Stephen Foster Stakes a ‘key race’ for Breeders’ Cup Classic


The term “key race” is one that is always near and dear to handicappers. More than once, we have noticed that a batch of horses that comes out of one particular contest ends up winning major contests later that season.

The Stephen Foster Stakes will be shown on NBC this Saturday. The event at Churchill Downs had its first running in 1982, and it is the first “Win and You’re In” race for this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. Meanwhile, the Breeders’ Cup Classic had its first running in 1984, so the two races have been around for approximately the same time. My memory said that several good runners in the Classic had run earlier in that year in the Stephen Foster. Our friends at Equibase have provided data indicating that 31 horses have run in both the Foster and the Classic in the same year. For the record, 16 of those 31 horses won the Stephen Foster, and six of them won the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

A closer look at the data reveals that five horses have won both the Foster and the Classic in the same year, and they are a remarkable group:

1991 – Black Tie Affair

1998 – Awesome Again

2005 – Saint Liam

2010 – Blame

2017 – Gun Runner

Collectively, these horses represent $32.56 million in career earnings, led by the nearly $16 million of Gun Runner. It is a group that includes three winners and two runners-up for the Horse of the Year Eclipse Award. The lowest number in earnings amongst this group was Black Tie Affair, whose $3.37 million was gathered in 1991, over seven years before the next horse on the list, at a time when purses were likely to be smaller. It should be noted that only one horse has run second in both races in the same year, and that was Silver Charm. After winning the Derby and the Preakness and finishing 2nd in the Belmont in 1997, he came back the following year and was 2nd to Awesome Again in both the Foster and the Classic.

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An additional “honorable mention” should go to the venerable gelding Perfect Drift, who ran in both races from 2003-2006. He won the Stephen Foster in 2003, was 2nd in 2006, and was 3rd in the race in 2004 and 2005. In addition, he was 4th in the Classic in 2004 and 3rd in that race in 2005. He was one of the hardest-trying horses in my lifetime, finishing 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in 32 of 50 races, 21 of which were at the Grade 1 level.

What does all this data mean? In many years, it means that the Stephen Foster Stakes ends up being a key race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Speculatively, you could say that a Grade 1 race at nine furlongs in the early summer is probably a good setup for a 10-furlong race that is run in the fall. In addition, the fact that the Foster is held in Kentucky, a state where (including this year) 12 Breeders’ Cups have been run, is probably another factor which attracts horses whose connections have future designs on the Classic. The bottom line is that if five of 31 previous winners of the Foster have won the Classic in the same year, it is a race that should be viewed as an individual event and also as a potential key race for the Classic in every single year.

Looking at the probable horses for this year’s Stephen Foster, I see three horses that could step up to be a major factor in the second half of the year and on to the Breeders’ Cup. The first of these is the controversial (through no fault of his own) Mandaloun. His two biggest wins, in the 2021 Kentucky Derby and Haskell Stakes, were awarded to him after the first horse to cross the line was disqualified. In the case of the Derby, it took several months until Mandaloun was declared the winner after the positive drug test of Medina Spirit. In the Haskell, he lost by a nose to Hot Rod Charlie before that one was disqualified for the heel-clipping incident that led to Midnight Bourbon losing his rider in the stretch.  In the five races where he crossed the wire first, he never won by a margin greater than 1 ¼ lengths. His detractors point to the wins by DQ and the fact that he never dominates his rivals as reasons to not have total belief in Mandaloun. The positive spin on this horse, however, is that he is royally bred for distance and could end up with an outstanding 4-year-old campaign. I would not be surprised at all if he had a strong second half of the year, beginning with the Stephen Foster.

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The next contender who is rising on the charts is the Bill Mott-trained Olympiad. He was a $700,000 yearling purchase, and he is running to his potential this year, as he is undefeated in four starts. His last two starts have been relatively easy wins in the Alysheba Stakes and the New Orleans Classic, both Grade 2 events. He has a classic stalking style, and his consistency will take him a long way. The only disappointing race in his recent record was a 4th in the 2021 Cigar Mile, where he endured a heel-clipping incident and a horrible wide trip. He has shown major improvement as a 4-year-old, and there is no reason to think that that improvement will not continue. A race such as the Stephen Foster, with a relatively small field at 9 furlongs, should fit his running style perfectly.

The third horse to look at with an eye to the Breeders’ Cup Classic is the Todd Pletcher-trained Americanrevolution. He put it all together to come from off the pace to win the 2021 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct. A New York-bred, his other four career wins were against horses sired in the Empire State. His only start this year was a bad-trip 4th as the favorite in the Blame Stakes at Churchill Downs. It would not surprise me if the “2nd race off a layoff” factor worked in his favor and he turned in a major effort in the Stephen Foster.  Americanrevolution may be a New York-bred, but he may also have what it takes to be a major factor in the second half of the year.

The question remains about whether horses from this year’s Stephen Foster Stakes will be key players in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. The data says that there is a clear handicapping relationship between the two races. We should watch closely, in part to enjoy a competitive race, but also with an eye toward its implications for the Nov. 5th Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland.

