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Giant Oak, Crown of Thorns Head 30th Stephen Foster Handicap

| Churchill Downs Communications | 06/15/2011 #
  • Exercise rider Celia Cochran guides Stephen Foster favorite Giant Oak off the track following a Wednesday gallop. (Reed Palmer)

  • Crown of Thorns walked back to the barn following his first gallop over the track at Churchill Downs. (Reed Palmer, CD)

  • Godolphin's Regal Ransom galloped Wednesday morning in preparation his Stephen Foster bid. (Reed Palmer)

  • Adele Dilschneider's Apart won the 2010 Ack Ack Handicap at Churchill Downs. (Reed Palmer, CD)

  • Mission Impazible (gray, inside) will try to bounce back from a poor effort in the Alysheba for trainer Todd Pletcher.

  • After 27 races, veteran Pool Play will make his dirt debut in the Foster. (Reed Palmer, CD)

  • Claiborne Farm's Blame won last year's Stephen Foster, and returned in November to take the Breeders' Cup Classic (Reed Palmer)

The Virginia H. Tarra Trust’s two-time Grade I stakes winner Giant Oak and Spendthrift Farm LLC’s Crown of Thorns, back in top form after dealing with a string of injuries, head a deep and competitive field of 11 3-year-olds and up entered to compete in Saturday’s 30th running of the $500,000-added Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by Abu Dhabi (Grade I) at Churchill Downs.

The 1 1/8-mile Stephen Foster is one of the premier races for older horses in America and looms as a major prep for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI), which will be run for the second consecutive year at Churchill Downs on Saturday, Nov. 5.  Adele Dilschneider and Claiborne Farm’s Blame won last year’s renewal and returned in November to win a memorable Classic showdown with the previously unbeaten eventual Horse of the Year Zenyatta.

The Stephen Foster Handicap is the featured event among five stakes races Stephen Foster Day Presented by Abu Dhabi.  The day will also include The President of the United Arab Emirates Cup, a $50,000-added Grade I race for purebred Arabian horses that will be the first race for horses of that breed ever conducted at the world famous home of the Kentucky Derby.

The President of the UAE Cup Series was established 20 years ago to promote and celebrate the Arabian breed internationally.  It was the first international racing series for Arabian horses and continues to be considered as the world’s premier racing series for the breed.

The 2011 renewal of the Stephen Foster Handicap is scheduled as the 12th race on Saturday’s program with a post time of 6:25 p.m. (all times Eastern).  Other stakes races for Thoroughbreds on the 12-race Stephen Foster Day program, which begins with the first race at 12:45 p.m., include:

  • The $125,000-added Matt Winn Presented by Emirates Equestrian Federation (GIII) for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles on the main track,
  • The $125,000-added Regret Presented by Etihad Airways (GIII) for 3-year-old fillies on turf at 1 1/8 miles,                                              
  • The $100,000 Jefferson Cup Presented by Abu Dhabi (GIII) for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles on turf.

 The Chris Block-trained Giant Oak and Crown of Thorns, trained by Richard Mandella, are the high weights for the Stephen Foster, respectively, at 122 and 121 pounds.

The stretch-running Giant Oak was assigned high weight in the Stephen Foster Handicap on the strength of back-to-back Grade I victories in last fall’s $500,000 Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare at Churchill Downs and the Donn Handicap in early February at Gulfstream Park.  He has suffered a pair of defeats since the Donn: a third-place run behind Foster rival Mission Impazible in the New Orleans Handicap (GII) at Fair Grounds and a troubled fifth-place finish in the Alysheba (GIII) at Churchill Downs in which he was beaten only three-quarters of a length by First Dude.

Block believes Giant Oak, the 7-2 favorite in Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia’s morning line odds for the Stephen Foster, is ready for a strong effort.  But Block said the 5-year-old son of Giant’s Causeway could need some help from faster members of the field.

“We need a pace, and it seems that the shorter the field the pace doesn’t really set up well for us,” Block said.  “I don’t think a big field bothers me too much, because he comes around ‘em and he’s done that here before.  I’ve got a good rider and I feel good about it.”

Shaun Bridgmohan will ride Giant Oak, as he did in the veteran’s last four races and a fourth-place run behind Blame in the 2010 Stephen Foster.  Giant Oak brings a career record of 5-5-4 in 26 races and earnings of $1,307,001 into the race.

The highly regarded but lightly raced Crown of Thorns comes into the Stephen Foster off an impressive victory for trainer Richard Mandella in the Mervyn LeRoy (GII) over the synthetic Cushion Track surface at Hollywood Park.  It was only the 10th career start for the 6-year-old Crown of Thorns, who has spent extensive time on the sidelines with injuries since early in this 3-year-old campaign.

A planned trip to Churchill Downs for last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (GI) was scrapped at the last second when Crown of Thorns came down with a minor knee issue.  But he is doing well now and Mandella is anxious to see how his star performs in the Foster, which will be Crown of Thorns’ first race outside of California.

“It’s a well-respected race with a lot of money, and you don’t get too many chances with this guy,” Mandella said.  “So you go for the gold.  I think having a run over this racetrack and seeing how he likes it is important.”

Crown of Thorns, the 4-1 second choice in Battaglia’s morning line, has compiled a record of 3-4-1 in his 10 races with earnings of $777,080.  All four of his runner-up finishes came in Grade I races, including a narrow loss to Dancing in Silks in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Sprint (GI).

