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One of Louisville’s biggest summer parties returns in earnest to Churchill Downs on Saturday as the home of the Kentucky Derby welcomes back its wildly popular “Downs After Dark Presented by Stella Artois and el Jimador” nighttime racing program for Stephen Foster Handicap night. NBCSN will be onsite live from 8:30-10 p.m. to launch its 2017 “Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series: Win and You’re In, presented by Lane’s End Farm and America’s Best Racing” television schedule.
A perfect blend of an upscale night on the town with the excitement of Thoroughbred racing, Saturday’s action-packed “Downs After Dark” marquee will feature 11 races in primetime and under the lights, headlined by the 36th running of the Grade 1, $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by GE Appliances – one the nation’s premier events for older horses. The 1 1/8-mile Foster is the richest of five graded stakes races on an evening that will feature total purses in excess of $1.3 million, making it the most lucrative racing day for horsemen at Churchill Downs outside of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks programs. The Stephen Foster will serve as a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The headliner for the Stephen Foster is Gun Runner, rated fourth on the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings. Owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm, trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, and regularly ridden by Florent Geroux, the 4-year-old colt won last fall’s Grade 1 Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare and was runner-up to Arrogate in March’s Grade 1 Dubai World Cup. Overall, the Kentucky-bred son of Candy Ride has a 14-7-3-2 record with $4,337,800 in earnings.
#3 Gun Runner – Back from Dubai and ready for a huge second half of the season, he’s vastly improved as a 4-year-old and is easily the second-best older male in the country right now. If he can avoid the “Dubai Bounce,” he’ll be tough to beat – he towers over the completion. A race like this will prepare him for later races this year, such as the Whitney and/or Woodward Stakes at Saratoga, before taking another swing at Arrogate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
#4 Honorable Duty – He’s won of three of his last four races, with the loss coming last time out in the Grade 2 Alysheba when he finished second behind Bird Song. He always seems to do just enough to get the job done and likes to sit back and make one big run at the end. Those tactics could be good here, as several speed horses in the field (including Gun Runner) should set a fast pace. If there’s a pace meltdown, Honorable Duty can pick up the pieces, and I love that Javier Castellano is signed on to ride.
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#8 Stanford – He had a rough go of it last time out in the Grade 2 Charles Town Classic because he didn’t get the trip he likes, which is alone on the lead. He’ll most likely be bothered again in this spot, but I love the post position that he’s drawn. If he can relax just a bit, he can sit off or at least outside of the early speed and be in a perfect position when the real running begins. It’s unlikely that anyone in this group can match strides with Gun Runner, but if he does have a “Dubai Bounce,” then it offers an opportunity to get inflated prices.
#7 Texas Chrome – After a poor effort in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile last fall, this guy appears to have rounded back into form while racing at Lone Star. Last time out, he was second to Danzing Candy, and two races back, he was second to Mor Spirit, who just crushed in the Met Mile. He was never close to beating either one of those horses, so maybe he can’t win a race like this, but hitting the board is well within his realm. The trainer change to Allen Milligan is the only question mark.
#2 Breaking Lucky – He’s a tough one to read. He seems to be on an “every other one” pattern – he hasn’t been able to put together back-to-back solid races. The good news is that he ran poorly last time out, so maybe he’s due for a good one here. Last year, he finished second here in the Clark, so he might like this track. No way he wins, but he’s a good play underneath at what might be an okay price.
#1 Bird Song – This horse is dangerous when left alone on the lead, most recently when he wired the Alysheba in the slop. If he gets things his own way, he’ll be hard to catch, but but it’s unlikely that he does, considering the pace outlook. I don’t like him going a mile and 1/8; a mile or a mile and 1/16 are where he runs his best races. Still, he could play the role of upsetter if everything works out well trip-wise.
#5 Mo Tom – Hopes were high for this horse when he won last year’s Ohio Derby after finally getting a clean trip, but he hasn’t won since that race. He looks to have completely lost his form, and entering in a Grade 1 race won’t help matters.
#6 Hawaakom – He seems to run well in listed stakes, but his graded stakes efforts have not been appealing. He’s not quite good enough to compete against this group.
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