Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm’s Gun Runner, ranked fourth on the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings, will return to action Saturday night at Churchill Downs as the 4-5 morning line favorite and 124-pound high weight for the 36th running of the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by GE Appliances (Grade I) – the centerpiece of an action-packed, prime-time program billed as “Downs After Dark Presented by Stella Artois and el Jimador.”
The 1 1/8-mile Stephen Foster Handicap is the richest of five graded stakes races on Saturday’s special 11-race night racing card that begins at 6 p.m. (all times Eastern). Total purses on the evening are $1.358 million, which makes it the most lucrative racing day for horsemen at Churchill Downs outside of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks programs.
Other stakes events scheduled on the night are the $200,000 Fleur de Lis Handicap Presented by el Jimador (GII) for fillies and mares at 1 1/8 miles headlined by last year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff (GI) third Forever Unbridled; the $200,000 Wise Dan (GII) for 3-year-olds and up at 1 1/16 miles on turf led by defending champ Pleuven (Fr); the $100,000 Matt Winn (GIII) for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles featuring three-time graded stakes winner McCraken, who finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby (GI) at odds of 6-1; and a well-matched cast of a dozen 3-year-old fillies in the $100,000 Regret Presented by Cox’s Smokers Outlet (GIII) at 1 1/8 miles on grass.
The Stephen Foster Handicap has been carded as Race 8 at 9:39 p.m. NBCSN will televise the race from 8:30-10 p.m. to launch its 2017 “Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series: Win and You’re In, presented by Lane’s End Farm and America’s Best Racing” television schedule. Also, Horse Racing Radio Network (HRRN) will air live coverage from 8-10 p.m. ET online at www.horseracingradio.net.
A field of eight older horses was entered Wednesday for Saturday’s Foster, which is an appealing Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series stakes event that will guarantee the winner a berth in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 4 at Del Mar.
Gun Runner enters the Foster strictly as the horse to beat. The 4-year-old colt impressively beat a powerful group of accomplished older rivals in last fall’s $500,000 Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (GI) at Churchill Downs and was runner-up to world No. 1 Arrogate in March’s $10 million Dubai World Cup (GI) 12 weeks ago.
Gun Runner looked like a World Cup winner at the top of the stretch, but Arrogate, who overcame a dreadful start, swooped past him inside the final furlong with a powerful rally to win by 2 ¼ lengths. Gun Runner was five lengths clear of third-place finisher Neolithic in the full field of 14.
In addition to the Clark, Gun Runner’s 3-year-old campaign included wins in the Risen Star (GII), Louisiana Derby (GII) and Matt Winn (GIII), runner-up efforts in the Pennsylvania Derby (GII) and Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (GI) and third-place finishes in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI) and Travers Stakes (GI).
Prior to the Dubai World Cup, Gun Runner was a 5 ¾-length winner of the $500,000 Razorback (GIII) at Oaklawn Park.
Overall, the Kentucky-bred son of Candy Ride (ARG) has an impressive 14-7-3-2 record with $4,337,800 in earnings.
“Gun Runner was a completely different horse last year during his 3-year-old campaign,” said his Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who won the 2008 Stephen Foster with two-time Horse of the Year Curlin. “He has physically developed into a different animal. We knew with his type of running style and pedigree that he would keep getting better over time. We’re very excited to run him Saturday night. We gave him a break after he ran in Dubai and he’s been training smoothly ever since.”
The Foster will be Gun Runner’s first start since the Dubai World Cup 12 weeks ago and formally launches a second-half-of- the-season campaign that his connections hope will culminate with a start in the 1 ¼-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic. He landed post 3 for the Foster and will be ridden by his regular pilot Florent Geroux.
“It’s been such an honor to ride him,” Geroux said. “He’s such a classy horse. No matter how the race develops he tries his heart out. He was beaten in his last start by one of the best horses in the world, so we really can’t hold that against him. Hopefully we get a rematch with Arrogate later on this year.”
Gun Runner will attempt to join No Marker (1989-90), Saint Liam (2004-05) and Blame (2009-10) as horses who won the Clark in the fall and returned to Churchill Downs to win next spring’s Stephen Foster.
