NEHRO, ASTROLOGY LIKELY STRONG DUO FOR ASMUSSEN IN GRADE I FOSTER – Trainer Steve Asmussen said Monday that he has “mixed emotions” about running the “two best horses” in his stable against an imposing field in the $400,000-added Stephen Foster Handicap (Grade I), but he expects to have a double-barreled threat in the starting gate for Saturday night’s race at Churchill Downs.
Asmussen said Monday Zayat Stables LLC’s Nehro, runner-up to Animal Kingdom in both the 2011 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI) and the recent Pimlico Special (GIII) to Foster contender Alternation, and Stonestreet Stables and George Bolton’s Astrology, winner of the 2010 Iroquois (GIII) at Churchill Downs and third to Shackleford in the 2011 Preakness (GI), are expected to be entered when the field for the 31st running of the 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds and up is drawn on Wednesday.
“It’s very good to see an older horse Grade I this deep and talented,” Asmussen said. “There is a tremendous amount on the line, considering the depth of the field.”
The 2012 Stephen Foster for 3-year-olds and up at 1 1/8 miles on the main track will make history as it will be the first renewal of the race run under the lights. It is the main event among four stakes races schedule that evening as part of the “Downs After Dark” Presented by Stella Artois and Finlandia Vodka racing program.
Along with the powerful Asmussen duo, the Stephen Foster Handicap field is expected to include luminaries such as Morton Fink’s homebred Wise Dan, winner of the 2011 Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (GI) at Churchill Downs and the recent Ben Ali (GIII) at Keeneland; Santa Anita Handicap (GI) winner Ron the Greek; Alysheba (GIII) runner-up and Skip Away (GIII) winner Fort Larned; Lone Star Park Handicap (GIII) and New Orleans Handicap (GIII) winner Nates Mineshaft; Mission Impazible, runner-up to Pool Play in both the Stephen Foster (GI) and Wise Dan in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs in 2011 and Gulfstream Park’s Donn Handicap in 2012; Where’s Sterling, winner of the Philip Iselin (GIII) at Monmouth Park; and Rogue Romance, a recent allowance winner at Churchill Downs and third to champion Uncle Mo in the 2010 Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) at Churchill Downs.
The Stephen Foster would be a good spot for Nehro, a son of Mineshaft who is bearing down on the $1 million mark in career earnings, to secure an overdue first stakes win. Along with his runner-up finishes in the Kentucky Derby and Pimlico Special, he was a close second in both the 2011 Arkansas Derby (GI) and Louisiana Derby (GII).
The loss in the Pimlico Special, in which Nehro rallied from eighth and circled the field five-wide on the far turn only to lose by a nose, was particularly painful for Asmussen.
“I thought he won,” Asmussen said. “Watching the race, I was very concerned the first time by. It was very rough in the first eighth of a mile and from where he was in the turn it did not look like he had a shot. And then to think he got up and then to have lost the photo – ouch! He’s such a gritty horse.
“He had a very rough run to the first turn. He closed from further back than the racetrack seemed to be playing all week. He ran hard, but hopefully he’s rebounded in time and gets the opportunity in the Grade I.”
In his most recent start, Astrology scored a 2 3/4-length victory in an April 14 allowance race Oaklawn Park. The win snapped a six-race losing streak for the beautifully-bred son of A.P. Indy that dated to his Iroquois win in November of 2010. The string included his Preakness run, along with runner-up finishes in the Kentucky Jockey Club (GII) at Churchill Downs and the Sunland Derby (GIII) at New Mexico’s Sunland Park.
"I think he’s doing as good now as he was when he was third in the Preakness,” Asmussen said. “Being able to just walk out of his stall to run in a Grade I is just too big of an opportunity, with his looks and his pedigree, to pass up. And that’s with nothing but respect for how fast this race is and how good of a field it is.”
Corey Nakatani will ride Nehro and Mike Smith has been enlisted to ride Astrology.