Road to the Kentucky Derby: Forte seems dominant ahead of Florida Derby prep race


The numbers speak for themselves. Horses trained by Todd Pletcher have earned more purse money (over $455 million) than those trained by any other person in the history of thoroughbred racing. He has won with an impressive 23% of his starters, and 52% have finished first, second or third.

When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, however, Pletcher becomes a mere mortal. From 62 career starters, he has won the race twice, with two seconds, and four horses who finished 3rd. Many of Pletcher’s Derby horses were longshots who were in the race primarily so their owners could have a horse in America’s biggest race. His two Derby winners, while they were reasonably backed at the windows, were far from odds-on favorites. When Super Saver won in 2010, he paid $18.00 for a $2 win ticket. Always Dreaming, his 2017 winner, was a very lukewarm favorite who returned $11.40 to win.  Many racing fans are used to seeing Pletcher’s horses win at short odds, primarily in New York and Florida. They might be shocked to find out that when Always Dreaming won the 2017 Derby, he was the shortest-odds horse that Pletcher had ever saddled in the Kentucky Derby, despite having odds just under 5-1.

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This Saturday, he will saddle Forte in the Florida Derby. Forte will enter the race on a four-race win streak, with those wins coming in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes, the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity, the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes. He is a 4/5 morning line favorite, and if he wins the race, he should move forward to Louisville as a very strong favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Clearly, he would be the shortest-priced horse Pletcher has ever had in the race, but that almost wasn’t the case.

In 2010, we know that Pletcher scored a mild upset in the Kentucky Derby with Super Saver. He was definitely not the best three-year-old in Pletcher’s barn. That year, he had a horse named Eskendereya, who seemed as unbeatable as Forte does now. He was set to enter the Derby off a three-race win streak. That streak included an 8 ½ length victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and a 9 ¾ length win in the Wood Memorial. The Pletcher barn was devastated when Eskendereya suffered a career-ending leg injury in training one week before the Kentucky Derby. So, instead of saddling the big favorite in the race, he took his shot with four other horses. As the chart tells us, Super Saver benefitted from a rail-skimming ride by Calvin Borel and gave Pletcher his first Derby winner.

As far as I am concerned, any discussion of Forte and the Florida Derby should begin with the concept of professionalism in a racehorse. In one respect you can call him more professional than (dare I say?) Secretariat. Big Red was brilliant, and he showed the ability to win on the engine and from off the pace. Forte’s three career races around two turns, however, are a virtual carbon copy of each other.

As a two-year-old, in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, he was in fifth place after six furlongs, sitting 2 ½ lengths off the lead, and he went on to win by a neck. That race set him up for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In the Juvenile, he was again in fifth after six furlongs, sitting four lengths off the lead before he went on to win by 1 ½ lengths. It’s been said that race horses mature the most between ages two and three, and Forte’s only race this year showed that maturity. In the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream, he was in fourth after six furlongs, sitting about two lengths off the lead, and then he blew by the field, going on to win by 4 ½ lengths.

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This concept of professionalism in a racehorse is based in part on how well the game plan of the trainer is executed by the horse. Forte is a horse that has clearly used his fast cruising speed and his ability to relax off the pace to his advantage. Looking at those three wins he posted around two turns, they show that Forte’s natural ability allows him to idle like a Cadillac behind front-runners, and he has a growing ability to pass his competition on the far turn and power through the stretch on his way to victory. The Pletcher game plan, nurtured through the experience of 62 starts in America’s most important race, has been very convincing thus far.

Working in Forte’s favor even more is the fact that there are several horses in the race who tend to run on the front end, which should set up jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. to make Forte’s signature move to the lead as the front-runners start to tire. Skeptics might point to Forte’s journey from the #11 post as a reason to think he might have a problem here, but the fact that he relaxes in races and has a high cruising speed should allow Ortiz to get a mid-pack position to pounce from.

As for the rest of the field, the two most likely to finish underneath Forte in exotic wagers are Fort Bragg and Cyclone Mischief. Fort Bragg is a horse who sold for $700,000 as a yearling. He was formerly trained by Bob Baffert and has been transferred to the care of Tim Yakteen. He should be near the front end early and is likely to have the class to last longer that some of the other forwardly-placed runners.  Another who has a good chance to hit the board is the Dale Romans-trained Cyclone Mischief. He has raced against some of the top horses of his age group and was third to Forte in the Fountain of Youth, beaten by nearly 6 lengths. Although he was on the lead in that race, I expect him to sit a couple of lengths off the pace here. There are two longer-priced entries here that could hit the board to fill out some tickets. They are the lightly-raced Mage (fourth in the Fountain of Youth with a troubled trip) and West Coast Cowboy, who has tried hard in all three career races and is 20-1 on the morning line.

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For those who think they might be able to beat Forte, consider Todd Pletcher’s record in the Florida Derby. He is the leading trainer in the history of the race with six wins, and five of those have been in the last nine years.

