neck. Trainer Al Stall Jr. is hopeful Apart has turned a corner.
“He has gotten better as the year has gone along,” Stall said. “He has made little mistakes here and there; nothing major but enough to keep him from winning. The New Orleans Handicap was much better, and then he ran a nice race in the grade III. He’s starting to put everything together.”
Last year Dilschneider, along with Claiborne Farm and Stall, used winning efforts in the Schaeffer and the Stephen Foster to jumpstart Blame’s championship season that eventually ended with a defining victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I). Stall is not ready to compare Apart and Blame at this point, but still thinks he is good enough to win this race.
“They are different horses; they look different and train different,” Stall said. “But I don’t think there are any Blames or Battle Plans in this race. (Blame and Apart) happened to run in the same two races but we have not mapped a plan for Apart yet. (The Foster) will tell us what his next race will be. If he doesn’t run well we’ll look for a lesser race, and if he runs a good race we’ll look for a better spot.”
Julien Leparoux will pick up the mount on Apart, who will break from post 3 and carry 118.
Florida-based Duke of Mischief enters off his biggest payday when he scored in the $1 million Charles Town Classic (gr. III) on a sloppy track April 16 for trainer David Fawkes. The 5-year-old son of Graeme Hall improved to 7-4-0 from 21 starts and earnings of more than $1.6 million. Joe Bravo will keep the mount.
Dirt is the biggest question mark for California shipper Crown of Thorns, who finished seventh in his lone dirt start April 3 in the Potrero Grande (gr. II) at Santa Anita Park. Owned by Spendthrift Farm and trained by Richard Mandella, the 6-year-old son of Repent rebounded with a win in the May 7 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap (gr. II) on the Hollywood Cushion Track, breaking a six-race losing streak while beating the talented Sidney’s Candy.
A three-time grade I runner-up, Crown of Thorns is making his first start outside of California. He had his first gallop at Churchill on Wednesday, June 15.
The Foster would be a career-defining victory for the bay horse, who has missed significant time twice in his career due to injuries.
“It’s a well-respected race with a lot of money, and you don’t get too many chances with this guy,” Mandella said. “So you go for the gold. I think having a run over this racetrack and seeing how he likes it is important.”
Tyler Baze will fly in for California for the mount on Crown of Thorns.
Giant Oak’s season began in fine fashion when he won the Donn Handicap (gr. I) in January, which came on the heels of his breakthrough victory in the Clark Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill to end his 2010 season. A homebred of Virginia H. Tarra Trust and trained by Chris Block, Giant Oak was third in the New Orleans Handicap and fifth, beaten only a half-length, in the Alysheba. He was fourth in last year’s Stephen Foster.
“He’s coming into it as good as I’ve seen him come into one,” Block said of the 5-year-old son of Giant's Causeway who has earned more than $1.3 million from 26 starts. “We need a pace, and the shorter the field it seems that the pace doesn’t really set up well for us. A big field doesn’t bother me too much, because he comes around them and he has done that here before. I’ve got a good rider (Shaun Bridgmohan) and I feel good about it.”
Godolphin Racing’s Regal Ransom has gotten his season off to a good start even though he was second in both the Sir Shackleton Handicap at Gulfstream and the Alysheba, where he was beaten a nose by First Dude. Winner of the 2009 U.A.E. Derby (UAE-II) and the Super Derby (gr. II), the son of Distorted Humor has won three times at 1 1/8 miles. It will be his fourth race over the Churchill main track even though he is based in New York. Alan Garcia will be aboard for trainer Saeed bin Suroor.
“This is the fourth time he has been at Churchill Downs, and he has been in Barn 41 every time,” assistant trainer Ian Grant said. “It’s kind of like a second home for him. I think we got a little unlucky last time with an outside post. If he wouldn’t have been so wide, I think he would have been able to hold on. He’s really doing well. I think he’ll run another big race this weekend.”
Twin Creeks Racing Stables’ Mission Impazible was a disappointing seventh in the Alysheba, one start after taking the New Orleans Handicap. The Todd Pletcher trainee shipped in from New York the week of June 5 and recorded a solid five-furlong work in 1:00 4/5 at Churchill. With Javier Castellano scheduled to ride, he drew post 11.
$500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I, Race 12, 6:25 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 1/8 Miles (Dirt) PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer 1. Flat Out (FL), C J Lanerie, 114, C L Dickey
2. Crown of Thorns (FL), T Baze, 121, R E Mandella
3. Apart (KY), J R Leparoux, 118, A M Stall, Jr.
4. Worldly (KY), M R Cruz, 113, P J McGee
5. El Caballo (KY), J Graham, 115, R E Nicks
6. Regal Ransom (KY), A Garcia, 117, S bin Suroor
7. Equestrio (KY), J Lezcano, 116, N P Zito
8. Pool Play (ON), M Mena, 116, M E Casse
9. Duke of Mischief (FL), J Bravo, 118, D Fawkes
10. Giant Oak (IL), S Bridgmohan, 122, C M Block
11. Mission Impazible (KY), J Castellano, 118, T A Pletcher