Noble Bird took the lead from pace-setter Paganol on the far turn and fought hard under jockey Shaun Bridgmohan to hold off favored Lea by a diminishing head to win the 34th running of the $500,000, Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by GE at Churchill Downs and secured a spot in the starting gate for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) at nearby Keeneland Race Course on Saturday, Oct. 31.
The 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds and up was one of four stakes events on the track’s “Downs After Dark Presented by Stella Artois and Finlandia Vodka” night racing program and the main racing event shared the evening’s spotlight with a public appearance by Zayat Stable’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI) winner American Pharoah, the first 3-year-old Thoroughbred to win the American Triple Crown since1978. A crowd of 28,968 looked on as American Pharoah was paraded on the track just before owner and breeder Ahmed Zayat, trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza were presented with their engraved Kentucky Derby winner’s trophies.
Noble Bird completed 1 1/8 miles in over a fast track in 1:47.94 in the evening’s racing highlight.
John C. Oxley’s chestnut son of 2004 Belmont Stakes (GI) winner Birdstone was the 9-2 fourth betting choice in the field of seven and paid $11.40, $5 and $3.20. Lea, who made up almost all of a 1 ½-length deficit in the final eighth of a mile under jockey Joel Rosario, paid $3.40 and $2.40. Hoppertunity, with Mike Smith up, rallied from sixth to finish third and returned $3 to show.
With his victory in the Stephen Foster Handicap, which is part of the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In Classic Division” series, the Mark Casse-trained Noble Bird is guaranteed a spot in the field for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and also earned a travel stipend for the journey to Lexington, Ky.’s Keeneland Race Course for the racing highlight the two-day Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
The Stephen Foster was the first stakes victory for Noble Bird, who lost by a head to Protonico in Churchill Downs’ $400,000 Alysheba Stakes (GII) in his stakes debut on the May 1 Kentucky Oaks Day program. Casse’s improving colt won for the third time in five 2015 races improved his career record to 4-3-0 in 10 starts and the winner’s prize of $303,000 more than doubled his career bankroll to $531,278.
“I’ve been around a lot of good horses and he’s been working about as good as I have seen a horse train – just week after week,” said Norman Casse, the trainer’s son and the assistant who oversees his father’s stable at Churchill Downs. “He just ran in the Alysheba and ran a really big race in that, and he’s just gotten better from there and he rewarded our confidence.”
“We just couldn’t get there,” said trainer Bill Mott of the narrow loss by the favored Lea. “It looked like if they’d gone three more jumps we could have had him, but the race was a mile and an eighth. It wasn’t a mile and an eighth and three or four jumps.”
Paganol shot from the starting gate to grab a two-length advantage and carried the field through early fractions of :23.39 for the first quarter, a half-mile in :46.81 and six furlongs in 1:10.93. Noble Bird stalked the leader three wide and the favored Lea was just behind him. Bridgmohan moved Noble Bird to the lead on the far turn and opened a clear advantage in the stretch as Lea swung outside and launched his late charge and Hoppertunity launched a charge from the back. Lea slowly chipped away at Noble Bird’s advantage in the final eighth of a mile, but the latter managed to hold on to win by a head. Hoppertunity could not threaten the top pair and finished 5 ½ lengths farther back in third.
Majestic Harbor finished fourth, and was followed past the finish by Cat Burglar, Commissioner and the early leader Paganol faded to last in the field of seven.
STEPHEN FOSTER HANDICAP QUOTES
NORMAN CASSE, assistant trainer of NOBLE BIRD (winner): “I’ve been around a lot of good horses and he’s been working about as good as I have seen a horse train – just week after week. He just ran in the Alysheba and ran a really big race in that, and he’s just gotten better from there and he rewarded our confidence. Last summer we had him here before we went out to Del Mar and I told Dad (trainer Mark Casse) back then that I thought that he was a very talented dirt horse. Things just didn’t happen that way and then he went to Oaklawn and he had to run on the dirt obviously. I just think that’s a testament to how gutsy this horse is. He’s trained extremely well and he wanted to win just as bad as we did. We’d probably have to look at the older horse races at Saratoga. I think he deserves to be in that discussion.
SHAUN BRIDGMOHAN, jockey of NOBLE BIRD (winner): “He had been training very well and obviously he showed it tonight. He won three out of his last four races. He’s getting better. He’s been working like this in the morning so this performance was expected. That [Lea] is why I didn’t turn my stick over; I just kind of gave him a little reminder because he was trying and giving me everything he had. He’s been training very well and he’s a horse that is on the improve. He just ran lights out tonight. He’s been maturing and I think he’s going to be a horse to watch for. I think in every race he’s improved and he’s not lacking any talent. He’s a very talented horse.”
BILL MOTT, trainer of LEA (runner-up): “He had a good trip and he ran well. We just couldn’t get there. It looked like if they’d gone three more jumps we could have had him, but the race was a mile and an eighth. It wasn’t a mile and an eighth and three or four jumps.”
Q: Will he run in New York next? “He’ll run in the Whitney.”
JOEL ROSARIO, jockey on LEA (runner-up): “Every time I came to that horse (Noble Bird), he just kept on going. My horse ran well and he did everything well, but every time I began to get to the winner, he would respond. For a second I thought I would get there, but every time I came to him he would just keep on going.”
BOB BAFFERT, trainer of HOPPERTUNITY (third) and CAT BURGLAR (fifth): “I cannot believe I only won one race this meet. I ran all these good horses and I can only muster one win (laughs).
“Hoppertunity ran well. They were running, so ultimately I think he ran well.”
MIKE SMITH, jockey on HOPPERTUNITY (third): “He broke okay and I felt pretty good because the pace was pretty honest. They were moving right along. I thought I was in a great spot, but they just kept running. I had no excuse.
“The air’s a bit thick tonight for these California horses, but he warmed up really good. I secured third but he just didn’t gain any ground. There wasn’t any use to urge him any more to get a half-length closer.”
COREY LANERIE, fourth on MAJESTIC HARBOR (fourth): “He was good. I tried to come through on the fence. I was trying to do the best I could because I didn’t feel like I was on the best horse, so I tried every angle.”
JAVIER CASTELLANO, jockey on COMMISSIONER (sixth): “He had a good trip. I saved all the ground, but they went pretty quick. I didn’t expect that kind of pace. Unfortunately they didn’t come back to me. They went pretty quick and they kept rollin.’”
ELLIOTT WALDEN, President of WinStar Farm, owner of COMMISSIONER (sixth): “He didn’t break great and he doesn’t seem to be quite the same horse when he’s not up close. He just doesn’t seem to have the fight in him when he’s five or six back.”