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.
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.
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.