Saturday night at Churchill Downs has potential to be a prosperous one for jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. who has live mounts in each of the five graded stakes: Eagle in the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (Grade I), Ahh Chocolate in the $200,000 Fleur de Lis Handicap (GII), Thatcher Street in the $200,000 Wise Dan (GII), Auntie Joy in the $100,000 Regret (GIII) and Virtual Machine in the $100,000 Matt Winn (GIII).
“We’re going into the weekend with some legitimate chances that if they show up they’ll run well,” Hernandez said. “They’ve all been training real well. Eagle is going into the Stephen Foster well and when you’re riding horses like that, you go in with a lot of confidence and you think that you’ll be on a lot of live horses. We’re hoping that they show up and that they’re the best on that day.”
Two of Hernandez’s mounts on Saturday evening, Eagle and Ahh Chocolate, have already provided Hernandez with success at the graded stakes level this year when the former won the April 16 Ben Ali (GII) at Keeneland and the latter triumphed on Preakness weekend in the May 20 Allaire DuPont Distaff (GIII) at Pimlico. Eagle could give Hernandez his first Grade I win since winning the 2013 Stephen Foster with Fort Larned, who he guided to victory in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) at Santa Anita.
“Being able to win a Grade I with a horse like Eagle would be huge because we’ve been around him for so long,” Hernandez said. “The thing about him now is that we’re noticing that he’s starting to focus a lot more and he’s kind of going from college ball to professional where he’s figuring it out so we think he’s coming into the race great. Of course we have to beat Effinex and Majestic Harbor which could be tough, but we’ve got to go in with a lot of confidence in our horse. Ahh Chocolate’s race in Maryland, the beauty about that is that she ran such a big race on Preakness weekend and the filly that she beat (Theogony) came back and ran big in her win at Belmont (Rags to Riches Invitational) so we’re going in thinking that we have some big chances.”
In the Regret, Hernandez will be aboard Auntie Joy, who finished a late-closing second behind Catch a Glimpse in the Edgewood on the May 6 Kentucky Oaks undercard at odds of 31-1. Despite such high odds, Hernandez was confident she would run a big race.
“Me and (trainer) Brendan (Walsh) both thought that she would run that kind of race,” Hernandez said. “I haven’t been on her since but Brendan has been doing nothing but bragging about her. He came here and worked her on the grass the other day and he was really proud of her. She had some kind of infection at Gulfstream the first time he ran her this year so she didn’t run any good, but then she came back and won the 1x (at Gulfstream Park). Then at Keeneland she had an excuse; she was coming out of the one-hole that day, so on the day we were here and ran second to Catch a Glimpse, we were really, really confident in her.
“Going into the Edgewood and coming out of the one-hole at Keeneland, we kind of had to use that as a prep race going into the Edgewood which worked out great because I didn’t think she ran that bad of a race. For her to run fifth at Keeneland and then for her to come back here in the Edgewood she really showed how dominant she could be.”
The day after Hernandez guided Ahh Chocolate to a win at Pimlico, he was met with another stakes win in Churchill Downs’ Opening Verse Overnight Stakes aboard Thatcher Street, who boasts a 9-3-4-1 record over the Matt Winn Turf Course.
“It’s amazing that once (trainer) Ian (Wilkes) put him on the grass, how good he’s gotten,” Hernandez said. “He definitely loves the Churchill Downs course so we’ve got to go into this race thinking that they’ve got to come and beat us. We’re sitting on a big weekend so if they all show up and run their races, hopefully we’ll be smiling a lot in the winner’s circle.”
BRADESTER JOINS FOSTER FIELD; EFFINEX GETS ACCLIMATED TO CHURCHILL SURFACE – Joseph Sutton’s Bradester, who was previously not listed as a probable starter for Saturday evening’s $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (Grade I), was entered for the 1 1/8-mile event which is one of five stakes races on the Downs After Dark program.
“It’s a small field for a Grade I and he likes the Churchill Downs track,” said trainer Eddie Kenneally. “He seems to be doing really well. He likes to be close to the lead but he doesn’t have to be up front.”
