Ron the Greek, sixth in the early going, rallied along the rail in the stretch under jockey Jose Lezcano to grab the lead from heavily favored Wise Dan in the final strides to win the 31st running of the $437,200, Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap by a head before 25,417 ‘Downs After Dark’ night racing fans on Saturday at Churchill Downs.
Owned by Brous Stable, Wachtel Stable and Jack T. Hammer, the 5-year-old son of Clear Mandate earned an automatic berth in the $5 million, Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita with his victory. For the first time, the Stephen Foster Handicap was part of the Breeders’ Cup’s “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series.
The victory by Ron the Greek in the Stephen Foster, a 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds and up, capped a memorable night for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, who is the all-time leader in training victories at Churchill Downs. One race earlier, Mott saddled Besilu Stables’ Royal Delta, the champion 3-year-old filly of 2011, for an easy eight-length victory in the in the $161,700, Grade II Fleur de Lis Handicap Presented by Finlandia Vodka for fillies and mares, 3-year-olds and up.
With his big night, Mott increased his career win total at the Louisville, Ky. track to 664. The victory by Ron the Greek was the first for Mott in the Stephen Foster Handicap.
Ron the Greek, who notched his second victory in a Grade I stakes in 2012 after winning the Santa Anita Handicap in March, went off at odds of 9-1 and paid $20.80, $6.40 and $5.40. Wise Dan, ridden by John Velazquez, overcame a troubled start to seize the lead from the pace-setting Nates Mineshaft in deep stretch before giving way late, paid $3 and $2.80. Nates Mineshaft opened a 2 ½-length lead in midstretch under Miguel Mena, but could not hold on in the final strides and returned $9 to show.
The winner covered 1 1/8-miles over a fast track in 1:50.51 in the marquee race of Churchill Downs’ “Downs After Dark” Presented by Stella Artois and Finlandia Vodka program. Ron the Greek won for the second time in four 2012 starts and improved his career record to 7-4-1 in 19 races. The first-place prize of $262,932 boosted his career earnings passed the $1 million mark to $1,112,597.
“Everything went right for me tonight,” said Lezcano, who scored his first Stephen Foster Handicap victory. “The whole way I saw the hole on the rail and I thought I could get through. I asked him and he gave me a great run.”
Ron the Greek was steadied early, but settled in sixth place along the rail under Lezcano as Nates Mineshaft assumed the early advantage and was not pressed as he led comfortably through fractional splits of :23.66 for the quarter, :47.27 for a half-mile and six furlongs in 1:10.95. Nates Mineshaft picked up the pace at Mena’s urging on the far turn with Wise Dan, who had tracked him most of the way in second in closest pursuit. Wise Dan and Velasquez launched a four-wide challenge on the turn and were carried out in the stretch as he wore down the tiring Nates Mineshaft while Ron the Greek, unimpeded on a wide open rail, closed quickly. Wise Dan seized the advantage from Nates Mineshaft in the final yards as both horses drifted well out in the track, but Ron the Greek slipped through on the rail well to the inside of the top pair and got up just in time.
The setback for Wise Dan, the 4-5 favorite for trainer Charlie Lopresti, snapped a three-race win streak that included a victory in the Grade I Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare in November at Churchill Downs. His career slate dropped to 9-1-0 in 16 races with the narrow loss.
“Johnny said he was concentrating on putting the other horse (Nates Mineshaft) away,” said Lopresti. “He put the other horse away, but he never saw that horse (Ron the Greek) coming. He thought he had it won and he just never saw the horse coming.”
Rogue Romance rallied to finish fourth, 1 ¼ lengths behind Nates Mineshaft. Jockey Manny Cruz, who rode Rogue Romance, claimed foul against the runner-up for interference in deep stretch, but the stewards made no change in the order of finish. Alternation finished fifth, and was followed by Nehro, Mission Impazible and Fort Larned.
