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A field of nine is set to do battle Saturday night at Churchill Downs in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap. The Stephen Foster is one of the most popular races on the Churchill Downs schedule every year, and this year will be no different. The race will serve as a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Triple Crown winner Justify will also be paraded in front of what is likely to be a huge crowd in attendance beneath the iconic Twin Spires.
The winner of the Stephen Foster Handicap will receive an automatic position in the Breeders’ Cup Classic this fall at Churchill Downs. Pre-entry and entry fees will be paid, and a nominator award of $10,000 will be given to the person who nominated the foal or racehorse. Also, all challenge series race winners that are based outside of the state of Kentucky will receive a travel allowance of $10,000 if based in North America, or $40,000 if based internationally, if they choose to run in the Breeders’ Cup.
Trainer Chad Brown brings Backyard Heaven into the race after a blowout victory last time out in the Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes on Kentucky Oaks Day. Brown seems to be high on the horse coming into the race.
“He’s trained like a horse who will have no problem getting a mile and 1/4,” Brown said after the Alysheba. “But one race at a time, and we have to keep in mind he’s a lightly-raced horse for a reason: he got sick a few times, but he’s been a pretty sound horse. I’d like to keep him in good form, now, and not plan too far ahead. Take a race at a time.”
The full field from the rail out includes: Honorable Duty, Patch, Hawaakom, Uncle Mojo, Matrooh, Backyard Heaven, Lookin At Lee, Irish War Cry, and Pavel.
#6 Backyard Heaven – Riding three straight dominating victories, this is the “now” horse in the older male division. After running a 108 Beyer speed figure in his 2018 debut against allowance company at Aqueduct, trainer Chad Brown shipped him to Churchill Downs for his next start in the Alysheba. His colt did not disappoint, as he contested the early pace before simply destroying what was a solid field on paper by 4 1/2 lengths. Brown said quickly after the race that the Stephen Foster would be his next target, and if he can repeat that sort of performance, then he will be tough to beat.
#8 Irish War Cry – He is the most frustrating horse in training for both bettors and his trainer Graham Motion. There is no doubt that he has plenty of talent, but his inconsistency is mind-boggling. Last time out, he won the Grade 3 Pimlico Special Stakes in wire-to-wire fashion, which was his first win since the Grade 2 Wood Memorial in April of 2017. By all accounts, he looked in that race as though he had things all figured out, but he has looked that way before. When he fires with his best effort, he is tough to beat.
#1 Honorable Duty – This is a horse that always puts up a solid effort at Churchill Downs. He has won four of eight starts here, including the Grade 3 Lukas Classic Stakes last season. In his 2018 debut, he was solid over this track once again, winning a tough optional claiming race by 3 lengths in wire-to-wire fashion. That race should have him set to run a big one here as he moves up to top-level competition.
#7 Lookin At Lee – This colt is most famous for finishing second in the 2017 Kentucky Derby after making a furious rally up the rail before coming up short against the winner, Always Dreaming. The son of Lookin At Lucky has a serious lack of wins on his resume, but he was able to begin changing that by winning his last race at Churchill Downs against optional claiming foes. Lookin at Lee is usually a deep closer, but in that race, he sat much closer to the pace and was able to kick clear by over 2 lengths. This newfound strategy could make him dangerous if he can repeat that sort of effort.
#2 Patch – The world-famous Patch is back against Grade 1 company in this spot after winning his 2018 debut over allowance foes at Belmont Park. Patch is well-known as the one-eyed horse that ran in the 2017 Kentucky Derby. His story quickly made him wildly popular, but he has accomplished enough on the track to consider him dangerous in a race like this as well. His best achievement was finishing third in last year’s Grade 1 Belmont Stakes, and his solid win to open the year has him primed for a big performance here.
#3 Hawaakom – Consistency is the key with Hawaakom; he always seems to be around at the end of big races. This year, he won the Grade 3 Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park, and last time out, he was a solid second in the Alysheba. He was no match for Backyard Heaven in that race, so turning the tables on that runner could be a challenge, but he should fit in well against the others in this spot.
#9 Pavel – After breaking his maiden nearly one year ago at Santa Anita, he has quickly been matched up with the best competition in his division ever since. He has had mixed results in those races, but at the top of his game, he can compete with nearly anyone. Two races back, he was fourth in the tough Group 1 Dubai World Cup, but then he came back with just an okay showing to finish fourth in the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita. With this being his second race back from Dubai, he could be ready to give a strong effort tonight.
#4 Uncle Mojo – Trainer Todd Pletcher spots this son of Uncle Mo against stakes company for the first time after a blowout victory at Pimlico in his last start. That race was in the slop against allowance company, but he won by nearly 13 lengths, which is a positive sign. This Pletcher runner could be progressing in time for a nice performance.
#5 Matrooh – This gelding was claimed for $25,000 three races ago, and since then, he won the Grade 3 Hanshin Cup Stakes at Arlington Park. Entering and winning the Stephen Foster would be an incredible story. There is no doubt that he is moving up in class in a big way, and that Grade 3 win came on a synthetic surface, so he will have to prove that he can be as effective on the dirt.
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