Meanwhile, odds-on favorite for the Stephen Foster Effinex galloped 1 ¼ miles over the Churchill Downs main track and schooled at the starting gate on Thursday morning.
“He went over the track really well and feels good,” said assistant trainer Kent Sweezey. “He gave a little squeal when he backed out of the gate which he doesn’t usually do, but that’s a good sign and means he’s feeling good.”
MAJESTIC HARBOR GOING INTO THE STEPHEN FOSTER ‘GUNS ABLAZE’ – Gallant Stables’ 8-year-old veteran Majestic Harbor is going into Saturday night’s $500,000 Stephen Foster (Grade I), run at 1 1/8 miles for 3-year-olds and up, “guns ablaze” according to trainer Paul McGee, who is looking for back-to-back graded stakes wins at Churchill Downs after winning the Alysheba (GII) on the May 6 Kentucky Oaks undercard.
“That Alysheba was one of the better races of his career,” McGee said. “So obviously his form cycle is really good. He does love this track. He had a bullet breeze the other day and a nice gallop this morning. (Jockey) Corey (Lanerie) was on him the other day and he really liked the way he went so we’re going in with a lot of confidence.
“It doesn’t hurt my feelings that it looks like a relatively lighter field. You have to think that the Brooklyn and Met Mile might have taken some horses away which is really good for us, but he’s coming off of a big win in the Alysheba and it’s the same racetrack, bumped up to a Grade I. We like our spot.”
The Stephen Foster Handicap field from the rail out (with jockeys, assigned weights and morning line odds): International Star (Florent Geroux, 116 pounds, 6-1), Bradester (Joe Bravo, 116, 5-1); Effinex (Gary Stevens, 122, 1-1); Majestic Harbor (Corey Lanerie, 118, 5-1); El Kabeir (Ricardo Santana Jr., 115, 12-1); Are You Kidding Me (Julien Leparoux, 118, 10-1); and Eagle (Brian Hernandez Jr., 117, 6-1).
THE PIZZA MAN RETURNS IN WISE DAN – Coming off a four-month layoff, Midwest Thoroughbreds Inc.’s The Pizza Man is back in action in Saturday night’s $200,000 Wise Dan (GII), run at a distance of 1 1/16 miles on the Matt Winn Turf Course.
Last time out, the 7-year-old son of English Channel was fifth beaten 3 ¾ lengths in the Feb. 6 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (GI). Trainer Roger Brueggemann blamed the horse’s distaste for the Gulfstream turf for his performance.
“He really didn’t like the Gulfstream turf at all,” Brueggemann said. “That was the first time I had him on something that he didn’t like.”
Last year was The Pizza Man’s best campaign yet scoring a trio of graded stakes victories in Arlington Park’s Stars and Stripes (GIII) and Arlington Million XXXIII (GI) before rounding out his 6-year-old campaign with a win in the Hollywood Turf Cup (GII) at Del Mar.
“We’re hoping he can still compete as a year older but I know how I feel when I’m a year older,” Brueggemann said. “Hopefully he’ll be okay, so far he’s been training real well so we’ll have to see what happens.”
The Pizza Man boasts a 10-8-1-0 record at 1 1/16 miles, but has found some of his better success when running at longer distances.
“He can run long and short distances,” Brueggemann said. “He probably should have won the Shadwell Mile last year but that’s just my opinion. He can go any distance a mile and up. I think this race will be a nice little test for him. It looks like there’s going to be some nice horses in here.”
Should his performance on Saturday evening be a good one, Brueggemann would send the horse to Arlington once more for a defense of his Arlington Million title.
“That’s the plan but we might run him once before that so hopefully everything goes okay. A lot depends on how he’s doing,” Brueggemann said.
A possible start between the Wise Dan and the Arlington Million could come in either the $125,000 Arlington Handicap or the $100,000 Stars and Stripes, both Grade III events on the Arlington Park turf.
THATCHER STREET GOING FOR FOURTH VICTORY OVER CHURCHILL TURF IN WISE DAN - Randall Bloch, Phil Milner and John Seiler’s Thatcher Street, who boasts a 5-3-2-0 record on Churchill Downs’ Matt Winn Turf Course, will attempt to improve that record Saturday night in the $200,000 Wise Dan (Grade II) at 1 1/16 miles.
