Honorable Duty May Have Slight Edge in Loaded Stephen Foster Field
By Ellis Starr, courtesy America's Best Racing
On a June 17 Saturday evening card loaded with great racing, including five graded stakes, the 36th running of the Grade 1, $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs is the marquee event. Featuring seven graded stakes winners in a field of eight, the Stephen Foster is also a "Win and You're In" qualifying race for the Breeders' Cup Classic this fall. In terms of overall accomplishments, Gun Runner deserves first mention as he won the similar Grade 1 Clark Handicap last fall and most recently finished second to Arrogate in the Group 1 Dubai World Cup. Bird Song and Honorable Duty just finished first and second, respectively, in the Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes over Churchill’s main track and must be respected. Breaking Lucky was second behind Gun Runner in the Clark and recently a very close second behind Honorable Duty in the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap. 2016 Grade 2 Charles Town Classic Stakes winner Stanford won the Challenger Stakes in March before a poor effort on a sloppy track in this year's Charles Town Classic and can rebound. Hawaakom, Mo Tom and Texas Chrome have combined earnings of more than $2.1 million in their careers, so saying they round out the field is likely doing them a disservice.
Main win contenders:
Honorable Duty improved markedly when the blinkers he wore for nearly every one of his first nine races were removed last fall. He earned a career best 116 Equibase Speed Figure winning the Tenacious Stakes in December then followed up that strong effort with wins in the Mineshaft Handicap and New Orleans Handicap, duplicating the 116 figure in the latter race. In his most recent race in the Alysheba Stakes on Kentucky Oaks day, Honorable Duty chased lone frontrunner Bird Song around the track but could make no headway late. The pace scenario in the Foster could be much different with Stanford and Gun Runner and potentially Breaking Lucky pressing the pace. Benefiting from a jockey change to Javier Castellano, who is coming in from New York to ride him for the first time, Honorable Duty gets slight preference in a very deep and talented field.
Breaking Lucky had traffic trouble at the start and may have not cared for the sloppy track in the Alysheba last month, so I can ignore his fifth-place effort. Prior to that, he ran the best race of his career in the New Orleans Handicap as he led from the start and was just beaten by a head on the wire by Honorable Duty. The 118 Equibase Speed Figure earned compares favorably with the best efforts of the main contenders in the field. Jockey Luis Contreras, who rode Breaking Lucky to his only graded stakes win in the Seagram Cup last summer, comes in from Canada to ride, which suggests this horse will run one of the best races of his career in this year's Stephen Foster.
Gun Runner has earned over $4 million to date while winning seven of 14 races. On this night last year he won the Matt Winn Stakes in dominant wire-to-wire fashion, and he did the same thing over the track last fall when taking the Clark Handicap with a 114 Equibase Speed Figure. In his first race of 2017, Gun Runner earned a career best sparkling 125 figure when winning the Grade 3 Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park, and followed that with a tremendous second-place finish to Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup. Working at Churchill Downs since last month, Gun Runner appears to be just fine after his trip halfway across the globe and has every right to win.
Stanford and Bird Song have to be mentioned with more than a reference to their best figures as both are Grade 2 stakes winners. Nevertheless, from an outside post jockey John Velazquez will have to get Stanford close to the rail and either take on Bird Song in the early stages or sit a close second. Stanford earned a strong 118 figure winning the Challenger Stakes at the distance of the Foster in March, and on that count I wouldn't argue with anyone that considered him a strong contender. Bird Song gets the ground-saving rail and is likely to set the early pace as he has done in his last three winning efforts, the best of which came in the Fred Hooper Stakes with a 116 figure. With three wins in four career starts at Churchill Downs, there are two main questions surrounding Bird Song's chances to win the Foster. The first is whether he can win in spite of a good amount of early pace pressure, and the second is whether he can win at nine furlongs, a distance at which he faded to third after leading late in his only previous try.
The other three entrants, with their best representative Equibase Speed Figures, are Hawaakom (116), Mo Tom (103) and Texas Chrome (111).
My Selections: Honorable Duty, Breaking Lucky, Gun Runner