Tyler Baze will travel from southern California to ride Crown of Thorns, who drew post two.

There are two more millionaires in the Stephen Foster field.  One is Dubai-based Godolphin’s Regal Ransom, the runner-up in the Alysheba (GIII) on Kentucky Oaks Day, has a record of 4-4-0 in 14 races and a career bankroll of $1,887,972.  The other is Alex and Joann Lieblong, Marilyn McMaster and Fawkes Racing’s Duke of Mischief, whose earnings of $1,662,546 received a big boost from an impressive victory last time out in the $1 million Charles Town Classic (GIII) at West Virginia’s Charles Town.   The 5-year-old has a record of 7-4-1 in 21 races.

The 5-year-old Regal Ransom, who won the UAE Derby (GII) and Super Derby (GII) and finished eighth to Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby (GI) as a 3-year-old, is a 6-1 risk in the Stephen Foster morning line and will break from post six under jockey Alan Garcia.  Duke of Mischief, also listed at morning line odds of 6-1, starts from post nine with Joe Bravo up.

Other accomplished horses looking for their first Grade I success in the Stephen Foster Handicap include Twin Creeks Racing Stables LLC’s Mission Impazible (9-2), the winner of the New Orleans Handicap (GII) at Fair Grounds and 10th to Super Saver in the 2010 Kentucky Derby (GI), but seventh for trainer Todd Pletcher as the favorite in the Alysheba;  Adele Dilschneider’s Apart (5-1)winner of the William Donald Schaefer Handicap (GIII) at Pimlico and last fall’s Ack Ack Handicap (GIII) at Churchill Downs for trainer Al Stall Jr.; and Willam Farish Jr.’s Pool Play (20-1) a Canada-based graded stakes winner and earner of $582,429 who makes his debut on dirt for trainer Mark Casse after 27 races on synthetic and turf courses.

Another horse to watch is Thoroughbred Legends Racing Stable’s Equestrio (12-1), a close third in his stakes debut for Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito in the Alysheba.  The son of Elusive Quality has won three of seven races and scored his first career victory last fall at Churchill Downs.

Rising stars in the 11-horse Stephen Foster field include Preston Stable’s Flat Out (30-1), the lightly-raced runner-up in the Lone Star Park Handicap (GIII) on Memorial Day; Jay Em Ess Stable’s Worldy (30-1), runner-up in the 2010 Ohio Derby (GII) and winner of a Kentucky Derby Day allowance race at Churchill Downs; and James D. Spence’s El Caballo (15-1), winner of the Col. E.R. Bradley (GIII) on the Fair Grounds turf and winner of a one-mile allowance race on dirt on Kentucky Oaks Day at Churchill Downs.

The 2010 Stephen Foster Handicap was won by Dilschneider and Claiborne Farm’s Blame, who returned to Churchill Downs in November to win the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.  Blame was the fourth horse to take the Stephen Foster and the Classic in the same year.  Others who completed that sweep were Black Tie Affair (1991), Awesome Again (1998) and Saint Liam (2005).

Black Tie Affair and Saint Liam won their respective renewals of the Stephen Foster on their way to Horse of the Year honors.  Two other horses competed in the 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds and up on their way to being honored with the gold Eclipse Award presented to the Horse of the Year: Mineshaft, who finished second to Perfect Drift in the 2003 Stephen Foster, and Curlin, who won the race as a 4-year-old in 2008 on his way to his second consecutive Horse of the Year award.

A victory on Saturday by Apart would make Stall the fourth trainer to saddle back-to-back winners of the Stephen Foster.  The others are Patrick Byrne, who saddled Awesome Again (1998) and City by Night (1997); Jere Smith, Jr., who sent Recoup the Cash to back-to-back wins in 1994 and ’95; and Forrest Kaelin, who trained Vodika Collins, the winner of the first two runnings of the Foster in 1982 and ’83.  The only other trainer with a previous win in the race is bin Suroor, who sadded Godolphin’s Street Cry to win the race in 2002.  No trainer has more than two wins in the race.

Dilschneider, who co-owned 2010 winner Blame with Claiborne Farm, would join Richard Trebat, who owned Recoup the Cash, and M.B. Collins, owner of Vodika Collins, as the only owners to win the race in successive years.   West Point Thoroughbreds, who won the Foster in 2009 with Macho Again and Flashy Bull in 2007, is the only other two-time winning owner.  Godolphin, owner of Regal Ransom, is also bidding for its second Foster win.

In an oddity, no jockey in this year’s Stephen Foster has previously won the race.  Robby Albarado and Pat Day share the record for Foster victories with three, and Albarado’s wins came in consecutive years in with Flashy Bull (2007), Curlin (2008) and Macho Again (2009).  Albarado does not have a mount in the 2011 Foster.

The field for the 30th running of the $500,000-added Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by Abu Dhabi (with jockey, weight and morning line odds) from the rail out includes: Flat Out (Corey Lanerie, 114, 30-1), Crown of Thorns (Baze, 121, 4-1), Apart (Julien Leparoux, 118, 5-1), Worldly (Manoel Cruz, 113, 30-1), El Caballo (James Graham, 115, 15-1), Regal Ransom (Garcia, 117, 6-1), Equestrio (Jose Lezcano, 116, 12-1), Pool Play (Miguel Mena, 116, 20-1), Duke of Mischief (Bravo, 118, 6-1), Giant Oak (Bridgmohan, 122, 7-2) and Mission Impazible (Javier Castellano, 118, 9-2).