06/16/2011 1:57PM

Churchill Downs: Stephen Foster could provide handicap division leader

Barbara D. Livingston
Giant Oak is the highweight and 7-2 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The end of the first half of the racing season typically comes with the Belmont Stakes, a race that proved conclusively last Saturday that the North American 3-year-old division of 2011 is a jumble.

The second half begins Saturday at Churchill Downs with the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap, a race that will endeavor to unscramble the 2011 handicap division, which also has lacked clear-cut leadership.

Good luck with that.

“The older-horse division certainly appears to be wide open,” said Chris Block, who will send out the 122-pound highweight, Giant Oak, in the 30th running of the $500,000 Foster. “But I’d say somebody there Saturday is going to jump up and run well and really move themselves up the ladder.”

While the 11-horse Foster lineup is missing West Coast standouts such as First Dude, Twirling Candy, and Sidney’s Candy, who was recently sold to WinStar Farm and transferred to Todd Pletcher, the rest of the gang is pretty much all here. Block long has had the Foster as a mid-season goal since Giant Oak captured the Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park in early February, while Todd Pletcher also has been zeroing in on this race with Mission Impazible since the gray colt streaked to an impressive score in the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap in late March.

Other accomplished runners here for the 1 1/8-mile Foster include Florida-based Duke of Mischief, winner of the $1 million Charles Town Classic in April; the speedy Regal Ransom, back from New York after finishing second by a nose to First Dude in a hotly contested renewal of the Grade 3 Alysheba on the Kentucky Oaks undercard; Equestrio, a rapidly improving 4-year-old who was vanned here Thursday from Saratoga by Nick Zito; and Apart, who ventured away from his Churchill base to win the Grade 3 Schaefer Handicap on the Preakness undercard at Pimlico four weeks ago.

Not all the California horses stayed home. Crown of Thorns was flown to Kentucky early Tuesday by Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, who said he wants to see how the lightly raced 6-year-old horse likes Churchill in case they want to return here for the Nov. 5 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“We’re in pretty much the same position as everybody else, just looking to see if we’re good enough,” Mandella said. “Everybody’s daydreaming, and I’m doing that too, and for good reason. He’s a nice horse, and I think I’ve finally got him healthy enough that he might start making an impact.”

Crown of Thorns, with Tyler Baze to ride, comes favorably drawn in post 2. Apart, with Julien Leparoux, also has a good slot in post 3. Conversely, some of the other favorites will have to overcome outside posts, most notably Giant Oak (post 10, Shaun Bridgmohan) and Mission Impazible (post 11, Javier Castellano).

Block said Giant Oak, winner of the Grade 1 Clark Handicap by disqualification here last fall, has been very sharp in his recent training at Churchill and should be able to negate the poor post with a top effort.

“I’ve watched his last two breezes, and they’ve been real solid,” Block said earlier this week from Arlington Park. “Just knowing how he is, he seems to be really focused right now. He’s moving well. With the campaign he’s had, he’s held his weight well. He seems to be a very happy horse.”

On a national scope, Block is in uncharted territory.

“I’ve never really been in this position to say that my horse is in the top 10, and that if he runs big, he keeps his position or even moves up,” he said. “That’s exciting for me. If this is a weaker group than normal, I really wouldn’t know it. I just think that if one or two of these horses runs big Saturday, they’re going to be horses that you need to watch the rest of the year.”

Block, a longtime leading trainer on the Chicago circuit, has been particularly effective in Kentucky in the last year or so, having won six stakes since Free Fighter captured the Louisville Handicap in May 2010.

“Things have kind of lined up for us there,” he said.

The Foster will be run as the last of 12 races on a terrific Saturday card that also includes three Grade 3 stakes and the first Arabian race in track history. The Foster ends the $2 pick six, the 50-cent pick five, and a 50-cent all-graded stakes pick four that unfolds with the $100,000 Jefferson Cup (race 9), the $125,000 Matt Winn (race 10), and the $125,000 Regret (race 11).

The $50,000 President of the United Arab Emirates Cup (race 6) is being sponsored by Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE. The other four stakes, including the Foster, also are being sponsored in part by UAE interests.

First post is 12:45 p.m. Eastern, with the Foster set for 6:25.

The Foster longshots trying to emulate previous blow-up winners such as Colonial Colony (62-1 in 2004) and Seek Gold (91-1 in 2006) are Flat Out, Worldly, El Caballo, and Pool Play.

HRTV will have extensive on-site coverage of Foster Day, with Caton Bredar anchoring and Gary Stevens providing commentary.

Weather conditions are expected to be pleasant for this time of year, with high temperatures in the mid-80s and an outside chance of thunderstorms.