Saturday’s Stephen Foster will mark the first time the race has been part of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships’ “Win and You’re In" series. The Foster winner will earn an automatic starting berth in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) on Nov. 3 at Santa Anita.
With the Foster’s status of a “Win and You’re In” event, its winner’s entry fees to the Championships will be paid by the Breeders’ Cup and the winning stable will receive a $10,000 travel allowance to Santa Anita.
“I definitely like the change in that,” Asmussen said. “For a horse to do enough to beat a caliber of field like this (in the Stephen Foster), there should be entry fees paid and travel. It’s significant, but the winner is going to earn it. It’s not going to be given away.”
ALYSHEBA RUNNER-UP FORT LARNED WORKS FIVE-EIGHTHS FOR FOSTER – Janis Whitham’s Fort Larned, runner-up to Successful Dan in the Alysheba Presented by Besilu Stables (Grade II) on Kentucky Oaks Day, continued his preparations for Saturday’s $400,000-added Stephen Foster Handicap (GI) with a five-eighths breeze over the fast main track at Churchill Downs in 1:02.20 for trainer Ian Wilkes.
“What’s the old saying? It was just what I wanted,” Wilkes said.
Monday’s five-eighths breeze, which was the 14th fastest of 23 at the distance, marked the fifth work over the Churchill Downs track since the Alysheba and Wilkes has had the Stephen Foster in mind the whole time.
“The Stephen Foster was the goal,” Wilkes said. “He ran really well (at Churchill Downs) and why not take the next step?”
The Alysheba was the third start over the main track at Churchill Downs for Fort Larned, who finished fourth as a 2-year-old in his career debut and then ended his 3-year-old campaign with a 6 ¾-length victory in the slop at the Louisville track.
A 4-year-old son of E Dubai, Fort Larned began his 2012 campaign with a fourth-place finish in an allowance at Tampa Bay and then came back to win the Challenger over the same track. In his third start of the year, and the one prior to the Alysheba, Fort Larned won the Skip Away (GIII) by 2 ½ lengths in track record time at Gulfstream Park.
"His last two races have been really good,” Wilkes said. “He broke the track record in the Skip Away and then last time he just got beat when Successful Dan broke the track record. The horse is running at a high level and he’s improving. I don’t think he’s peaked yet.”
Jockey Julien Leparoux, the 10th all-time leading rider at Churchill Downs, was aboard Fort Larned for his Skip Away victory and will be in the irons for the Stephen Foster.
Also working from the Wilkes barn Monday toward a start on Saturday at Churchill Downs was A. Stevens Miles Jr.’s homebred Neck ’n Neck. A 3-year-old dark bay or brown son of Flower Alley, sire of 2012 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI) winner I’ll Have Another, Neck ’n Neck breezed five furlongs in 1:01 in preparation for Saturday’s $100,000-added Matt Winn (GIII).
“He worked very well and I’m very pleased with him,” Wilkes said.
Neck ’n Neck broke his maiden over the Churchill Downs track in his final start at age 2 and began his 3-year-old campaign with a runner-up finish to Discreet Dancer in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park in January.
After failing to hit the board in the Sam F. Davis (GIII), Fountain of Youth (GII) and Florida Derby (GI), Neck ’n Neck returned to allowance company and won a 1 1/16-mile event by 6 ½ lengths at Churchill Downs on May 10.
“Hopefully it was a confidence builder and it’ll get his mind back on to what he’s doing,” Wilkes said. “That was only his second win, but he’s run some really good races and was competitive in a Grade I. Also, I believe a couple of horses have come back and won out of the allowance race, which is good to see.”
Leandro Goncalves, who was aboard Neck ’n Neck for both his career victories, has the Matt Winn mount.
KENTUCKY OAKS WINNER BELIEVE YOU CAN SPARKLES IN WORK, BUT SEASON IS OVER FOR STABLEMATE MARK VALESKI – Monday brought a mix of delight and disappointment to owner-breeder Brereton Jones and the Churchill Downs-based stable of trainer J. Larry Jones.
