The hierarchy in a couple of Thoroughbred racing's glamour divisions already have leaders who look pretty unshakable from their current perch.
With his Triple Crown sweep, historic in nature and flawless in execution, unbeaten Justify is the unabashed king of the sophomore male ranks, not to mention a virtual lock to take home every accolade he qualifies for when Eclipse Award ballots slide into voters' mailboxes in December. And after adding a victory in the June 9 Acorn Stakes (G1) to a résumé that already features wins in the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) and Central Bank Ashland Stakes (G1) this year, Monomoy Girl is the queen all other 3-year-fillies will be chasing if they hope to make a race out of it for divisional honors.
The handicap ranks, however, still have some sorting to do, especially where contenders based east of the Mississippi are concerned. To that end, the June 16, $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (G1) at Churchill Downs can bring a leading adversary to the forefront. Nine are entered in the 1 1/8-mile test.
Ken and Sarah Ramsey's Backyard Heaven has already used his time beneath the Twin Spires to announce himself. Unraced until September, when he ran second in his debut at Belmont Park, the 4-year-old son of Tizway made a big impression when he captured the May 4 Alysheba Stakes presented by Sentient Jet (G2) by 4 1/2 lengths—besting a field that included Hawaakom, Good Samaritan, Hoppertunity, and 2017 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) winner Always Dreaming.
Though he only has four starts under his belt, Backyard Heaven has proven to have multiple weapons in his arsenal. When he broke his maiden at Aqueduct Racetrack in December, he rated fifth in a seven-horse field before drawing clear to win by five. In the Alysheba, he pressed Always Dreaming through the early fractions with the rest of the field well back before putting the classic winner away on the far turn and opening up as he pleased in the lane.
"We thought he had a good shot in (the Alysheba), but he really stepped up, because he hadn't run a stakes," said Chad Brown, trainer of Backyard Heaven. "He's always been a nice horse and highly thought of. He just had some delays getting there, some minor stuff to deal with. But he's quite a nice horse, and we're excited to run him in (the Stephen Foster)."
Brown said they considered trying Backyard Heaven in the Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap (G1) on the Belmont Stakes undercard but added, "I think he's better around two turns."
During a six-race losing skid that built up following Irish War Cry's victory in last year's Wood Memorial Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G2), trainer Graham Motion tried multiple avenues to figure out how to unearth the best in the son of Curlin . Everything finally aligned last time out in the May 18 Pimlico Special Stakes (G3) when the 4-year-old chestnut led at every point of call to score a 4 1/2-length victory. And looking back over some of Irish War Cry's more lackluster efforts, Motion feels his multiple graded stakes-winning charge was compromised by a case of the "thumps" brought on by an electrolyte imbalance.
"(The Pimlico Special) was a huge relief," Motion said. "It was frustrating for the horse not to be able to show people how good I know he is. (The electrolyte imbalance) has clearly been a problem, and we've just had to kind of adjust with giving him a smaller dose of Lasix and making sure he has electrolytes."
It wasn't necessarily Motion's strategy to take Irish War Cry to the front last time out, but the horse's versatility gives the trainer confidence that as long as the colt is right, he can handle any number of race scenarios.
"I know what he is capable of. He can stalk off a horse like he did in the Wood, and he can run on the lead like he did in the race the other day," Motion said. "He's capable of doing either when he's at his best."
Patch, third in last year's final leg of the Triple Crown, opened his 4-year-old campaign with a rallying victory in a 1 1/16-mile allowance test at Belmont Park May 12. Uncle Mojo aired out his rivals in an allowance race at Pimlico Race Course May 19, winning by 12 3/4 lengths going 8 1/2 furlongs.
"With Patch, it was great to see him back. He probably ran at a distance that was a little shorter than his best, but he was able to get up and showed some gameness there," Pletcher said. "We were happy to see him run well off the layoff. Uncle Mojo … he's one that we've always had high hopes for, and he's maybe starting to find himself now."
Churchill Downs, Saturday, June 16, 2018, Race 8
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Honorable Duty (KY) Corey J. Lanerie 118 Brendan P. Walsh 6/1 2 2Patch (KY) Luis Saez 116 Todd A. Pletcher 10/1 3 3Hawaakom (KY) Brian Joseph Hernandez, Jr. 117 Wesley E. Hawley 12/1 4 4Uncle Mojo (KY) John R. Velazquez 114 Todd A. Pletcher 10/1 5 5Matrooh (KY) Santo Sanjur 115 Cipriano Contreras 20/1 6 6Backyard Heaven (KY) Irad Ortiz, Jr. 121 Chad C. Brown 6/5 7 7Lookin At Lee (KY) Ricardo Santana, Jr. 115 Steven M. Asmussen 12/1 8 8Irish War Cry (NJ) Jose L. Ortiz 119 H. Graham Motion 5/1 9 9Pavel (KY) Mario Gutierrez 117 Doug F. O'Neill 5/1
Churchill Downs, Saturday, June 16, 2018, Race 8