The male handicap division has been deep this year, but this will mark the first occasion that the unstoppable Wise Dan meets Alternation, who has been building up a pile of wins this year as a four-year-old seeking his first G1 pass. However, neither will have an easy task: 6 other worthy hopefuls aim to upset, and there’s plenty of potential for that in the Downs. I picked last year’s winner, Pool Play, at fantastic 34-1 odds!
Successful Dan has been counted out of the lineup as replacement for Wise Dan in the unlikely event he should scratch. Forecast looks hot and sunny.
$400,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (I) - 3-Year-Olds & Up. 1 1/8 miles on dirt at Churchill Downs. Post Time: Saturday, June 16 at 9:39pm EST.
[Post Position, Horse - Jockey, Impost, Trainer - Summary, Opinion in italics]
1) Nates Mineshaft - Jesse Campbell, 118 lbs, Austin Smith - The Mineshaft son caught fire this year back-to-back graded stakes, but followed that with a disappointing 6th at Churchill in the Alysheba (II) while being held back. He won the Lone Star Handicap (II) last out by 7 1/4 lengths and is in fighting trim as the likely pacesetter. His one and only Churchill start— and on the rail— did not offer him a smooth trip, and this front runner will need a super fast track and lots of luck. His last work over the main wasn’t that great.
2) Fort Larned - Julien Leparoux, 117 lbs, Ian Wilkes - The E Dubai colt has yet to gain much respect, reeling off a clear, record-breaking win in the Skip Away Stakes (III) at 1 3/16 miles followed by a runner-up finish in the Alysheba (II). 5-furlong breezes have remained consistent, and he deserves a look as a skilled pacestalker.
3) Wise Dan - John Velazquez, 123 lbs, Charles Lopresti - The Wiseman’s Ferry gelding can do it all: turf, dirt, synthetic and in winning fashion. He has won his past 3 graded stakes by a combined 18 lengths and has flattened plenty of excellent horses along the way. Lopresti has Wise Dan wound up nicely for this effort, and I expect to see something wonderful from him.
4) Nehro - Corey Nakatani, 116 lbs, Steve Asmussen - The Zayat-owned Mineshaft colt has been pushing hard for his first stakes win, hitting the wire of the Pimlico Special (III) just a head bob away from it last out going 5-wide. He’s in peak condition with a 7-pound advantage over Wise Dan and 6 from Alternation. A fast pace will help this eager closer.
5) Ron the Greek - Jose Lezcano, 119 lbs, Bill Mott - The Full Mandate son already has a G1 to his credit this year in a very strangely-run Santa Anita Handicap (I), and other than Wise Dan, is the lone G1 winner in this field. A gradual closer with no Churchill experience, but with the track leading Mott in charge, he’ll benefit from the reduced weight but has a lot of question marks hanging over how good his form really is.
6) Rogue Romance - Manoel Cruz, 115 lbs, Ken McPeek - The Smarty Jones colt stopped running to finish dead-last in Wise Dan’s eye-popping Ben Ali (III) score, but has a good history at Churchill Downs. He is fresh off a confidence boosting allowance score at Churchill, winning by 5 to dismiss any fitness doubts. The G3 winner lacks the credentials to pose as a sound bet for this race, but put him on the up-and-up list.
7) Mission Impazible - Javier Castellano, 116 lbs, Todd Pletcher - “Happy-go-unlucky” best describes this Unbridled’s Song gelding, who finished a wide, eased 4th last out in the Pimlico Special and sports mostly board finishes in a millionaire career. He finished second in last year’s Stephen Foster as well as this past Clark Handicap to Wise Dan. He makes excellent efforts in top company, but of course doesn’t like to win too often. I don’t see much here that shows a potential breakthrough.
8) Alternation - Luis Quinonez, 122 lbs, Donnie Von Hemel - The Distorted Humor son has been cooking since turning 4, reeling off 4 wins in 4 starts with 3 of those wins being graded. He appears to be a fan of running towards the front end of things, but may have his work cut out for him this time with second-highest weight and a deeper field. He was all-out to win the Pimlico Special, and honestly looks a bit dulled lately.
Top Picks in Order:
1) Wise Dan
2) Nates Mineshaft
4) Fort Larned
A very tough race to handicap. Wise Dan shows no sign of slowing down and is the best horse of the group. Versatile Nates Mineshaft excels out on the lead, which he should roll with again in this race to hold off the talented closers.
Value Pick(s): Nates Mineshaft