J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
$500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) would be a great race no matter when
it's run, but coming one week after the Belmont Stakes and the end of the
Triple Crown, the Stephen Foster serves as the unofficial start of the second
half of the racing season and marks the beginning of the major Breeders' Cup
"Win and You're In" prep races.
is befitting of such a race, the Stephen Foster has drawn a competitive field
of seven horses with possible Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) aspirations.
Leading the charge is Effinex, a
four-time graded stakes winner that finished second to American Pharoah in the
2015 Breeders' Cup Classic. He ended last year on a winning note when beating a
quality field in the Clark Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs, and while his
2016 debut didn't go exactly as planned-he came down with hives right before
the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) and wound up finishing third-he rebounded in a
big way to win the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) on April 16th by a
length while turning the tables on Melatonin, winner of the Santa Anita
on accomplishments, Effinex is the horse to beat, and when you add in the fact
that he has great tactical speed and figures to work out a perfect trip
stalking Bradester, he looks like a
deserving choice to win. But Effinex will be a very heavy favorite-he's
even-money on the morning line-and he enters the Stephen Foster off a two-month
layoff. In general, Effinex seems to thrive with frequent racing, and of the
four times in the past that he's entered a race off a layoff of two months or
more, he's lost three times with his only win coming in an allowance race.
you think that Effinex is vulnerable and want a horse offering more value, I
think Are You Kidding Me is the horse
to choose. This Canadian competitor hasn't run on dirt in more than three years
(he finished eighth in the 2013 Florida Derby in his only start over the
surface), but has a decent dirt pedigree and trained well over the main track
at Keeneland this spring-in fact, he breezed five furlongs there in a bullet
1:00 2/5 on April 7th. A versatile horse that can be positioned just
about anywhere in a race, Are You Kidding Me enters the Stephen Foster off a
gate-to-wire win in the Eclipse Stakes (gr. II) at Woodbine, for which he
earned a Beyer speed figure of 100. He's really blossomed over the last couple
of years, and given the way that Churchill Downs tend to play favorably toward
turf and synthetic horses, I think Are You Kidding Me has a big chance to pull
off the upset at 10-1 or higher.
Eagle, Majestic Harbor, and International Star have taken turns
beating each other all year and are difficult to separate. Of the trio, I
slightly prefer Eagle, who endured a bit of a troubled trip when second to
Majestic Harbor in the Alysheba Stakes (gr. II) last time out. I have long felt
that Eagle has the talent to be a grade I winner, and I loved his effort in the
Ben Ali Stakes (gr. III) two starts back, in which he reeled in the talented
Noble Bird to win going away by 1 ¼ lengths.
Bradester and El Kabeir could both be involved in the
early pace, particularly Bradester, who could be dangerous if allowed to set a
modest pace. But Bradester's previous attempts in top-class races have not
yielded the best results, and with Effinex likely to be breathing down his neck
from the start of the race, I think Bradester could tire in the homestretch. El
Kabeir has shown a lot of talent winning four stakes races, three of them
graded, but like Bradester, he's disappointed when facing top company and could
find his Stephen Foster rivals to be a little too tough.
to recap, I think Effinex and Are You Kidding Me are the two most
likely winners of the Stephen Foster, with the quest for value determining
which is the better choice to win. I have a ton of respect for Effinex, and
even if he goes off near his morning line odds, he could be worth playing on
top-an Effinex/Are You Kidding Me exacta could pay nicely. But if Effinex winds
up as an odds-on favorite, with Are You Kidding Me staying near his
morning line odds of 10-1, I think it would be worth taking a shot with the
Canadian runner on top.
it's your turn! Who do you like in the Stephen Foster?
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 http://www.theturfboard.com/.