Favorites have a record of 35-7-10-4 (20%) in the Stephen Foster.
he Stephen Foster Handicap field from the rail out (with jockeys, assigned weights and morning line odds): Bird Song (Julien Leparoux, 119 pounds, 6-1); Breaking Lucky (Luis Contreras, 117, 8-1); Gun Runner (Geroux, 124, 4-5); Honorable Duty (Javier Castellano, 119, 6-1); Mo Tom (Corey Lanerie, 115, 20-1); Hawaakom (Miguel Mena, 115, 12-1); Texas Chrome (C.J. McMahon, 117, 12-1); and Stanford (John Velazquez, 117, 5-1)
Chief among Gun Runner’s rivals are include Bird Song and Honorable Duty, who ran 1-2 in the $400,000 Alysheba Presented by Big Fish Casino (GII) on the Kentucky Oaks undercard. Marylou Whitney Stables LLC’s 4-year-old homebred Bird Song (11-5-2-1—$484,207), trained by Ian Wilkes who won the 2013 Foster with Fort Larned, figures to help set the Foster pace along with favored Gun Runner.
“He’s a speedy horse,” Wilkes said. “We can’t really worry about anyone else in the race, just run to what we’re good at doing. We know the talent level of some of the other competitors but at the end of the day we just need to do our thing and hope it works.”
David A. Ross’ Honorable Duty (13-6-3-1—$577,276) won three stakes in a row this winter at Fair Grounds for trainer Brendan Walsh before falling 1 ½ lengths short of Bird Song in the Alysheba: the $75,000 Tenacious, $122,500 Mineshaft Handicap (GIII) and $400,000 New Orleans Handicap (GII).
Both Bird Song and Honorable Duty will carry five pounds less than top-weighted Gun Runner.
Stanford (16-6-5-0—$1,370,960), the 5-year-old who races for the Stonestreet Stables LLC, Michael Tabor, Mrs. John Magnier and Derrick Smith partnership, won last year’s $1.25 million Charles Town Classic (GII) and $100,000 Harlan’s Holiday (GIII) for powerful big-race trainer Todd Pletcher, who seeks his first Foster win.
Trainer Reade Baker has brought Canadian invader Breaking Lucky (19-3-5-3—$953,776) back to Churchill Downs for another try against Gun Runner. The 5-year-old horse, owned by Gunpowder Farms LLC, West Point Thoroughbreds LLC, Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, Eric Young and R.A. Hill Stable, made a bold move in the stretch at odds of 46-1 to finish second to Gun Runner in the Nov. 25 Clark.
A quick pace could benefit G M B Racing’s Mo Tom (13-4-1-3—$625,176), who does his best running late for trainer Tom Amoss. The 4-year-old colt won last year’s Lecomte (GIII) and Ohio Derby, and was eighth in the Kentucky Derby.
Hawaakom and Texas Chrome have run second in Grade III events this year. Stephan H. Smoot and Wes Hawley’s Hawaakom (34-8-7-7—$581,175) – the only non-graded stakes winner in the field – was second to Gun Runner two starts ago in the Razorback. Keene Thoroughbreds LLC’s Texas Chrome (17-8-3-3—$925,962), trained by J.R. Caldwell, finished second to a pair of Bob Baffert-trained horses – recent Met Mile winner Mor Spirit and Danzing Candy – in the Steve Sexton Mile (GIII) and Lone Star Park Handicap (GIII), respectively.
The Stephen Foster Handicap, which was elevated to Grade I status in 2002, has had a strong influence on the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Horse of the Year honors. Three horses used victories in the Stephen Foster as part of their résumés in Horse of the Year campaigns: Black Tie Affair (1991), Saint Liam (2005) and Curlin (2008). In addition, two runner-ups were crowned Horse of the Year: Mineshaft (2003) and Wise Dan (2012). Also, Awesome Again (1998) and Blame (2010) completed same-year Foster-Classic doubles. Fort Larned won the Classic in 2012, and won the Foster the following year prior to a fourth-place run in his bid for a second Classic win.
Champion Victory Gallop owns the stakes and track record for 1 1/8 miles of 1:47.28, which was established in 1999.
The theme for Saturday night’s “Downs After Dark” is “South Beach” and guests are encouraged to dress in Miami-inspired bright colors.
