Saturday's Stakes Previews
Wise Dan, Alternation highlight deep Stephen Foster
While Game on Dude sits safely atop the West Coast's handicap division, a stellar field will vie for supremacy among those based in the eastern half of the country Saturday night in the Grade 1, $400,000 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.
Alternation, the top-rated horse in the weekly National Thoroughbred Racing Association poll, enters the Foster undefeated from four starts this term, but is likely to take a backseat in the wagering to Wise Dan, who romped by 3 3/4 lengths in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill in November and kicked off this season with a track-record performance in the Grade 3 Ben Ali at Keeneland on April 22.
A homebred campaigned by Pin Oak Stud, Alternation swept Oaklawn Park's traditional big three of the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, Grade 3 Razorback Handicap, and Essex Handicap, and most recently held on narrowly to win the Grade 3 Pimlico Special by a nose over returning Foster foe Nehro. Although not among the elite three-year-olds last year, Alternation has won four of five starts since adding blinkers in late 2011.
Wise Dan, the 123-pound highweight in the Foster, is a graded stakes winner on dirt, turf and synthetic, and passed the $1 million threshold in career earnings with his performance in the Ben Ali. A 10 1/2-length winner of that race, he set a new course standard of 1:46 3/5 for 1 1/8 miles in the romp. The Mort Fink homebred owns a sink-or-swim career mark of 15-9-0-0, but has won his last three by open lengths and appears primed to run another strong one underneath John Velazquez.
The pace of the Stephen Foster should be provided by Nates Mineshaft, who upset the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap in March and most recently romped by more than seven lengths in the Grade 3 Lone Star Park Handicap. He was beaten more than 20 lengths into sixth in the Grade 2 Alysheba over the Churchill strip in between the two victories, but trainer Austin Smith has reportedly blamed his improper riding instructions for the brief setback.
Another with early foot is Fort Larned, a grandson of the Hall of Fame mare Bayakoa. The four-year-old has improved dramatically this year, winning the Challenger at Tampa Bay Downs and the Grade 3 Skip Away at Gulfstream before running a game second in the Alysheba to Successful Dan.
The latter was entered in the Foster as a backup to his half-brother, Wise Dan, but is likely to stay out and point to either the Grade 3 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap on June 30 or the Grade 2 Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park on July 7.
Ron the Greek, hero of the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, could not overcome the moderate pace set by Alternation in the Oaklawn Handicap last time and settled for second as the 5-2 favorite. The five-year-old has made considerable progress since joining the Bill Mott barn last summer, running first or second in six consecutive outings.
Nehro rebounded from a dull showing in the Oaklawn Handicap to just miss in the Pimlico Special last time, and will seek to give the unlucky Ahmed Zayat a morale boost after seeing his colts Bodemeister and Paynter fall agonizingly short in the three Triple Crown races this spring. The irony that Nehro might be the one to do so has surely not escaped the notice of the Egyptian-born owner, who saw the colt also occupy the runner-up slot in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby, Grade 1 Arkansas Derby and Grade 2 Louisiana Derby last season.
Mission Impazible, a past winner of the New Orleans Handicap, has repeatedly fallen short at the highest level but has come close on multiple occasions. Second by a neck to longshot Pool Play in last year's Foster, he was a distant second to Wise Dan in the Clark and runner-up by a nose in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap on February 11, but was the beaten favorite in both the 2012 New Orleans 'Cap and Pimlico Special in his last two starts.
The Stephen Foster field is rounded out by Rogue Romance. The Grade 3 turf winner rebounded from a last-place finish in the Ben Ali to post a five-length allowance win over Churchill's main track May 20.
Champion Royal Delta returns in Fleur de Lis
Royal Delta will face just five rivals when she returns to competition on Saturday in the Grade 2, $150,000 Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill Downs. The 1 1/8-mile race is one of four stakes that comprise Churchill's Stephen Foster Downs After Dark racing program.
Royal Delta opened her four-year-old season with a runner-up effort in the Grade 3 Sabin Stakes at Gulfstream Park, then flew to Dubai to take part in the Group 1 Dubai World Cup against the boys. The Bill Mott trainee could only manage ninth on Meydan's synthetic Tapeta, and has been rested in the interim to ready for the rest of her 2012 campaign.
The Empire Maker filly came on late in the season last year, not making her sophomore bow until March and not scoring until taking an allowance at Keeneland in April. The dark bay miss then proceeded to capture the Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan, run third in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks, romp in the Grade 1 Alabama and finish second to eventual Horse of the Year Havre de Grace in the Grade 1 Beldame Invitational. She closed out the year with an easy win in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic, and two months later was honored with an Eclipse Award as the 2011 champion three-year-old filly.
Royal Delta will have to contend with a jockey switch from Jose Lezcano to Mike Smith as the top draw in the Fleur de Lis. Her biggest challenge in the race appears to come from St. John's River.
The Include four-year-old filly offered no run when fifth behind Royal Delta in the Alabama last season and was given the rest of the year off following that subpar effort. St. John's River strung together a trio of close seconds as a sophomore, culminating with a stretch-long dual in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks that saw her just miss by a neck on the wire.
