The Stephen Foster: Signature start to US racing's second season

Fort Larned and jockey Brian Hernandez win the 2013 Stephen Foster. Photo: AP Photo/Garry Jones

Saturday night in Louisville, Kentucky, during the “Downs after Dark” festivities, American Pharoah will parade before a crowd that’s expected to be both large and celebratory. Also that evening at Churchill Downs, an outstanding group of older horses that’s expected to include major stakes winners Lea and Commissioner will parade onto the track for the $500,000 G1 Stephen Foster Handicap. And so horse racing’s Triple Crown season ends, and its championship season begins.

For a harbinger of its second season, the sport couldn’t do better than the Stephen Foster. The race occupies what might seem an inconspicuous place on the calendar. It appears at the virtual mid-way point – one week after the champagne has flowed in New York and nearly five months before the extravaganza at the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. But actually it’s the ideal race and Churchill’s the best possible location for what this year will be a rare moment. 

American Pharoah already has clinched the Eclipse Award as the champion 3-year-old, and, unless Martians invade Earth, he’ll be Horse of the Year as well. (Since 1936, when a vote first formally determined a Horse of the Year, every Triple Crown winner has won the sport’s highest honor.) For his historic sweep, American Pharoah deserves to be toasted, fêted, and celebrated. But shortly after the 12th Triple Crown winner leaves the stage Saturday and the cheering subsides, the horses for the Stephen Foster will emerge from the paddock and prance onto the racetrack, like the city trucks and police cars that flow into the French Quarter at the stroke of midnight on Mardi Gras in New Orleans, to announce the official end of the festivities. Even more, the Stephen Foster post parade will signal the beginning of the serious business of determining the other Eclipse Awards, starting with the one for the Champion Older Dirt Male, as it’s now called in a long overdue clarification. 

Horse racing’s first season is all about the Triple Crown. Everything else is either prelude or footnotes. For more than five months, the 3-year-olds have the nation’s attention. In the months leading up to the Kentucky Derby, fans and horsemen become intoxicated with anticipation. Who’s going to earn sufficient points to get in? How will they sort themselves out when they converge from East and West? Can he sweep the Triple Crown or will the “new shooters” derail him? So single-minded is the sport that graded stakes for 3-year-olds this time of year average almost $200,000 more than graded stakes for older horses. Suddenly it all ends, though, with the Belmont Stakes, and all those handsome 3-year-olds who inspired dreams with their potential now have to prepare to take a seat at the grown-ups’ table. And so, as the horses come onto the track for the Stephen Foster, the sport’s second season, a season of earnestness that determines most of the sport’s championships, begins. 

“It’s crazy, but it’s a good crazy,” said trainer Mark Casse about the Triple Crown season. He saddled Danzig Moon in the Derby and Preakness, and he’ll send out Noble Bird in the Stephen Foster. “The first part [of the year] is all about the 3-year-olds; now comes everything else.” 

And everything else starts with the Stephen Foster. Since 1998, when Churchill increased the purse from $150,000 to $750,000, the Stephen Foster has attracted nine horses that either were or soon would be champions, including four horses that won six golden Eclipse Awards as Horse of the Year (Curlin and Wise Dan counting twice). Make that seven Horses of the Year if you go back Black Tie Affair in 1991.

And then there are the six Breeders’ Cup Classic winners and the four Dubai World Cup winners. The Stephen Foster’s roster of runners includes many of the best and most accomplished horses of the last two decades. And it’s especially fitting that it starts the championship season since the race is part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series and a “Win and You’re In” for the Classic division. It, along with the Fleur De Lis (“Win and You’re In” for the Distaff) will be televised on NBC Sports Network Saturday evening. 

That 1998 Stephen Foster, coming as it did a week after Real Quiet missed by a nose in New York, created the template for what the race has become. For the start of its second season, the sport had a charismatic headliner, Silver Charm, the hero of the previous year’s Triple Crown. Just three months earlier, he had won the world’s richest race, the Dubai World Cup, by a nose, and the gray champion, renown for his determination, was making his first start since coming home. Silver Charm was clearly the star of the Stephen Foster show. Awesome Again, on the other hand, was something of spear-carrier, a minor character. Nobody knew or could have guessed quite how talented he might be. He had won the Jim Dandy as a 3-year-old, but concluded his campaign by finishing third in the Travers and fifth in the Super Derby. So he was good, but was he really good enough to compete at this level?

As it turned out, the Stephen Foster foreshadowed what followed that season. Silver Charm, the 2-5 favorite, rolled into the stretch and to the lead looking every gray inch a winner, but then, inside the sixteenth pole, Awesome Again ran by him to win by a length. From Churchill, Awesome Again traveled to Saratoga and won two stakes, including the Whitney. Then he won the Hawthorne Gold Cup before wrapping up an unbeaten campaign by defeating one of the strongest fields ever to meet in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, where, in a familiar scenario, he ran by Silver Charm in deep stretch to win by nearly a length. 

The next season, in his first start since finishing third in Dubai, Victory Gallop set a Churchill Downs record in the Stephen Foster, 1:47.28 for the 1 1/8 miles, on his way to being named Champion Older Male. 

In 2001, Dubai winner Captain Steve finished second as the 3-5 Stephen Foster favorite, behind Guided Tour. But in 2002, making his first start since winning the World Cup, Street Cry won at Churchill by 6 1/2 lengths, easily beating the 6-5 Stephen Foster favorite, Congaree, who finished sixth.

Rolling along with three consecutive victories, Mineshaft entered the 2003 Stephen Foster as the 3-5 favorite, but lost by a head in the final strides to Perfect Drift and Pat Day. Mineshaft quickly resumed his winning ways, however, stringing together three more major stakes wins to become Horse of the Year. Saint Liam won the Stephen Foster by nearly three lengths in 2005 and later added victories in the Woodward and the Breeders’ Cup Classic to his Horse of the Year résumé.

And so it has gone, second season after second season. Reigning Horse of the Year Curlin returned from victories in Dubai to win the 2008 Stephen Foster. Blame won it in 2010, a precursor to his narrow decision over Zenyatta in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, also at Churchill. After a troubled trip, Wise Dan finished second to Ron The Greek in the 2012 Stephen Foster. It was Wise Dan’s only loss in his first Horse of the Year campaign. The next year, after two uncharacteristically poor performances, Classic winner Fort Larned returned to Kentucky and to form, winning the Stephen Foster by more than six lengths. And in last year’s renewal, Moonshine Mullin, who for a brief moment shined brightly as one of the sharpest horses in the country, scored his fifth consecutive victory, beating the champion Will Take Charge.

And so how will this Championship Season begin? Will Lea, last year’s Donn winner who most recently finished third in Dubai, or Commissioner, last year’s Belmont runner-up who won the recent Pimlico Special, confirm his talents and insist on a place in the division’s hierarchy? Or could Noble Bird, a horse Casse says has always been one of the most talented in his barn, emerge as a future star? It has all happened before in the Stephen Foster, at the start of the sport’s second season.

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