The delight was provided by Brereton Jones’ homebred filly Believe You Can when the winner of the $1 million Kentucky Oaks (GI) worked a dazzling five furlongs in :59.60 under retired jockey Larry Melancon in preparation for a start in Belmont Park’s Mother Goose (GI) on June 23. The work was the fastest of 23 at the distance.
The disappointment for the Joneses came with Monday morning’s departure of Mark Valeski from Churchill Downs as the winner of Belmont’s Peter Pan (GI) boarded a van bound for Brereton Jones’ Airdrie Stud, the first stop on a journey that will take him to Lexington’s Hagyard-Davidson-McGee Institute later in the week. He will undergo surgery there to remove a bone chip in his left knee, a procedure that will end his 2012 racing season, but not his career.
The work by Believe You Can, the second since her Kentucky Oaks victory on May 4, had Larry Jones beaming. The Proud Citizen filly stepped onto the track as training hours opened at 6 a.m. (all times EDT) and worked over a fast track in fractional times of :12.60, :24.40, :35.40 and :47.60 and galloped out six furlongs in 1:12.60.
"Everything was really good,” Jones said. “She worked nice and galloped out really good. She came back good, so it looks like she’s going to the Mother Goose in good shape.”
The Mother Goose, which will be run at 1 1/16 miles, will be the first post-Kentucky Oaks step on a season that Jones hopes will culminate in a run in November in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (GI).
“As we said with (2011 Horse of the Year and champion older female) Havre de Grace, we’re going to try to give her a chance to win a championship,” Jones said. “We want to make sure we put her out there enough that maybe she can be champion 3-year-old filly, and then we’ll see what else can be added on.”
Jones won the 2008 Kentucky Oaks with Proud Spell, another Jones homebred. She went on to earn the Eclipse Award that recognized her as that season’s champion 3-year-old filly. The Hopkinsville, Ky. native said this year’s second Oaks win with Believe You Can was a special moment.
“We have always thought it was the second-best race there’s ever been – the Derby is the only that’s better than it,” Jones said. “It kind of feels like it validated the first one, that we didn’t just get lucky to get it. We did get lucky on both accounts, without a doubt, but hopefully there’s more to it than just luck. Actually, to do it for the same owner and the same stallion – Proud Citizen was the sire of both of them – it was fun.”
Regarding Mark Valeski, Jones said the injury suffered by the onetime Kentucky Derby hopeful did not come as a complete surprise. He said a bone spur on the colt’s knee had been monitored closely for some time.
“He had a little bit of a spur for a while and we knew it was probably going to be a matter of time, but it looks like it has flaked off,” Jones said. “So he’ll be out for three or four months, at least. He’ll come back at the Fair Grounds and we’ll get started again.”
Mark Valeski, another homebred by Proud Citizen, heads to the sidelines with a career record of 3-2-0 in six races with earnings of $430,952. He launched his career with a fourth-place finish behind Belmont Stakes (GI) winner Union Rags last summer and Delaware Park and had runner-up finishes during his four-race 3-year-old campaign in the Louisiana Derby (GII) and Risen Star (GII).
CHAMPION ROYAL DELTA, BIG CAP WINNER RON THE GREEK ARRIVE – Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott’s accomplished duo of Besilu Stable’s Royal Delta, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic and the champion 3-year-old filly of 2011, and Brous Stable, Wachtel Stable and Jack T. Hammer’s Ron the Greek, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap (GI), were getting acclimated to surroundings at Churchill Downs after they arrived Monday afternoon to compete in stakes races on the first nighttime Stephen Foster Handicap program.
The Mott trainees arrived around 2:30 p.m. following a flight from New York.