STEPHEN FOSTER HANDICAP QUOTES
BILL MOTT, trainer of Ron the Greek, winner - "There was a good pace in here. More than there was in the Oaklawn Handicap. Jose (Lezcano) did a great job and was able to find a seam on the rail."
Feel good he just earned a trip to Breeders' Cup Classic and he's already won at Santa Anita? - "Exactly. We felt pretty good after he won the race out there, but it's good to see him come back and run two good races since the Santa Anita Handicap. He seems like he's an improving horse and you'd have to say he's one of the top handicap horses in the country. It was a very good field tonight and I feel proud of our horse that he was able to beat such a good field."
Breeders' Cup Classic the goal after winning "Win & You're In" race? – “Having won at 10 furlongs at Santa Anita, it was certainly on our minds. We started on him pretty early, so we'll probably give him a break now and point for the Jockey Club Gold Cup (GI) and then the Breeders' Cup Classic (GI). He might have a race before the Gold Cup, but I'm not sure where it would be."
What do you think of Downs After Dark? - "Everyone looks like they're having a lot of fun and if I didn't have to get on an airplane, I would go participate with the rest of the crowd."
JOSE LEZCANO, jockey on Ron the Greek, winner - "My horse broke good and I had a perfect trip. Everything went right for me tonight. The whole way I saw the hole on the rail and I thought I could get through. I asked him and he gave me a great run.
"When we crossed the line, I thought I had won, but I wasn't sure. This horse has been very good to me. This is my third win on him and two have come in a Grade I."
CHARLES LOPRESTI, trainer of Wise Dan, runner-up - “Johnny said he was concentrating on putting the other horse (Nates Mineshaft) away. He put the other horse away, but he never saw that horse (Ron the Greek) coming. He thought he had it won and he just never saw the horse coming. That’s taking nothing away from that horse.”
Q: It’s disappointing not to get there, but he’s got a long year ahead of him …
“Believe me, I’m not a bit disappointed. He’s walking around here. He looks like he’s cooling out good and that’s the most important thing.”
Q: Any thoughts on the next step?
“We’ll see how he comes out, and we’ll probably head to Saratoga with him. I think that’s the plan.”
JOHN VELAZQUEZ, jockey on Wise Dan, runner-up - “It was a little rough when he got away from there, but he settled nice and we thought Nates Mineshaft would be out there. He moved well at the three-eighths pole and felt good coming into the stretch. He got to the leader, but he kind of re-broke while the other horse (Ron the Greek) got through on the inside. I thought we had the leader, but he never saw that horse on the inside.”
AUSTIN K. SMITH, trainer of Nates Mineshaft, third - “He ran great, and Miguel rode him perfect. We were where we wanted to be and he just didn’t quite hold on. But this was a Breeders’ Cup-type field and he was coming back on short rest. He ran a really good race.”
MIGUEL MENA, rider on Nates Mineshaft, third - “I was pretty excited when I turned for home. I had a lot of horse. We made the lead and that was kind of what I wanted to do. He seems like his heart gets bigger and turning for home I had a lot of horse, but he just got a little short at the end. He ran a great race.
“I thought I was a winner ‘til the 16th pole, but when he hit the sixteenth pole he started getting a little tired. I kept riding him hard, but he was tired.”
DONNIE K. VON HEMEL, trainer of Alternation, fifth to end a four-race win streak
Q: Any idea what happened with your horse?
“Not really. I’ll have to watch I a few more times and see. But that’s horse racing sometimes. They were better than us today.”
Churchill Downs, the world’s most legendary racetrack, has conducted Thoroughbred racing and presented America’s greatest race, the Kentucky Derby, continuously since 1875. Located in Louisville, the flagship racetrack of Churchill Downs Incorporated (NASDAQ: CHDN) also operates Trackside at Churchill Downs, which offers year-round simulcast wagering at the historic track. Churchill Downs will conduct the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 4, 2013, and its 2012 Spring Meet is scheduled for April 28-July 1. The track has hosted the Breeders’ Cup World Championships a record eight times. Information about Churchill Downs can be found on the Internet at www.churchilldowns.com.
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