Stephen Foster Card Filled With Intriguing Longshots

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

One week after a spectacular day of racing at Belmont Park, the attention of racing fans and handicappers across the country will turn to Churchill Downs, where an eleven-race card including five graded stakes races will be held. The feature of the night is the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap for older males, though the Regret Stakes (gr. III) might offer more opportunity for bettors to make a big score. Let's take a look at some of the races!

Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I)

The horse to beat in the Stephen Foster is undoubtedly Gun Runner, a four-year-old son of Candy Ride that has been on a roll since late in his three-year-old season. Last November, Gun Runner defeated a solid field of older rivals in the Clark Handicap (gr. I) over the same track and distance as the Stephen Foster, then won the Razorback Handicap (gr. III) by 5 ¾ lengths in his seasonal debut before finishing second to Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) on March 25th.

Any one of those efforts would likely be good enough to win the Stephen Foster, and Gun Runner's proven record at Churchill Downs (three wins from five starts plus a third in the Kentucky Derby) is appealing as well. The only concern is that the Stephen Foster will mark his first start in nearly three months (and his first start since the trip to Dubai), but trainer Steve Asmussen guided Curlin to a successful Dubai World Cup/Stephen Foster double in 2008, and all indications suggest that Gun Runner is training well and ready for a big run.

But while Gun Runner is the most likely winner, I would also take a close look at Breaking Lucky. The son of Lookin at Lucky has been a bit inconsistent, but I also believe that all of his recent disappointments are forgivable.

Consider the following--after a solid summer campaign that included a win in the Seagram Cup (gr. III) and a close fourth in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I), Breaking Lucky finished eighth over a wet track in the Lukas Classic at Churchill Downs. Back on a dry track, he immediately rebounded to finish second behind Gun Runner in the Clark Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill, defeating the multiple Grade 1 winner Shaman Ghost by 3 ½ lengths in the process.

Next time out, Breaking Lucky was beaten 26 lengths in the Pegasus World Cup, but he emerged from the race "loaded with mucus" according to his trainer, suggesting that he wasn't at his best. Back in peak form for the New Orleans Handicap (gr. II) two months later, Breaking Lucky set a very quick pace and was beaten just a neck at the wire by Honorable Duty, with the rest of the field five lengths back.

Most recently, Breaking Lucky finished fifth by ten lengths in the Alysheba Stakes (gr. II), but that race was conducted over a wet track, and Breaking Lucky was severely compromised by a slow start and troubled trip that left him well off the pace. That effort brought his record on wet tracks to 0-for-2, and given the trouble he had I would draw a line through the race.

Breaking Lucky has posted a couple of solid workouts in preparation for the Stephen Foster, most recently going five furlongs in a bullet :59 1/5 at Woodbine. Assuming the track is dry on Saturday night, I'm expecting a very big rebound from Breaking Lucky--certainly enough to finish in the exacta, and maybe even enough to win if Gun Runner doesn't fire his best shot in his first run back from Dubai.

Regret Stakes (gr. III)

There are plenty of options in this wide-open and competitive race for three-year-old fillies, with one of the most logical being Proctor's Ledge, a filly I've had my eye on since her maiden win at Gulfstream. That race was at nine furlongs, the same distance as the Regret, and Proctor's Ledge produced a big finish from off the pace to win by a neck while running the final three furlongs in :35.17 seconds. She was even more impressive three weeks later in an 8.5-furlong allowance race at Gulfstream, unleashing an explosive rally to win by 3 ¼ lengths while blazing the final five-sixteenths of a mile in :28.80.

A troubled start and a poor pace setup compromised Proctor's Ledge's chances in the Appalachian Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland, but she still managed to finish third while missing second place by just a head. She again received a poor trip when fourth in the Edgewood Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill Downs, but that was held over a course labeled "good," and I believe Proctor's Ledge is superior on firm turf.

There are other factors to like as well-trainer Brendan Walsh and jockey Corey Lanerie have been doing very well at the current Churchill meet (winning at 39% and 23% rates, respectively), and together they've won at an eye-catching 64% rate over the last sixty days. The stretch-out to nine furlongs should only help Proctor's Ledge's chances, and I expect her to give a very good account of herself at a solid price.

Two longer shots that I would consider are La Manta Gris and Anothertequilashot. La Manta Gris is 15-1 on the morning line, but might attract a bit more attention off her eye-catching maiden win going 8.5 furlongs on May 20th at Churchill Downs. After settling toward the rear of the field while racing very wide behind slow fractions of :49.14 and 1:14.17, La Manta Gris really had no business winning the race, especially after she ran over a loose piece of the temporary rail on the far turn, causing her to lose some momentum and nearly her rider as well. Remarkably, La Manta Gris recovered and finished strongly to win by a nose while running the final five-sixteenths of a mile in :29.64, an excellent time at Churchill Downs. At anywhere near her morning line odds, I think she's worth including in the exotics.

As for Anothertequilashot, she finished fourth in her only start to date (a one-mile maiden race on turf at Churchill Downs), but that was a race in which the front-runners set slow fractions and dominated the race while Anothertequilashot was the only deep closer to make an impact. Despite trying to rally into a final quarter-mile timed in :23.74 over a course labeled "good," Anothertequilashot was beaten just three-quarters of a length for second, and according to data from Trakus, her wide trip alone was enough to cost her the victory.

Trainer Philip Bauer doesn't win very often with first-timer starters, but according to data from Brisnet he strikes at a 36% rate with horses making their second career start, suggesting that Anothertequilashot could be ready for an improved run on Saturday. Drawing post six should help her work out a ground-saving trip, and at 30-1 I'd even be tempted to play her on top if Proctor's Ledge gets bet down from her 7-2 morning line odds.

Fleur de Lis Handicap (gr. II)

On paper, Forever Unbridled towers over this field, both in terms of speed figures and overall accomplishments. In six starts last year, she never finished out of the trifecta while winning the Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) and Beldame Invitational (gr. I), and she ended the season with a strong third-place finish behind Beholder and Songbird in the Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I).

The Fleur de Lis will mark Forever Unbridled's first start of the season, and if she runs to her form from last year it's difficult to envision her losing this race. Still, if you want to take a shot against her off the layoff (or are looking for a nice-priced horse to play in the exacta), I would take a look at Romantic Vision at 8-1. If you believe that the rail on Kentucky Oaks day was by far the best part of the track, then you have to be impressed by Romantic Vision's runner-up effort in the La Troienne Stakes (gr. I), in which she raced wide every step of the way but lost by just 1 ¼ lengths to Big World, who saved ground throughout.

Not only was Romantic Vision compromised by the way the track played, she also ran about 4 ¾ lengths farther than Big World. In terms of speed figures, she might need to step up to defeat Forever Unbridled, but she fits well against the rest of her Fleur de Lis rivals and should be a fair price.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the weekend stakes races at Churchill Downs?


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

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