The Grade 1 $500,000 Stephen Foster Stakes will run Saturday at Churchill Downs. The race has traditionally included the handicap division's leading horses. In the past six runnings of the race, it has produced three horses that went on to be crowned Champion Older Male when the Eclipse Awards were handed out the following January: Blame (2010), Curlin (2008), and Saint Liam (2005). This year, it will likely act as a prep race for the Breeders' Cup which will be held at Churchill Downs in November.
At a morning line of 7-2 and the high weight of 122 pounds, Giant Oak has been installed as the favorite. The five-year-old chestnut is coming off a fifth-place finish in the Grade 3 Alysheba Stakes run at Churchill on Kentucky Oaks Day. That was a blanket finish in which the top five finishers were noses, heads, and necks apart. Even in fifth place, Giant Oak was only 3/4 of a length behind the winner, First Dude.
Giant Oak ran fourth in last year's Stephen Foster. His speed figures are top-notch and he's been training well over the Churchill surface.
Crown of Thorns has been designated the second choice with a weight allowance of 121 pounds. West coast jockey Tyler Baze will be in town for the mount which is his only scheduled mount for the day.
It would appear that Crown of Thorns is a synthetic specialist, with all but one of his ten lifetime starts coming over synthetic surfaces. He has been in the money in eight of those races. Synthetic and turf runners generally perform well on an off-track, so, although I likely wouldn't choose him on a fast dirt track, rain is in the forecast for Saturday, which might be more appealing.
Although it's been two months since he raced, Duke of Mischief is coming in off a win in the Charles Town Classic. This may not be a race you typically would notice, but it was a highly competitive field of runners. The race gives preference to horses that have won a grade or group stakes in the last two years. This year, t the race was so competitive that the Charles Town Classic winner in the previous two years, Researcher, was excluded from the entries.
Duke of Mischief has turned in two great bullet works this month, so the two-month layoff wouldn't seem to be an issue. He appears to fair well over an off track, with three races over a wet surface. Again, if it turns to rain on Saturday, take a good look at the Duke.
The other two contenders worth mentioning are 6-1 Regal Ransom and 9-2 Mission Impazible, who you might remember from the 2009 and 2010 Kentucky Derbies, respectively.
Regal Ransom has not yet crossed the wire in front this year, but seems to be on the cusp of a big win. After a nearly six-month layoff, Regal Ransom returned in the 6 1/2 furlong Sir Shackleton Handicap in April, where he lost by a neck to Capt. CandymanCan. In his second start off the layoff, he lost by a nose to First Dude in the 1 1/16 mile Grade 3 Alysheba. He appears to be training well and improving with every performance. The five-year-old horse is full of class, having previously raced against Zenyatta, Tizway, and Blame, to name a few.
It's difficult to determine if Mission Impazible doesn't like a wet track or doesn't like Churchill's track. In his last race, the Grade 3 Alysheba in May, Mission Impazible finished seventh. The last time he finished worse than second was the 2010 Kentucky Derby when he was beaten nearly 11 lengths by Super Saver in the slop. From 10 career starts, he has finished one, two, or three in seven of those races. Two of those were run at Churchill Downs under sloppy or wet conditions. His best finish at Churchill Downs was when he finished third in the Kentucky Juvenile two years ago. He may be a fine choice any other day at any other track, but his poor performances at Churchill are too much of a coincidence to ignore.
The remaining field includes 30-1 Flat Out, 5-1 Apart, 30-1 Worldly, 15-1 El Caballo, 12-1 Equestrio, and 20-1 Pool Play.
The race is the last of 12 on the Churchill Downs Saturday card with a scheduled post of 6:25 PM. If you can't make it to Churchill for the race, you can watch it live on HRTV.
I'll be blogging live from Churchill Downs Saturday and offering handicapping analysis of the day's other stakes races as well as providing recaps of all the big races. Follow me on Louisville.com , Facebook, or Twitter @JBOswald68.
Photo: Courtesy Churchill Downs