Select connections from Team Always Dreaming – owners MeB Racing Stables (Mary Ellen Bonomo), Brooklyn Boyz Stables (Anthony Bonomo), Teresa Viola Racing Stables, St. Elias Stable (Vincent Viola), Siena Farm LLC (Anthony Manganaro) and West Point Thoroughbreds (Terry Finley), breeders Santa Rosa Partners, trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez – will be on hand to accept their newly-engraved Kentucky Derby 143 trophies for the Bodemeister colt’s triumph in America’s greatest race on May 6. The ceremony in the G.H. MUMM Winner’s Circle, which includes an unveiling of the official event logo for the 2018 Kentucky Derby, is scheduled for 8:40 p.m. after the running of Race 6.
Fans in attendance will be able to take pictures with Always Dreaming’s engraved Kentucky Derby 143 trophies as they’ll be on display inside the Gate 17 lobby from 5-7 p.m.
General admission to Churchill Downs is $10 on Saturday night. Box seats are $25 and reserved dining packages are $70. New this year is the Guest Chef Series @ Millionaire’s Row, which will showcase Chef Anthony Lamas of Louisville’s popular Latin restaurant Seviche. The $149 tickets include a specially-designed menu by Lamas and a full-bar package featuring specialty cocktails by el Jimador Tequila. All ticket options can be purchased online at www.ChurchillDowns.com/Tickets.
The evening’s entertainment includes music on the Plaza Stage courtesy of Milenio Salsa Band from 7:30-11 p.m., Salsa dance demonstrations, cocktail demonstrations by el Jimador, a “James Beard Culinary Challenge” and “Bet or No Bet” where four lucky fans can take $100 in cash or place a free $1,000 win bet on a horse in Races 6-9. The party will be elevated to new levels at 11 p.m. when popular DJ A-trak mixes sounds on the turntable until midnight on the Plaza Stage.
Admission gates will open Saturday at 5 p.m. and the first of 11 races will begin at 6 p.m. (all times Eastern). The final live race will be 11:10 p.m. but the on-track party will continue in the spacious Plaza area until midnight.
BREEDERS’ CUP BETTING CHALLENGE QUALIFIER ON STEPHEN FOSTER HANDICAP NIGHT – Some of the nation’s elite horseplayers will descend upon Churchill Downs on Saturday night and attempt to secure seats at the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge as they pit their handicapping skills against the best Louisville has to offer.
Churchill Downs’ Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge Live Bankroll Qualifier is a “real money” handicapping tournament with a $2,000 buy-in, of which $1,500 will be used by participants to wager on Saturday night’s 11-race Stephen Foster Handicap card with the other $500 going toward the entry fee and prize pool. Wager types permitted are Win, Place, Show, Exacta, Trifecta and Daily Double only.
The top two finishers in the satellite tournament will receive $10,000 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge seats for the Nov. 3-4 event at Del Mar plus a $1,000 travel voucher. The third-place finisher will receive a $2,500 partial BCBC entry and $500 travel voucher.
Saturday’s prize pool is based on 50 entries. All entry fees will be paid back to prize pool should more than 50 entries participate. Horseplayers can register by emailing Gary Palmisano at Gary.Palmisano@KyDerby.com.
Same as the qualifier, the BCBC is a “real money” handicapping challenge. Players will required to deposit $10,000, of which $7,500 will be the players’ bankroll for wagering during the tournament. Of the $10,000 buy-in, $2,500 will be placed in the prize pool. If 400 players enter the tournament, the cash prize pool paid will be $1 million.
ALL-STAKES PICK 5 TO BE OFFERED SATURDAY NIGHT – Churchill Downs will make it a special night for bettors at Saturday’s “Downs After Dark” as the track offers an all-stakes Pick 5 as part of its special wagering menu.
The all-stakes Pick 5 will cover Races 5-9 starting at 8:03 p.m., which will encompass the Matt Winn (Race 5), Wise Dan (Race 6), Fleur de Lis Handicap (Race 7), Stephen Foster Handicap (Race 8) and Regret (Race 9). There also will be an all-stakes Pick 4 on Races 6-9.
All told, there will be three Pick 5s (Races 2-6, Races 5-9 and Races 7-11) and three Pick 4s (Races 1-4, Races 6-9 and Races 8-11) on the night.
Both the Pick 4 and Pick 5 are 50-cent minimum bets.
The 20-cent minimum Single-6 Jackpot will cover Races 4-9. The jackpot carryover for a lone winning ticket was $96,299 entering Thursday’s eight-race program, which is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m.