The $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) on June 18th at Churchill Downs was a race that yielded surprising results, as 9-1 shot Bradester scored a front-running victory while heavily-favored Effinex finished off the board. Here are five thoughts that have crossed my mind in the days since the race…
1. Bradester has long been a talented horse capable of huge performances on his best day, so while it was very satisfying to see him pick up his first grade I win in the Stephen Foster, it should be noted that he benefited from a perfect trip. When Effinex, broke slowly, Bradester found himself on an uncontested lead through modest fractions of :23.64, :47.58, and 1:11.69, and when Bradester gets an easy lead, he’s very hard to run down. He still deserves credit for digging down in the homestretch and holding off the late runners, but he’s shown in the past that if he’s forced to set a fast pace, he isn’t as effective. That could be something to keep in mind if he encounters a field with more front-running speed in his next start.
2. Effinex is very talented, but also a bit inconsistent. After a slow start in the Stephen Foster, Effinex never seemed to find his best stride and wound up finishing sixth, beaten 6 1/4 lengths. His performance was well short of his win in last year’s Clark Handicap (gr. I), his runner-up effort in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), or even his win in the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) in April, but before we write him off as a contender for the summer’s grade I races, let’s remember that Effinex good runs tend to be interspersed by disappointing efforts, such as his distant defeats in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I). I would expect Effinex to rebound in the near future, hopefully at much better odds than the 3-5 at which he was sent off in the Stephen Foster.
3. Are You Kidding Me brought fine form on turf and synthetic into the Stephen Foster, and despite his fifth-place finish, he seemed to handle the dirt pretty well. Despite a tricky trip settling off the slow pace while running wide, he made a nice move to reach contention on the far turn and stayed on fairly well in the homestretch to finish fifth, beaten just 2 3/4 lengths. You have to admire a horse that can be competitive in graded stakes company on all three surfaces, and if his connections desire, I think Are You Kidding Me could win a grade II or grade III race on dirt later this year.
4. Eagle is a very talented colt, but he seems to have an unfortunate knack for finishing second instead of first. He had little chance to catch Bradester after dropping back to last through slow fractions, but put in a determined rally in the homestretch to fall just a half-length short of catching the front-running winner. The Stephen Foster marked the fourth time this year that Eagle has finished second in a stakes race, but he’s run so well under less-than-ideal circumstances that if he gets a good trip one of these days, I think he has the talent to win a major race.
5. After Majestic Harbor won the 2014 Gold Cup at Santa Anita (gr. I) by 6 1/4 lengths in a huge upset, he was soundly beaten in his next eight graded stakes attempts, and it was starting to seem as though his best days were behind him. But the veteran runner, now eight years old, showed signs of returning to form last year and has resurrected his career in remarkable fashion this season, winning the Alysheba Stakes (gr. II) and Mineshaft Handicap (gr. III) before finishing third by less than a length in the Stephen Foster. Once again, he’s become a force to reckon with, and given his proven ability at ten furlongs and beyond, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if he ends up placing in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) later this year.
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