Stephen Foster big prep for Breeders’ Cup

| June 15, 2011

The 2011 Triple Crown season ended last week with a running of the Belmont Stakes won by a 3-year-old that was the right horse on the day, but few aside from his owner and trainer could envision the victorious Ruler On Ice being a major factor in key events later in the year.

The Belmont winner could prove his doubters wrong, but he looks more like Drosselmeyer, the 2010 Belmont winner who is now a participant in second-level stakes events like last week’s Grade II Brooklyn Handicap at Belmont Park, than a horse that will be a major contender for championship honors at year’s end.

The Belmont was a wonderful and deserved victory for owners George and Lori Hall, who have made a significant investment in Thoroughbred racing in recent years, and their trainer, Kelly Breen, who appears on the verge of becoming a regular participant in the spring classics and other major races.

Major player

But with the 2011 Belmont Stakes now a few days in our rear-view mirror, it’s difficult to imagine Ruler On Ice being talked about as a major player when the Breeders’ Cup Classic returns to Churchill Downs in early November. The same can be said for runner-up Stay Thirsty, who was no factor in the Derby, but ran well over a wet track he relished in the Belmont.

Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom gets a pass for his sixth-place run in the Belmont. His well-documented trouble at the start of the 1 1/2-mile race essentially eliminated trainer Graham Motion’s colt from contention. Draw a line through it.

Shackleford?

Preakness winner Shackleford got the slow pace he wanted, but he either disliked the wet Belmont Park track or his pedigree caught up with him. A mile and a half is a long way to ask a son of Forestry to run on any day, but the Belmont is most often a race that rewards early speed and this year’s field seemed ideal for trainer Dale Romans’ colt.

And that’s the way it essentially worked out. When Shackleford threw in the towel at the head of the stretch after cruising on the lead in soft fractions, the horse that had chased him in second – Ruler On Ice – inherited the lead and held it to the wire.

Nehro, the high-quality bridesmaid who finished second in the Derby, came home fourth over a muddy track that he disliked. But he came out of the race with an ankle chip that will sideline him for the rest of the year.

New stars?

So, as the focus of racing shifts to the second half of the year, this year’s crop of 3-year-olds is a group that has yet to find itself. The major races of the year have been a parade of 20-1 shots, with Animal Kingdom’s efforts in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness putting him in a shaky position atop the group.

It’s still possible that new 3-year-old stars could arise in the remaining six months of 2011 to challenge Animal Kingdom’s tenuous grip on divisional leadership. The Derby winner could assert himself in Saratoga’s Travers and in meetings with older horses prior to the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November, but it’s also possible he could turn out to be at his best on grass and synthetic courses whose shining moment came over a Churchill Downs dirt course that is kinder than most to grass-oriented pedigrees.

Bind injured

At one point it appeared that Saturday’s Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs, formerly known as the Northern Dancer, could be a showcase for at least a couple of rising 3-year-old stars. But that was before bad luck made a Monday appearance.

One potential star was Bind, a very fast horse with an imposing physique for owners and breeders Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider. But he was injured in a Monday workout at Keeneland and is probably out for the year.

The other was Dominus, who finished second in a breakthrough performance in The Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial on April 30 and was most impressive when he worked in company with his accomplished stablemate Nehro a couple of weeks back. But Dominus is nursing a minor foot ailment that, at the time of this writing, left the Steve Asmussen trainee only 50-50 to run in the Matt Winn.

Foot ailments

So, we’ll sit back and wait for the big races in the late summer and fall to see if Animal Kingdom or another member of this crop steps forward. Surely we have nearly exhausted the supply of 20-1 winners in big races for 3-year-olds. But perhaps not.

Meanwhile, Saturday’s 30th running of the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap looms as an important prep for November’s $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Wide-open group

While many racing fans remain suspect of Giant Oak, the stretch-runner who is the likely favorite for the 1 1/8 mile race, I believe trainer Chris Block’s Illinois-bred 5-year-old has finally figured things out and will emerge from this race near the top of a wide-open group of U.S.-based hopefuls for the Classic.

California-based Crown of Thorns, who has displayed great promise in a career frequently interrupted by injury, will compete in the race for trainer Richard Mandella. Shipping in from New York for the race are Godolphin’s Regal Ransom and the Nick Zito-trained Equestrio. Another interesting is Pool Play, a 6-year-old based in Canada for trainer Mark Casse who is making his debut on traditional dirt after 27 races on synthetic tracks and grass. If he runs well in the Foster, Casse’s year-end focus will shift to the Classic.

Watch the Foster

America’s division of older horses is as ill-defined at this point as its 3-year-olds. But the Stephen Foster produced a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner a year ago in Blame – the fourth horse to sweep the Foster and the Classic in the same year. In a wide open season, an emphatic win by Giant Oak or another Foster contender could prove instructive when it comes to sorting out the stars who will be looking to take down the big Breeders’ Cup prize at Churchill Downs on the first weekend in November.

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