Familiar names return to racing spotlight in Stephen Foster

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

With Joel Rosario riding, Gift Box (3-1) is the morning-line favorite to win Saturday's Grade 2 Stephen Foster Stakes at Churchill Downs. (Benoit photo courtesy of Santa Anita Park)

Las Vegas

So where were we before we veered off the trail for the Triple Crown?


I have a more than vague recollection of Accelerate and Enable winning the biggest races at the Breeders’ Cup. Then we focused on a bunch of 3-year-olds that included a Kentucky Derby favorite that did not run, a winner that did not finish first and a disqualified colt that is the subject of a lawsuit that knows no end.


Now that summer beckons, older horses reclaim their share of the spotlight. A horse twice as old as Omaha Beach and Country House and Maximum Security is the morning-line favorite Saturday night, when the $600,000 Grade 2 Stephen Foster Stakes is the feature at Churchill Downs.


Gift Box (3-1), a 6-year-old that used to be trained by Chad Brown, tries for his third graded-stakes win in four tries for John Sadler. Yes, the same John Sadler who won the Breeders’ Cup Classic last fall on the same dirt track with Accelerate.


The other 11 horses in the 1⅛-mile race include last year’s Woodward winner Yoshida (7-2), Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile runner-up Seeking The Soul (4-1) and second-place Alysheba finisher Tom’s d’Etat (5-1).


The change of racing seasons brings back familiar names – and deeper lists of past performances to handicap features like these. Each horse in the Stephen Foster has had an average of 15.3 prior starts. They are led by the 34 races already run by 6-year-old gelding Rated R Superstar (20-1).


There are few surprises at this point in their careers. We know which horses will bring early pace – or at least a facsimile of it in a race lacking it. We know which horses will be held back to make a late close. We know thanks to prior trips whether eight of them like racing at Churchill Downs. And since isolated thunderstorms are in the forecast for Saturday, we know the record of nine of these horses on wet tracks.


Recent form is influential. Gift Box is right there with three wins and three seconds lately. His biggest loss in those six races came three weeks ago when he lost the Gold Cup at Santa Anita to Vino Rosso by three-quarters of a length. But six of his rivals come into the race off a win.


Quip (10-1) was last seen beating Lone Sailor by a neck in the slop of the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, only his second race after finishing last in the 2018 Preakness. “Getting time off I think was the best thing that could have happened to him,” trainer Rodolphe Brisset told the media team at Churchill Downs. “He came back so much stronger and mature. I think he can really make a name for himself in the older-horse division this year.”


Tenfold (12-1) was seventh to Quip in the Oaklawn Handicap, but he rebounded four weeks ago when Ricardo Santana Jr. closed from 11 lengths back to win the Grade 3 Pimlico Special, a fast-track race in which trainer Steve Asmussen’s 4-year-old needed every inch of the 1¼ miles. “He really fought hard to win,” Asmussen said. “He’s been one of those horses that’s always trained well, and we knew he could put it together in his races but never quite got there.”


There does not appear to be enough pace in this nine-furlong race to allow for the likes of Tenfold to close into a win. Sired by Tapit, the lightly raced 4-year-old Alkhaatam (30-1) figures to have the early lead in his first graded stakes since his troubled, fourth-place finish in the 2017 Remsen. “The Foster was a good spot to try since it’s in our back yard,” trainer Dan Peitz said. “He keeps improving in every start. Who knows how good he could be?” But Alkhaatam, another colt that used to be trained by Brown, might be out of his element going 1⅛ miles.


So does the Foster set up for the mid-pack, 5-year-old Yoshida? The concern with him is his return from the Middle East. This is his first race since he was a non-factoring sixth in the Dubai World Cup. A Grade 1 winner last year on turf and dirt, the question is which Yoshida will show up Saturday for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott?


The thought here is that barring a rain-induced slopfest, Tom’s d’Etat is well positioned to win. Outclassed by McKinzie last month in the Grade 2 Alysheba, he is likely to challenge Alkhaatam for the early lead. “I’d expect him to be on the lead or close to the pace,” said Shaun Bridgmohan, who gets the ride for trainer Al Stall. “He has some speed, but we can be right there with him early. I don’t expect the pace to be too quick, though.”


Maybe that is conformation bias on stilts, but that was how I read the form, especially with two wins and two seconds in five starts at Churchill Downs. All that is why I will key my Foster tickets on Tom’s d’Etat. But I will include Gift Box, Quip and even throw in Alkhaatam. And if it rains? Then I may double down on Quip.


Racing notes and comments


Disqualified Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security will prep for next month’s $1 million Grade 1 Haskell Invitational by racing Sunday at 5 p.m. EDT in the $150,000 Pegasus Stakes over 8½ furlongs at Monmouth Park, New Jersey. “The horse had a really, good day, and I don’t see a reason why he shouldn’t run,” said trainer Jason Servis, who waited until Thursday to green-light the start. With a 5-for-5 record before the DQ, Maximum Security (1-2) is the morning-line favorite against five 3-year-old rivals. This has paid workout written all over it.


After more than a few of my questions on this were ignored, I finally got to the bottom of why one sports book here in Nevada kept posting futures for Triple Crown races while another was told to stop. William Hill was allowed to take fixed-odds bets right up to post time for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, but the Westgate Superbook was not. So what is the difference? Simple, according to two bookmakers who were not involved. Under Nevada law, it is illegal for any shop to offer futures betting on any race in which it is also taking pari-mutuel bets. William Hill does not take bets on track odds at all its shops or on its app. The Westgate does offer horse pari-mutuels in the Superbook, so that is why its futures were supposed to be cut off when the pari-mutuels began. In fact, the Nevada Gaming Control Board recently warned the Westgate not to do both at once, which it did before the Derby and Preakness. The Westgate did not offer Belmont Stakes futures.


Royal Ascot is next week 25 miles west of London, and for the third year in a row this column will be posted daily from this viewing stand 5,000 miles away. American trainer Wesley Ward, who has won 10 times in 10 previous trips to the royal turf meeting, has nine horses entered but none before Wednesday, and he is the guest on this week’s Ron Flatter Racing Pod. The first race Tuesday – the $760,821 Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes – is for older horses going a straight mile. The Coolmore 5-year-old Le Brivido (7-2) is the early betting favorite. But it has been two years since his last win. The play here will be Mustachry (6-1), the winner of last month’s Group 1 Lockinge. It was his second race back home for trainer Sir Michael Stoute after his flop in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Oh, yes, the weather. Rain is forecast for Sunday, but it is supposed to be dry Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, so the ground should be good.


The Breeders’ Cup is still scheduled for Nov. 1 and 2 at Santa Anita, but the championships’ chairman said that a move will be discussed this month. “We have a meeting in two weeks,” Fred Hertrich told Thoroughbred Daily News, referencing a June 27 board meeting at Lexington, Ky. “I’m sure it will be a topic of conversation. But as of right this minute, without having had a board meeting, with management, it is business as usual.” The question of whether to move the Breeders’ Cup – perhaps to Churchill Downs – came up with the deaths of 29 racehorses since last Christmas at Santa Anita, where the current winter-spring meet ends a week from Sunday.


Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is normally posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. It appears more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The current episode is focused on next week’s Royal Ascot meet and features trainer Wesley Ward and Racing Post’s Lee Mottershead. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google and Stitcher.

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