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 Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by GE Appliances – 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.
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 G1 Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare at Churchill Downs and was runner-up to world No. 1 Arrogate in March’s G1Dubai World Cup 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 G2 Risen Star, G2 Louisiana Derby and G3 Matt Winn, runner-up efforts in the G2 Pennsylvania Derby and G1 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and third-place finishes in the G1 Kentucky Derby and G1 Travers Stakes.
Prior to the Dubai World Cup, Gun Runner was a 5 ¾-length winner of the G3 Razorback 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 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.”
Favorites have a record of 35-7-10-4 (20 percent) in the Stephen Foster.
The 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 Bird Song and Honorable Duty, who ran 1-2 in the G2 Alysheba Presented by Big Fish Casino on the Kentucky Oaks undercard. Marylou Whitney Stables LLC’s 4-year-old homebred Bird Song, trained by Ian Wilkes, 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 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 Tenacious, G3 Mineshaft Handicap and G2 New Orleans Handicap.
Both Bird Song and Honorable Duty will carry five pounds less than top-weighted Gun Runner.
Stanford, the 5-year-old who races for the Stonestreet Stables LLC, Michael Tabor, Mrs. John Magnier and Derrick Smith partnership, won last year’s G2 Charles Town Classic and G3 Harlan’s Holiday for trainer Todd Pletcher, who seeks his first Foster win.
Trainer Reade Baker has brought Canadian invader Breaking Lucky 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, who does his best running late for trainer Tom Amoss. The 4-year-old colt won last year’s G3 Lecomte and the Ohio Derby.
Hawaakom and Texas Chrome have run second in Grade 3 events this year. Stephan H. Smoot and Wes Hawley’s Hawaakom – 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, 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 G3 Steve Sexton Mile and G3 Lone Star Park Handicap, respectively.
The Stephen Foster Handicap, which was elevated to Grade 1 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.
New to the Paulick Report? Click here to sign up for our daily email newsletter to keep up on this and other stories happening in the Thoroughbred industry.
Copyright © 2017 Paulick Report.