In his most recent effort, the 5-year-old son of Street Sense triumphed in the May 20 Opening Verse Overnight Stakes. His other two victories over the Churchill grass came when he broke his maiden on the 13th attempt, which he followed up with another win over the same surface against allowance company.
“The horse always gives you confidence and that’s the only thing I can control is my own horse,” trainer Ian Wilkes said. “He’s doing well, he’s training good and the water definitely gets deeper here. He’s consistent so that’s the main thing. He brings his A Game all the time but there’s no easy course. When you get to graded stakes they don’t hand them to you, the horse has to earn it. So we’ll see if he’s good enough.”
The Wise Dan field from the rail out (with jockeys and morning line odds): Thatcher Street (Hernandez Jr., 8-1); The Pizza Man (Florent Geroux, 6-5); Granny’s Kitten (Gary Stevens, 12-1); Flatlined (Miguel Mena, 15-1); Conquest Typhoon (Joe Bravo, 6-1); Potomac River (Juan Vargas, 15-1); R. Great Adventure (Joe Rocco Jr., 15-1); Pleuven (Fr) (Channing Hill, 8-1); Za Approval (Julien Leparoux, 12-1); Kasaqui (Arg) (Fernando De La Cruz, 12-1); and Behesht (Fr) (Corey Lanerie, 20-1).
OTHER FIELDS FOR SATURDAY’S STAKES RACES – The $200,000 Fleur de Lis Handicap (Grade II) field from the rail out (with jockeys, assigned weights and morning line odds): Untapable (Florent Geroux, 120 pounds, 7-5); Engaginglee (Robby Albarado, 116, 6-1); Paid Up Subscriber (Ricardo Santana Jr., 114, 8-1); Ahh Chocolate (Brian Hernandez Jr., 118, 2-1); Big Book (Corey Lanerie, 115, 8-1); and Brooklynsway (Julien Leparoux, 117, 5-1). … The $100,000 Regret (GIII) field from the rail out: Gone Away (Florent Geroux, 6-1); Quiet Business (Joe Rocco Jr., 30-1); Crooked Stick (James Graham, 30-1); Family Meeting (Robby Albarado, 6-1); Noble Beauty (Julien Leparoux, 7-2); Try Your Luck (Gary Stevens, 7-2); La Piba (Fernando De La Cruz, 20-1); Dothraki Queen (Corey Lanerie, 10-1); Fuhriously Kissed (Joe Johnson, 50-1); Wessex (Shaun Bridgmohan, 6-1); and Auntie Joy (Brian Hernandez Jr., 3-1). … The $100,000 Matt Winn (GIII) field from the rail out: Yo Carm (Robby Albarado, 20-1); Gun Runner (Florent Geroux, 3-5); Virtual Machine (Brian Hernandez Jr., 15-1); Cutacorner (Gary Stevens, 12-1); Gray Sky (James Graham, 15-1); Texas Chrome (Ricardo Santana Jr., 5-1); and Unbridled Outlaw (Corey Lanerie, 3-1).