Royal Delta will look for her first victory in three 2012 races in the $150,000-added Fleur De Lis for fillies and mares ages 3 and up at 1 1/8 miles. The daughter of Empire Maker is coming off a ninth-place run against males in the $10 million Dubai World Cup (GI) over the synthetic Tapeta surface at Dubai’s Meydan Racecourse on March 31. Prior to that, she was runner-up to Awesome Maria in the Sabin (GIII) at Gulfstream Park in her 2012 debut.
Her Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic win came over the Churchill Downs track in early November. Royal Delta has a record of 5-2-1 in 10 races with earning of $1,657,400.
Ron the Greek followed his victory in Santa Anita’s “Big Cap” with a runner-up finish to Alternation in the Oaklawn Handicap. He was stabled here early in his career when he was trained by Tom Amoss. The son of Full Mandate has started 18 times and has a record of 6-4-1 with earnings of $849,665.
Also checking-in at Churchill Downs following that flight from New York was Twin Creeks Racing Stables LLC’s Mission Impazible, runner-up in the 2011 Foster and the Clark Handicaps.
The Todd Pletcher-trained son of Unbridled’s Song finished fourth to Foster rivals Alternation and Nehro in the Pimlico Special last time out, following runner-up finishes in 2012 to Hymn Book in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park and Nates Mineshaft, another expected Foster rival, in the New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds.
PROSPECTIVE FIELDS FOR STEPHEN FOSTER DAY STAKES RACES – The “Downs After Dark” Presented by Stella Artois and Finlandia Vodka racing program on Saturday, June 16 will be highlighted by the Stephen Foster Handicap (GI), the Fleur de Lis (GII), the Matt Winn (GIII) and the Regret (GIII).
The following is a list of horses believed by Churchill Downs officials to be pointing to each stakes race.
The 31st running of the $400,000-added Stephen Foster Handicap for 3-year-olds and up at 1 1/8 miles: Wise Dan (trained by Charlie Lopresti, weighted at 123 pounds), Alternation (Donnie Von Hemel, 122), Ron the Greek (Bill Mott, 119), Fort Larned (Ian Wilkes, 117), Mission Impazible (Todd Pletcher, 116), Nehro (Steve Asmussen, 116), Astrology (, Asmussen 115) and Rogue Romance (Ken McPeek, 115).
Nates Mineshaft (Austin Smith, 118) is probable for the Foster and Successful Dan (Lopresti, 119), winner of the Alysheba, could be entered.
The 37th running of the $150,000-added Fleur de Lis Presented by Finlandia Vodka for fillies and mares, 3-year-olds and up at 1 1/8 miles: Royal Delta (trained by Bill Mott, weighted at 123 pounds), St. John’s River (Andy Leggio Jr., 118) and It’s Tea Time (Rusty Arnold, 115).
Absinthe Minded (Wayne Lukas, 116), Afleeting Lady (Dale Romans, 116) and Distorted Love (Helen Pitts-Blasi, 114) are believed to be possible.
The 15th running of the $100,000-added Matt Winn for 3-year-olds and 1 1/16 miles: Macho Macho (trained by Steve Asmussen), Master Rick (Asmussen), Neck ’n Neck (Ian Wilkes), Right to Vote (Eoin Harty) and Stealcase (Mark Casse). Hansen (Mike Maker) and Johannesbourbon (Kellyn Gorder) are possible.
Asmussen’s Matt Winn candidates each worked a half-mile over a fast surface at Churchill Downs on Monday. Master Rick breezed in :50.60, while Macho Macho covered the distance in :51.
The 43rd running of the $100,000-added Regret for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/8 miles on turf: Centre Court (trained by Rusty Arnold), Colonial Flag (Michael Matz), Coup (Graham Motion), Golden History (Mark Casse), Heart of Destiny (Jimmy Baker), Karlovy Vary (Arnold), Left a Message (Tom Proctor), Silver Hustler (Grant Forster), Singn on Themoon (Mark Hubley), Treasured Up (Al Stall Jr.) and Zapper Belle (Dan Peitz). Funny Proposition (Casse) is considered possible.