06/07/2011 1:38PM

Churchill Downs: Stephen Foster shaping up as remake of a thriller

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Barbara D. Livingston
First Dude (7), with Martin Garcia up, wins the Alysheba by a nose.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The Stephen Foster Handicap would do well to duplicate the thrilling finish of the Alysheba Stakes. The top six horses in the Alysheba were separated by less than a length on the wire, and Churchill Downs racing officials are expecting as many as four of those, along with one more Alysheba starter, to be back here next Saturday, June 18, when the Grade 1 Foster is run for the 30th time.

First Dude was a nose winner of the Grade 3 Alysheba on the May 6 Kentucky Oaks undercard, followed in very close order by Regal Ransom, Equestrio, Awesome Gem, and Giant Oak. While Awesome Gem recently wheeled back to win the Lone Star Park, those other four are among the dozen or so early prospects for the $500,000 Foster, which serves as the post-Kentucky Derby highlight here every spring.

Giant Oak, who remains one of the leading older horses in North America despite losses in the New Orleans Handicap and Alysheba, tuned up for the Foster by breezing a bullet five furlongs in 59.60 seconds here Saturday.

“I haven’t lost any confidence in him at all,” said Chris Block, trainer of Giant Oak, winner of the Grade 1 Clark here last fall and the Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park this winter.

Other possibilities for the 1 1/8-mile Foster include Mission Impazible, seventh as the lukewarm favorite in the Alysheba; Duke of Mischief, winner of the $1 million Charles Town Classic last out; Apart, winner of the Schaefer Handicap on the Preakness undercard at Pimlico; Crown of Thorns, winner of the Mervyn LeRoy at Hollywood last out; and Churchill allowance winners Worldly and Headache.

Four horses have captured the Stephen Foster before winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic later that fall: Black Tie Affair (1991), Awesome Again (1998), Saint Liam (2005), and Blame (2010).

Three Grade 3 stakes will support the Foster on the June 18 card. Entries will be taken next Wednesday, June 15.

Happy day for McPeek

Trainer Ken McPeek said his stakes-sweeping pair of Salty Strike and Noble’s Promise emerged in good order from their respective victories in the Grade 3 Dogwood and Grade 3 Aristides here Saturday.

“Came out fine, no problems,” said McPeek.

“Tough as this game is, heck yeah we were tickled with how Saturday came together for us,” he added. “We’d been knocking on the door with quite a few seconds and thirds in graded races, so were due for something like that.”

Before Saturday, McPeek had gone 1 for 19 this year in graded stakes, with Kathmanblu in the Rachel Alexandra at Fair Grounds in February being the only prior triumph.

McPeek said he will consider Salty Strike for the Mother Goose at Belmont or the Test at Saratoga. “We’ll keep Noble’s Promise sprinting,” with the Smile at Calder likely next, followed by the Vanderbilt or Forego at Saratoga, he added.

Meanwhile, trainer Al Stall Jr. said he has no definite plans for Might, who was fifth of six as the odds-on favorite in the Dogwood. “When it came time to go, she just wasn’t there, and I don’t really have a reason,” said Stall. “We’ll just take our time with her and figure out what to do next.”

Motion looks strong in Mint Julep

While the racing world gets ready to focus on the 143rd Belmont Stakes in New York, the live feature to be run beforehand here Saturday is the Grade 3, $100,000 Mint Julep for older fillies and mares.

Graham Motion, who otherwise will be occupied Saturday with Animal Kingdom in the Belmont, has several of the stronger nominees to the 1 1/16-mile turf race in Aruna, Check the Label, and Media Madness. Entries for the entire 11-race Saturday card were to be taken Wednesday.

Feature off the air

For more than 40 years, the feature race of the day at Churchill was carried on Louisville radio by WHAS (840 AM), except on occasions when a programming conflict arose. Veteran sportscaster Paul Rogers handled the race calls since the legendary Cawood Ledford quit doing them in the mid-1980s.

But in another example of how racing is losing ground in the mainstream media, there is no more daily coverage of Churchill, with the exception of Oaks and Derby days, when WHAS provides extensive coverage. The end of an era owes to a business conflict between Churchill and Clear Channel Corp., the syndicate that owns WHAS.

◗ Corey Lanerie continues to hold the hottest hand among Churchill jockeys. Lanerie, seeking his first Churchill riding title, leads the meet standings with 27 winners into action on the Thursday program, the 23rd of 39 here this spring. Shaun Bridgmohan is next with 23 winners, followed by Julien Leparoux with 20.

◗ A benefit Texas hold ‘em poker tournament is scheduled for the evening of June 22 in the Triple Crown room at Churchill, with proceeds going to the Blackie Huffman Memorial Scholarship Fund. The buy-in is $125, with first prize worth as much as $7,500. More information is available by calling (502) 363-1077 or (502) 636-4830.