Searching for an Upset Candidate in the 2019 Stephen Foster

Leading the field in the Grade 2, $600,000 Stephen Foster Stakes at Churchill Downs is Gift Box, with earnings of $979,160. Although Seeking the Soul ($2.99 million) and Yoshida ($2.18 million) have earned more to date in their careers, Gift Box appears to have better recent form and a good shot to go over the million-dollar mark in earnings with a first-place finish in the “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Gift Box won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap in April to prove he belongs at the level and followed that up with a runner-up finish in the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita last month. Seeking the Soul proved his mettle at the level with a win in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs in the fall of 2017, with his only other victory since then coming last fall in the Grade 3 Ack Ack Stakes. Yoshida was a fast-closing fourth in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic last November which was his only start on dirt over the track. He enters the race off a non-threatening sixth-of-12 finish in the Group 1 Dubai World Cup in March.

Horses which have recently won high level stakes include Quip, who held on by a neck in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap in April, and Tenfold, winner of the Grade 3 Pimlico Special last month. Tom’s d’Etat enters the race following a second-place finish last month over the track in the Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes, the same race 2014 Foster winner Moonshine Mullin won. Then there are Thirstforlife and Alkhaatam, neither having competed at this level yet but both entering the race off strong wins at Churchill Downs last month. Rated R Superstar won the Essex Stakes in March before a sixth-place effort behind Quip in the Oaklawn Handicap. Runaway Ghost ships in from New Mexico, where he won the Sunland Park Handicap in May. Exulting was victorious in the Oaklawn Mile Stakes last month as well and is competing in a graded stakes race for the first time. King Zachary won the Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes on this day last year but is winless in four races since, although the Foster will mark only his second start after being away from the races for seven months.

Thirstforlife really likes racing at Churchill Downs and that is the main reason I prefer him slightly over three other horses I believe can win this year’s Stephen Foster Stakes. Thirstforlife has won seven of 20 races on dirt in his career, with four of those wins coming over this track. Thirstforlife was so highly regarded early in his career that he made his first start in a stakes, the Kentucky Juvenile Stakes at Churchill Downs two years ago last month, finishing third. After breaking his maiden the next month, Thirstforlife won just one of seven races through August 2018. Then, in the fall of 2017 and beginning with his first start after being reported as a gelding, Thirstforlife won or placed in eight straight races, including one in which he earned a then-career-best 107 Equibase Speed Figure. Starting sometime last summer, Thirstforlife just didn’t feel like running, with fifth-, seventh-, and 13th-place finishes through February of this year. Following that, after a 2 ½-month layoff from February until May of this year, Thirstforlife showed his old spark, gamely winning a classified allowance race on May 4 at Churchill Downs, achieving a new career-best 110 figure in the process. Jockey Miguel Mena rode Thirstforlife in his last two starts and rides again in the Foster. Trainer Wesley Hawley may be a bit underrated and unknown compared to some of the bigger-name trainers in this race like Steve Asmussen, Graham Motion, and Bill Mott, but it must be noted Hawley had a lot of success with a horse similar to Thirstforlife – Hawaakom. Like Thirstforlife, Hawley claimed Hawaakom early in his career, then trained him and won over $1 million including a number of stakes races. Considering Hawley’s acumen with his horses, if he thinks Thirstforlife can be competitive in the Foster, I will wholeheartedly agree.

Gift Box is likely to go to post as the favorite, and really can’t be labeled vulnerable as such considering his body of work. Since joining the barn of trainer John Sadler last winter, Gift Box has run three big races at the top level. He won the San Antonio Stakes in December with a career-best 117 figure, then proved that effort to be no fluke with a win in the Santa Anita Handicap in April with the same 117 figure. Although beaten three-quarters of a length after that in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita by 4-year-old Vino Rosso, Gift Box wasn’t disgraced with a 113 figure. Given his very competitive spirit as evidenced by a 5-6-2 record in 16 career starts, Gift Box deserves a lot of respect as a contender to win this race.

Tom’s d’Etat has had some stops and starts in his career but when he’s feeling good he is a very tough competitor. Having won six of 10 races on dirt, Tom’s d’Etat has room to improve off a runner-up effort over the track in the Alysheba Stakes last month. The Alysheba has been an important prep for the Foster over the years, most notably when 2014 Alysheba winner Moonshine Mullin came back to win the Foster and when Noble Bird, who lost the Alysheba by a neck, won the Foster in 2015. Tom’s d’Etat makes his second start after three months off which is another reason I think we can expect an even better effort than his most recent race, which earned a strong 108 figure.

Alkhaatam will likely be a longshot in this year’s Foster, as he has only raced five times. His only previous start in a stakes came last December in his second start of his career when he entered the Remsen Stakes as a maiden, having finished third in his debut. After a fourth-place effort back in the maiden ranks last summer, Alkhaatam was allowed to mature and that he did because when he returned at the end of March he won by seven lengths with a 102 figure. Showing that effort not to be a fluke, Alkhaatam won his next start by three lengths, then was flattered when the second- and fifth-place finishers won their next starts. Considering the win last month was at Churchill Downs and that he is a son of exceptional sire Tapit, Alkhaatam may be able to take a big step forward in the Foster and even if he does not win, may run a lot better than many handicappers think he will, at high odds.

About some of the others: Seeking the Soul is approaching the $3 million mark in earnings but his third-place effort last month in the Alysheba earned a 102 figure and was nowhere near the kind of race he put in the fall of 2017 before winning the Clark Handicap over the track. As such, I think he may be good for no more than a minor award. Tenfold earned a 102 figure winning the Pimlico Special last month and even improving a bit doesn’t appear to be good enough to threaten the kind of efforts Gift Box, Thirstforlife, and Tom’s d’Etat appear likely to put forth. Quip ran the best race of his career in his most recent start when winning the Oaklawn Handicap, but in my opinion neither the 105 figure, nor the competition he beat, would compel me to think of him as a win contender in this race.

The rest of the field in the Stephen Foster Stakes, with their best representative Equibase Speed Figures, are King Zachary (108), Rated R Superstar (107), and Runaway Ghost (108).

Win contenders, in preference order:

Thirstforlife

Gift Box

Tom’s d’Etat

Alkhaatam