Looking for a Longshot in the Stephen Foster

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") @J_Keelerman

With a memorable Triple Crown season in the record books, it’s time to start focusing our attention on the 2015 Breeders’ Cup, which will be held on October 30th-31st at Keeneland. Fortunately for racing fans, a terrific day of racing is on schedule for this Saturday, led by the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs. This nine-furlong race is a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and has drawn a small but very competitive field of seven. Let’s take a look at who’s running!

Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I)

# Horse Jockey Trainer Last race
1 Commissioner Javier Castellano Todd Pletcher 1st Pimlico Special Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
2 Lea Joel Rosario Bill Mott 3rd Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) (VIDEO)
3 Paganol Robby Albarado Chris Hartman 1st Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)
4 Noble Bird Shaun Birdgmohan Mark Casse 2nd Alysheba Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
5 Hoppertunity Mike Smith Bob Baffert 3rd San Antonio Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
6 Majestic Harbor Corey Lanerie Paul McGee 9th Louisville Handicap (gr. III) (VIDEO)
7 Cat Burglar Victor Espinoza Bob Baffert 3rd Pimlico Special Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)

The morning line favorite is Lea, who will be making his first start since finishing third in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) on March 28th. The six-year-old son of First Samurai entered that race off an impressive victory in the Hal’s Hope Stakes (gr. III) and a close runner-up effort in the Donn Handicap (gr. I), for which he earned strong Beyer speed figures of 106 and 110. The ten-furlong distance of the Dubai World Cup was probably a bit beyond Lea’s best distance, especially given the tiring nature of the track at Meydan, so the cutback to nine furlongs for the Stephen Foster should be a positive. The main question is whether or not Lea can produce a peak effort in his first start back from Dubai, and while he has been training well for his return—he breezed four furlongs in a bullet :48.58 at Saratoga on June 6th—his overall work tab suggests that he might be in need of a race, and as the 7-5 favorite on the morning line, I think it’s worth trying to beat him for the top spot.

On paper, his biggest challenger is probably Commissioner, who has won back-to-back graded stakes in the Skip Away Stakes (gr. III) at Gulfstream Park and the Pimlico Special Handicap (gr. III) at Pimlico. However, his main strength is his ability to maintain a steady pace for a long distance, and the modest paces he encountered in his last two starts enabled him to relax near the lead and use his superior stamina to take command in the homestretch. When faced with a quicker pace in the Donn Handicap (gr. I) three starts back, Commissioner tired to finish sixth, beaten 10 ½ lengths. He must be respected in this race, but cutting back in distance after two starts at 9.5 furlongs, and with a faster pace a possibility, he’s another colt that I will try to beat for the top spot.

One colt that could definitely pull off an upset is Hoppertunity. Trained by Bob Baffert, the son of Any Given Saturday showed an affinity for Churchill Downs when winning the Clark Handicap (gr. I) last November over Protonico and Constitution, both of which have returned to win graded stakes races. Hoppertunity then won the San Pasqual Handicap (gr. II) at Santa Anita with an impressive rally up the rail before finishing third to Shared Belief and California Chrome in the San Antonio Invitational (gr. II). He hasn’t run since then, but has turned in an impressive series of workouts at Santa Anita in preparation for the Stephen Foster, culminating with a bullet five-furlong breeze in :58 1/5 on June 8th. Considering that stablemate Cat Burglar has enough speed to ensure a good pace—and will likely have to use that speed to work out a good trip from post seven—I think we’re going to see Hoppertunity settle a few lengths off the lead, then rally in the homestretch to be right in the mix for victory at a solid price.

Another major contender at excellent odds is Noble Bird, who was beaten just a head last time out in the 8.5-furlong Alysheba Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill Downs. In that race, the Mark Casse-trained colt raced wide throughout, grabbed a narrow lead at the eighth pole, and just failed to hang on while running his final five-sixteenths in about :29 1/5, an impressive fraction for a dirt race. He has since turned in a trio of sharp workouts at Churchill Downs, and will carry just 116 pounds in the Stephen Foster, five less than Hoppertunity and four less than Lea and Commissioner.

For my top choice in this race, I could go either way between Hoppertunity and Noble Bird, but with the former 2-1 on the morning line and the latter 10-1, I’ll take Noble Bird and hope that he can take another step forward in this deep and competitive field.

Now it’s your turn! Who do you like in the Stephen Foster Handicap?

J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.

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