Mort Fink’s talented but injury-plagued homebred Successful Dan, the older brother to reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan, has been installed as the 2-1 morning line favorite in a competitive field of six older horses entered for Saturday’s 32nd running of the $500,000-added Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by Abu Dhabi (GI) at Churchill Downs.
The 1 1/8-mile Foster is one of America’s premier races for 3-year-olds and up and looms as the year’s first major prep for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI). The winner of the year’s first Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Classic Division Challenge Race will be entitled to an automatic entry into the Nov. 2 Classic at Santa Anita with pre-entry and entry fees waived and a $10,000 travel stipend.
The Foster is the marquee event on an 11-race program that features $1.2 million in prize money, including five graded stakes races. For the second consecutive year, the stellar racing card has been paired with Churchill Downs’ wildly-popular Downs After Dark Presented by Stella Artois and Finlandia Vodka nighttime entertainment event and will be run in prime time under the lights. First post is 6 p.m. (all times Eastern) and the Foster will go as Race 8 at 9:39 p.m.
The Foster field may only be six deep – the smallest field for the race since five went to post in 1991 – but it’s loaded with talent. Combined, the entrants have won 38 of their 122 starts, including seven Grade I races, 17 graded stakes events and $9.5 million.
The field from the rail out, with jockeys, assigned weight and morning line odds: Golden Ticket (Joel Rosario, 117, 12-1); Fort Larned (Brian Hernandez Jr., 121, 3-1); Ron the Greek (Jose Lezcano, 120, 3-1); Take Charge Indy (Rosie Napravnik, 119, 5-2); Pool Play (Miguel Mena, 115, 15-1); and Successful Dan (Julien Leparoux, 121, 2-1).
Successful Dan, the co-starting 121-pound high weight with reigning Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned, was made the early favorite by oddsmaker Mike Battaglia after a comfortable and well-measured gate-to-wire victory in the Ben Ali (GIII) at Keeneland on April 21. It was his only start in the past year.
The 7-year-old gelding did not race in 2011 due to a suspensory injury and he incurred similar injuries in 2009 after winning the Northern Dancer (GIII) at Churchill Downs and in 2012 following a runner-up effort to Fort Larned in the Cornhusker Handicap (GIII).
“It’s been frustrating,” said trainer Charlie LoPresti, who also campaigns Wise Dan, a likely starter in the $150,000 Firecracker Handicap (GII) on June 29. “Had he not been plagued with the injuries he’s been plagued with, you probably would have seen a potential Horse of the Year in him at some point.”
The Ben Ali was Successful Dan’s first race in 295 days and LoPresti believes the son of Successful Appeal needed the race.
“I think there’s no doubt,” LoPresti said. “He’d been off for a while. Historically, his second race (off a layoff) has been even better. He’s 110-percent right now. I couldn’t have him any better.”
Successful Dan, a winner in eight of his 12 starts with a $746,608 bankroll, is the only one of the Foster six that is not a Grade I winner. He crossed the finish line first in the 2010 Clark Handicap (GI) at Churchill Downs, but was disqualified to third for causing interference in the upper stretch. Half of his victories, however, have come in Grade II or Grade III races.
“That would be the ultimate,” LoPresti said. “I’d like to see him get a Grade I.”
Janis Whitham’s homebred Fort Larned is the most accomplished entrant with $3,702,236 in earnings. The lion’s share came from his flashy gate-to-wire Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) triumph last November at Santa Anita. But after two frustrating starts this season, trainer Ian Wilkes hopes to get him back on the right track.
“Fort Larned has to step up to the plate and become the big dog again,” Wilkes said. “That’s what he’s got to do.”
Fort Larned made his 5-year-old debut in March’s Gulfstream Park Handicap (GII) but lost jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. after stumbling at the start and proceeded to race around the track without the guidance of a rider and finished well in front of the field. Next time out, he finished a lackluster fifth as the odds-on favorite in the Oaklawn Handicap (GII).
“He didn’t show any signs of being fatigued and I thought he was on top of his game,” Wilkes said. “I was a little surprised. You never know until you get back to the races. That’s the biggest key. His works have been really good – solid and crisp. And the horse looks really good. After the stumble and the bad race, I had to regroup. I had to get it together and this is our start for the second half of the year to get things going.”
