Rumor — or perceptual reality — has it that the Churchill Downs calendar has three days on it. There is the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May. The day before is the Kentucky Oaks. And the day after lasts 8,712 hours, taking in all of three seasons and most of a fourth without much to write home about.
It is easy for haters to use the calendar at the Home of Racing for target practice. Lord knows the racebook cartel in Nevada has been doing that for 606 days and counting. But days like Saturday — at the end of this week — belie the perception that Churchill Downs has only two races worth watching.
The Stephen Foster card that will wrap up the spring meet is loaded, as usual, the better for trainers in the area to have this last chance to pocket some serious stakes money before scattering to other racetracks around the country. The aforementioned haters will point to field sizes that are not going to stretch the limits of the conventional gate, let alone the 20-horse stall that is used once a year. But Saturday afternoon’s races are not lacking for quality. Not with $1.8 million being offered in seven stakes.
To non-Battle Born bettors who are allowed to wager on Churchill Downs races, take note. Actually, take better note when the fields are drawn Wednesday. In the meantime, here is a snapshot of Saturday’s four graded stakes.
$600,000 Grade 2 Stephen Foster (older horses, 1⅛ miles)
The field will not be big, unless Maxfield all by himself is considered big. For all his victories — he has six for trainer Brendan Walsh — his one loss should give players pause. That was March 6, when the 4-year-old colt by Street Sense was shipped to California, tried Grade 1 company for the first time, went off as the even-money favorite and finished a respectable third to Idol and Express Train in the 1¼-mile Santa Anita Handicap. His last time out he won going 8½ furlongs in the Grade 2 Alysheba on the Kentucky Oaks undercard. A career-high 105 Beyer Speed Figure from the Daily Racing Form was his reward for finishing a widening 3¼ lengths ahead of Visitant and eight lengths better than Chess Chief. Those two are expected to retest Maxfield over a distance at which he has never won. But that widening margin in the Alysheba suggests the extra 110 yards will be no problem — and that he is likely to be singled in multi-race bets Saturday. Oh, yes. The Stephen Foster is an automatic qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, complete with a break on expenses, so there is incentive for mega-owner Godolphin to have Walsh and visiting jockey José Ortiz get back to a familiar winner’s circle.
$300,000 Grade 2 Fleur de Lis (older fillies and mares, 1⅛ miles)
This may not be the feature Saturday, but it could be the race of the day featuring last-out winners Letruska, Envoutante, Spice Is Nice and Vault. If not for a bob of the head when she conceded five pounds to 2019 Kentucky Oaks victor Shedaresthedevil, 5-year-old Letruska would be on a five-race winning streak, including a Grade 1 Apple Blossom triumph over Eclipse Award winner Monomoy Girl. Trained by rising star Fausto Gutiérrez of Mexico, the front-running filly by Super Saver was an emphatic winner in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps on Belmont Stakes day. Envoutante bounced back from a one-length loss to Shedaresthedevil in the Grade 1 La Troienne on April 30 by winning the Shawnee Stakes on May 29. Both races were at Churchill, where she is 3-for-4. Her only other time stretching to nine furlongs resulted in a six-length, Grade 2 victory last November, also in Louisville. But this field is stronger, and she will likely chase the early pace for trainer Ken McPeek. Shipping in for Todd Pletcher, Spice Is Nice might help write the early fractions. She was never more than a half-length off the lead on her way to winning last month in the Grade 3 Allaire du Pont at Pimlico. My choice, though, will be the filly from Brad Cox’s barn. Vault is a closer that came from six lengths back to win last month in the Grade 2 Ruffian at Belmont Park. This will be her first time stretching to 1⅛ miles, but closers can do that — hopefully at a price. This race is also a “win and you’re in” for the Breeders’ Cup, this time for the Distaff.
$300,000 Grade 2 Wise Dan (older horses, 8½ furlongs, turf)
There was some thought that last year’s Blue Grass winner Art Collector would make his turf debut here. Instead, he is still racing on the dirt, this time in a minor stakes race Friday in Louisville. Without him, Cox’s 5-year-old Set Piece may get most of the betting attention, especially since he is 3-for-4 on the Churchill turf. Once based in England, the gelding by Dansili won as the favorite in his last two starts, both stakes that were also at Churchill. If he somehow is not the favorite, Somelikeithotbrown might be. The 5-year-old sired by Big Brown and trained by Mike Maker is 4-for-13 with nine in-the-money finishes since being switched to the grass right after the COVID-19 outbreak. I will take a chance on the Mark Casse-trained 6-year-old Ride A Comet to find his old form. The Candy Ride horse once had a nine-race run that included seven wins. He was second this spring in one Grade 1 race named for a bourbon before he finished ninth in another. If he gets any kind of pace to chase Saturday, this race could be his.
$150,000 Grade 3 Bashford Manor (2-year-olds, 6 furlongs)
In what could yet be a preview of coming attractions for that one big date next May, perhaps Steve Asmussen will find his first Kentucky Derby winner. Red Run, a Ron Winchell homebred by Asmussen’s champion Gun Runner, was a maiden winner in his debut, winning by 1¾ lengths going five furlongs last month at Churchill. He got a 54 Beyer for that effort, and his 88 Equibase speed ranking was the best of the eight horses in this field. Until I see more in past performances, he is my choice for the time being.
After Saturday, Churchill Downs will be dormant until this fall, when it will debut its new turf course that will be under construction for the next couple of months, forcing trainers who might otherwise use the track for training during the summer to find track and barn space elsewhere.
Cox said he would send a string of horses — and himself — to Saratoga. Casse and Maker have indicated they may take advantage of Del Mar’s “Ship and Win” program that rewards starter bonuses of $4,000 and 40-50% purse supplements for horses that ship into California from out of state.
Oh, not for nothing, but Cox, Walsh and Maker come into this week with 17 wins apiece at the current Churchill meet, tied for first in the trainer standings. They are two ahead of Asmussen, who holds the career record for most victories at the track.
Not to forget, Asmussen has a total of 9,389 wins to his name, only 56 behind the late Dale Baird, the North American record holder. At his current pace Asmussen may break the record at the end of next month. The question is where?
Since Asmussen does not confine himself to any single track, it could be just about anywhere in America. Except Churchill Downs, where things will be a little quiet until September. Unless, of course, horseplayers are betting on the horsepower of bulldozers and backhoes.
In addition to this weekly article, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com with more frequent postings during big events. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. With the current meet ending Saturday at Churchill Downs, Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen will discuss his plans for the summer as well as his horses racing on closing day. Churchill Downs TV analyst Scott Shapiro will look at the Stephen Foster Stakes card. DraftKings Sportsbook’s Johnny Avello will handicap weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST Bet.