DOWN THE STRETCH – Milestone watch: jockey Channing Hill is four wins away from 2,000 career wins and Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott is seven wins from 700 Churchill Downs victories. … The theme for Saturday night’s “Downs After Dark Presented by Stella Artois and El Jimador” is the sixth annual “White Party” in which guests are encouraged to wear their best summer whites. …Musical entertainment on the Plaza Stage on Saturday night will be provided by The Bishops (www.thebishopslive.com). … The Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft (“KMAC”) and Churchill Downs have partnered to bring the only public showing of the 2016 KMAC Couture Collection on Saturday night. KMAC Couture Fashion Shows will be held between races in the Aristides Garden and Plaza Stage to showcase the wearable runway art that features and supports emerging and established regional artists, costumers, designers and milliners. … Bet or No Bet Presented by Thorntons returns Saturday night for Races 6-9. The promotion will give four lucky fans the chance to wager $1,000 to win on the horse of their choice in their respective race or walk away with a $100 Thorntons gift card. … Saturday night’s specialty cocktail served at select locations around the facility is the Blanco Margarita. … General admission to Churchill Downs is $10 on Saturday night. Box seats are $25 and reserved dining packages are $70. They can be purchased online at www.ChurchillDowns.com/Tickets. … Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill will be on hand Saturday night to accept the engraved Kentucky Derby 142 trophies for Team Nyquist, which includes owners Paul and Zillah Reddam and jockey Mario Gutierrez. The Reddams and Gutierrez are unable to attend because of a stakes engagement at Santa Anita on Saturday. … Fans in attendance will be able to take pictures with Nyquist’s engraved Kentucky Derby 142 trophies as they’ll be on display Saturday on the north side of the paddock in the Plaza area from 5-7 p.m. … Two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan, who compiled a remarkable lifetime record of 31-23-2-0—$7,7552,920 from 2010-14, will return to Churchill Downs on Saturday night for the stakes race named in his honor. The former Firecracker was renamed the Wise Dan this year to honor Mort Fink’s seven-time Churchill Downs winner that won the Firecracker in 2011 and ’13 for trainer Charlie LoPresti. Wise Dan will parade to the paddock with horses for the race and remain there while the race is being run. … Churchill Downs also will pay homage to its longtime morning line odds maker and former track announcer and television analyst Mike Battaglia on Saturday night. Battaglia, who is in the midst of his 42nd year as Churchill Downs odds maker, stepped down as Turfway Park’s track announcer in March to assume the role as the track’s associate vice president. The longtime northern Kentucky resident called races at Turfway from 1973-2016. Battaglia also described the racing action at Churchill Downs from 1977-97 and served as the simulcast host from 1997-2007. … The official event logos for the 2017 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Longines Kentucky Oaks will be unveiled between races on Saturday night. …The Stephen Foster Handicap and Fleur de Lis Handicap are Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” stakes events which means the winners will be guaranteed berths in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) and $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff (GI), respectively. This year’s Breeders’ Cup will be held Nov. 4-5 at Santa Anita. … Horse Racing Radio Network (HRRN) will air live coverage of the Churchill Downs stakes action Saturday night from 8-10 p.m. ET. Mike Penna, Jude Feld, Ellis Star and Jennie Rees will anchor the broadcast that will air on Sirius 93, online at www.horseracingradio.net and 93.9 The Ville in Louisville. … “Inside Churchill Downs,” co-hosted by Churchill Downs Racetrack’s John Asher and Darren Rogers, airs every Saturday from 10-11 a.m. throughout the Spring Meet on ESPN 680/105.7. This week’s show will preview the Stephen Foster Handicap night program. … The racing week at Churchill Downs kicks off Thursday at 5 p.m. (all times Eastern) with an eight-race Twilight Thursday program that features a 21-day carryover in the Single 6 Jackpot of $560,991. The sequence covers Races 3-8 starting at 5:58 p.m. Racing on Friday starts at 12:45 p.m. Saturday night’s action begins at 6 p.m. Sunday’s Father’s Day program starts at 12:45 p.m. …Saturday night’s special post times: Race 1 (6 p.m.), Race 2 (6:28 p.m.), Race 3 (6:56 p.m.), Race 4 (7:26 p.m.), Race 5 (7:57 p.m.), Race 6 (8:30 p.m.), Race 7 (9:05 p.m.), Race 8 (9:39 p.m.), Race 9 (10:11 p.m.), Race 10 (10:42 p.m.) and Race 11 (11:10 p.m.). … Churchill Downs is offering a special $15 Father’s Day Combo for Sunday, which includes a reserved box seat, official program and a voucher for a domestic draft beer or souvenir soda and a hot dog. They can be purchased online at www.ChurchillDowns.com/Tickets or by calling (502) 636-4450. … Sunday is the final “Who’s the Champ? Handicapping Contest” of the Spring Meet. Interested participants can enter for $35 ($30 for TSC Elite members) for a chance to win the $1,000 cash voucher first prize by placing mythical $2 win and place bets on Races 3-8. Second place receives a $500 voucher and third place is worth a $200 voucher. Registration takes place between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on the Clubhouse second floor at the top of the Gate 17 escalators.