One horse already headed in the right direction is Take Charge Indy, the impressive six-length winner of the Alysheba (GII) on Kentucky Oaks Day. The Alysheba was his first victory since winning the 2012 Florida Derby (GI). In that year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, he finished 19th of 20 and came out of the race with a bone chip in his left front ankle, which was subsequently removed.
“His win in the Alysheba was vindication for everyone involved, including the horse,” said trainer Pat Byrne, who trains the 4-year-old colt for WinStar Farm and Chuck and Maribeth Sandford. “It was almost a year to the day when he got hurt running in the Derby and then he came back and ran like that (1 1/16 miles in 1:41.41).
“Numbers wise, his race in the Alysheba was off the charts. I always knew he could be that kind of a horse. You can look back at what I said about him over the winter. I said, ‘At the end of the day, this is probably the most talented horse I’ve ever trained,’ and I’ve had my hands on a couple of good ones.”
One of Byrne’s best was 1998 Stephen Foster champ Awesome Again – one of three Foster winners to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic later that year (the others were Black Tie Affair in 1991 and Saint Liam in 2005).
“I think when it’s all said and done, (Take Charge Indy) might be a better horse than Awesome Again,” Byrne said.
Should Take Charge Indy win the Foster, it would be a record third victory in the race for Byrne, who won back-to-back runnings in 1997-98 with City by Night and Awesome Again.
Brous Stable, Wachtel Stable and Jack Hammer’s defending champ Ron the Greek hopes to join Vodika Collins (1982-83) and Recoup The Cash (1994-95) as the only horses to win the Foster in consecutive years. A year ago, he upset eventual Horse of the Year Wise Dan in the Foster and, in the process, also downed Fort Larned, who ran a disappointing last of eight but rebounded to win Saratoga’s Whitney (GI) and the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI).
Ron the Greek ran second and fourth, respectively, in his subsequent meetings with Fort Larned.
“I guess after we beat him in the Foster, I thought we were at least as good as he was,” said Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. “But he wound up beating us in both the Whitney and the Breeders’ Cup. So our hats are off to him and we’ve got to try to turn the tables.”
An easy victory in the Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park earlier this year is the only victory for Ron the Greek in six races since last year’s Foster triumph. The 6-year-old son of Full Mandate has raced 25 times and has a record of 8-5-2 with earnings of $1,976,597.
Bill Farish’s Pool Play, an upset winner of the 2011 Foster, will attempt to become the oldest winner of the race. Honor Medal was age 7 when he prevailed in 1988.
“We know he likes the distance and he likes Churchill,” trainer Mark Casse said. “We pick our spots with him. He’s our old guy in the barn. His recent form hasn’t been great, but we’re going to give it a shot. We know we’ll be a longshot again, but with the perfect storm and perfect trip, we may have a chance.”
Magic City Thoroughbred Partners’ Golden Ticket, a dead-heat winner of last year’s Travers (GI) with Alpha, also figures to be a longshot. But the 4-year-old enters the Foster off a 2 ½-length victory in a one-mile allowance/optional claiming race at Churchill Downs on May 2.
“I think Golden Ticket is coming into the race in good shape,” said Phil Bauer, assistant to trainer Ken McPeek. “He seemed to like the surface here in his last race and so if he can stretch it out to two turns against some better competition then he should be good.”
Other stakes on the million-dollar program are the $175,000-added Fleur De Lis Handicap (GII) for fillies and mares at 1 1/8 miles (headlined by defending champ and two-time Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic winner Royal Delta); the $100,000-added Matt Winn (GIII) for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles, the $100,000-added Regret (GIII) for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/8 miles on turf; and the $100,000-added President of United Arab Emirates Cup (GI) for Arabian 4-year-olds and up at 1 1/16 miles. The latter will be only the second race for that breed in track history.
The theme for Saturday’s Downs After Dark racing and entertainment celebration is “The White Party.” On-track guests are encouraged to wear an all-white wardrobe. After Race 4 at 7:26 p.m., representatives from the connections of Orb, including trainer Shug McGaughey III and jockey Joel Rosario, will be on hand to accept their engraved Kentucky Derby trophies.
Reserved seating can be purchased online at ChurchillDowns.com/Tickets or the on-track box office located at the Gate 1 entrance off Central Avenue (open Wednesday-Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. or 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. on ‘Downs After Dark’ Saturdays).