If there is a theme to the Derby prep season thus far, it is Pletcher, Pletcher, Pletcher. In addition to Forte, he trains Kingsbarns, the front-running winner of the Louisiana Derby, and Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapit Trice. Tapit Trice, who will run in the Blue Grass Stakes on NBC a week from Saturday, is an intriguing horse who won the Tampa Bay Derby with come-from-behind style. As talented as Forte is, we don’t know how talented Tapit Trice can be, as he seems to mature more with each start. At Tampa Bay, he was eighth in the middle of the stretch and got home to win by an easy two lengths. He is an 8-1 second choice in the most recent Derby futures pool, with Forte favored at 3-1.

It is always fascinating when the early Derby favorite has his final prep race. We’ll have to sit back and watch on Saturday to determine whether Forte will continue his dominance or if he will hit a bump in the road. His talent and his ability to duplicate his running style from race to race lead me to think that his growth and maturity will continue to be on display in the Florida Derby, and he’ll advance to Kentucky a huge favorite for America’s biggest race.

How to Watch the Florida Derby

  • Date: Saturday, April 1st
  • Time: 6pm ET
  • TV Network: CNBC
  • Streaming: Peacock

When is the 2023 Kentucky Derby?

The 149th Kentucky Derby is set for Saturday, May 6th, and will air across the networks of NBC and Peacock.

Horse racing’s national anti-doping program starts

NBC Sports

Horse racing’s efforts to clean up the sport and level the playing field take another step forward with the launch of a new anti-doping program.

It’s an attempt to centralize the drug testing of racehorses and manage the results, as well as dole out uniform penalties to horses and trainers instead of the current patchwork rules that vary from state to state.

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) was created by the federal government nearly three years ago. It has two programs: racetrack safety, which went into effect in July, and anti-doping and medication control.

“It’s one standard. You can be in Kentucky, you can be in Ohio, you can be in California and you’re going to be judged by the same standard,” HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said.

HISA’s Horseracing Integrity and Welfare Unit – its independent enforcement agency – has reached agreements with all of the state racing commissions and/or racetracks that will have live racing as of Monday.

Seven of the biggest racing states – Arkansas, California, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania, as well as Will Rogers Downs in Oklahoma – will continue to use their current staff to collect samples.

In Arizona, Illinois and Ohio, there is no signed voluntary agreement with HISA, so it contracted directly with either current staff or hired its own personnel to collect samples. Post-race testing only in New York will be handled this way.

States that have live racing after mid-April are in discussion with the enforcement agency, HISA said.

The agency will work with accredited labs in Ohio, Illinois, Colorado, California, Pennsylvania and Kentucky to analyze samples.

“For the first time, racing’s labs will be harmonized and held to the same performance standards nationwide,” said Ben Mosier, executive director of the enforcement agency. “Thoroughbred racehorses will be tested for the same substances at the same levels, regardless of where they are located or compete.”

Unlike the central offices that govern the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, the 38 U.S. racing states have long operated under rules that vary from track to track. Horses, owners, trainers and jockeys move frequently between states to compete. Locales would honor punishments meted out elsewhere, but inconsistencies created confusion and made it possible to game the system.

Lazarus said that in talking with horsemen they want three things from HISA: Catch the cheaters, be realistic about medication, and be aware of environmental contaminants that trainers cannot control but can trigger positive tests.

“That’s exactly what our program does,” she said recently.

HISA has been met with resistance in its short existence.

Last year, a federal appeals court ruled it unconstitutional, saying Congress gave too much authority to the group it established to oversee the racing industry. Congress tweaked the wording of the original legislation to fix that. It also gave the Federal Trade Commission the authority to oversee HISA.

Legal challenges in Texas and Louisiana to HISA resulted in the federal appeals court preventing it from operating, so state regulations will continue to govern the sport. Racetracks in Texas and Nebraska have chosen not to broadcast their simulcast signals out of state, so HISA currently has no authority to regulate them, Lazarus said.

As a result of the ongoing legal issues surrounding HISA, the anti-doping program won’t begin in every state on Monday as Lazarus had hoped.

“It’s not perfect,” she said. “We have to change some things, we have to see how some things go.”

There’s also been vocal opposition among some in the industry over the prospect of sweeping change – as well as its cost to racetracks, horse owners and trainers, and the impact it will have on business.

“They’ve been taking away certain medications, therapy machines, things that are truly beneficial,” said trainer Bret Calhoun, whose stable operates in Louisiana, Kentucky and Texas. “They’re having the opposite effect of what they’re saying … safety of the horse and rider. They’re doing absolutely the opposite.”

Calhoun spoke earlier this month at the National Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association national convention in Louisiana.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry was even more blunt.

“At the core of HISA is this: a handful of wealthy players wish to control the sport through a one-size-fits-all, pay-to-play scheme that will decimate the inclusive culture of horse racing,” he said at the convention.

Lazarus counters the criticism, saying, “We’re there to make racing better.”

She has said she’s aiming for transparent investigations and speedier resolutions of disputes. And Lazarus has spent much of her first year on the job trying to “overcommunicate and overeducate.”

“I’m really hopeful that the message is getting through,” she said.

There will be no trial period for infractions under the new rules. Veterinarians who administer medications to horses have had to get up to speed on the regulations as well as trainers who are ultimately responsible for what goes into their horses.

“Change I think is always hard,” Lazarus said, “and this is like seismic change.”