The Andrew Leggio Jr. pupil returned following a two-month layoff to be a head victress in the Grade 2 Delaware Oaks prior to her Alabama try, and opened her four-year-old campaign with a nice rallying second in the Grade 2 La Troienne under the Twin Spires on Kentucky Oaks Day. Rosie Napravnik was aboard that day and retains the mount on St. John's River Saturday night.
Sterling Madame was a well-beaten third behind Havre de Grace in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes in March, and is looking to up her game after a 12 1/2-length frolic against Prairie Meadows stakes rivals last out. The Unbridled Energy filly broke her maiden by six lengths at Churchill last fall. Afleeting Lady could also make some noise in the Fleur de Lis. The five-year-old daughter of Afleet Alex just missed by a neck in the Grade 2 Falls City Handicap at Churchill in late November and most recently captured an allowance over the track.
Grade 3 vixen It's Tea Time and Grade 3-placed Distorted Love, the respective second and fifth behind Afleeting Lady in that May 19 allowance, complete the Fleur de Lis field.
Earlier on the card, Right to Vote tops a field of five sophomores entered in the Grade 3, $100,000 Matt Winn Stakes going 1 1/16 miles. Trained by Eoin Harty, the dark bay gelding has yet to finish off-the-board in five starts and was most recently second in the Grade 2 Peter Pan. The son of Political Force actually led into the stretch of that nine-furlong contest and gets Javier Castellano, aboard for his maiden win at Belmont last year, back to ride.
Stealcase could steal the show following a four-length score under the Twin Spires on May 31. The Mark Casse-trained son of Lawyer Ron finished third in the Grade 3 Derby Trial prior to that effort and keeps Shaun Bridgmohan in the irons while going for his first stakes win. Neck 'N Neck also brings winning experience over the track into the Matt Winn. The Flower Alley colt was a 6 1/2-length victor against allowance rivals on May 10.
A well-matched group of three-year-old fillies will get their turn under the lights as 11 line up for 1 1/8-miles on the turf in the Grade 3 Regret Stakes. Centre Court jumped up to break her maiden by 4 3/4 lengths when trying Churchill's turf for the first time on May 19, while Colonial Flag brings maiden and optional claiming scores into her Louisville debut. Coup did one better when capturing the Hilltop Stakes at Pimlico while Silver Hustler will try to earn back-to-back turf triumphs following a rallying allowance win over course and distance on May 17.
Include Me Out goes for fourth consecutive win in Vanity
Include Me Out will look to continue her dominance over the distaff division in Southern California when she lines up against seven rivals in Saturday's Grade 1, $250,000 Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park. The Ron Ellis pupil finished fifth when making her stakes debut in the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes in December, but she's unbeaten in 2012, stringing together impressive wins in the Grade 2 La Canada, the Grade 1 Santa Margarita and the Grade 2 Marjorie L. Everett Handicap most recently.
The four-year-old filly has already defeated her main rivals in the 1 1/8-mile Vanity this year. Include Me Out will tote the top-weight assignment of 122 pounds and Joe Talamo rides.
Zazu was no match for Include Me Out when fourth in the Everett, but that marked the first start for the multiple Grade 1 winner since early October. The classy four-year-old gray is eligible to show more off the tightener for trainer John Sadler and will leave the starting gate under a 121-pound impost that includes Joel Rosario.
Ellafitz was no match for Include Me Out when weakening to fourth in the sloppy Santa Margarita, but the five-year-old mare exits a respectable second in the Everett and hails from the mighty Bob Baffert shedrow. She captured three straight, including the Grade 2 Bayakoa over the Cushion Track, before the Santa Margarita, and will carry 120 pounds with Rafael Bejarano.
Everett third-placer Caelis and Santa Margarita runner-up Love Theway Youare are also entered. Rock and Glory will make her first stakes appearance following a pair of convincing wins, posting a 8 1/4-length maiden tally prior to an eye-catching 11 1/4-length decision over entry-level allowance foes on May 10. Irish stakes-placed filly Atlantic Swing, who will make her U.S. debut for trainer Ben Cecil and owner J. Paul Reddam, and English import Zafeen's Pearl round out the field.
The Vanity will be preceded by a pair of 5 1/2-furlong races for two-year-olds -- the $100,000 Willard L. Proctor Memorial Stakes and the $100,000 Cinderella Stakes, which is restricted to fillies.
Amarish is the one to defeat in the eight-horse Proctor after a powerful debut win. Trained by Jeff Bonde, the Scat Daddy gelding rolled by 7 3/4 lengths as the 13-10 favorite May 26. Undrafted, Just Call Me All, K Court and Lovmeister were also first-out winners.
Bonde will be represented by Unusual Way in the Cinderella. Like Amarish, the Unusual Heat filly was a first-out winner, prevailing by 2 1/4 lengths May 5. Other contenders in the nine-horse field include Awe Golly Molly and Awesome Annie.
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