06/14/2012 1:43PM

Churchill Downs: Wise Dan aims to continue roll in deep Stephen Foster Handicap

Coady Photography/Keeneland
Wise Dan, the 8-5 morning-line favorite for the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap, earned a 117 Beyer Speed Figure in his last start, the Ben Ali Stakes.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The sun won’t shine bright Saturday night on the Grade 1 race named in honor of the man who wrote the famous song “My Old Kentucky Home,” but that doesn’t mean the race will lack luster. In fact, star power of the older-horse kind will be very much in evidence under the Churchill Downs lights when Wise Dan, Alternation, and several other accomplished older runners clash in the 31st running of the $400,000 Stephen Foster Handicap.

Wise Dan is the 8-5 morning-line favorite and clearly the horse to beat in the Foster, which is the first Win and You’re In event this year toward the Nov. 3 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita. A 5-year-old gelding owned and bred by Morton Fink and trained by Charlie Lopresti, Wise Dan was spectacular in closing his 2011 season by winning the Grade 1 Clark Handicap here last fall, then even more impressive in starting his 2012 with an eye-popping romp in the April 22 Ben Ali Stakes at Keeneland.

“Unless I’m reading him wrong, he’s as good right now as he was going into the Ben Ali,” said Lopresti, who has been as awed as anyone by Wise Dan’s feats. “You never know about these horses, what’s going on in their minds, what might be bothering them. But I do really think he’s a much more relaxed horse this year, and hopefully, he’ll show that Saturday night.”

Wise Dan, with John Velazquez back aboard, will start from post 3 in the 1 1/8-mile Foster, which annually highlights the best card of racing at the Churchill spring meet beyond the Kentucky Derby. The Foster goes as the eighth of 11 races on the second Downs After Dark program of the month. First post is 6 p.m. Eastern, with the Foster set for 9:39. HRTV will have extensive on-site coverage anchored by Caton Bredar and Gary Stevens.

To illustrate the quality of the Foster, the distant second choice on the program at 4-1 is Alternation, who is merely the No. 1-ranked horse in the latest National Thoroughbred Racing Association overall poll while remaining unbeaten in all four starts this year, including the Oaklawn Handicap and Pimlico Special in his last two outings.

“It seems like every time we’ve led him over lately, people have been saying how tough he’s in,” said Donnie K. Von Hemel, who trains homebred Alternation for the Pin Oak Stable of Josephine Abercrombie. “He keeps winning, so he must be okay, too. We’d love to get a Grade 1 with him.”

Alternation will break from post 8 when retaining Luis Quinonez in the saddle.

Other prime considerations in a field that will number no more than eight – Lopresti said he definitely will scratch Successful Dan as part of his stable entry, barring an unforeseen development – include Nates Mineshaft, Fort Larned, and Ron the Greek.

Nates Mineshaft has climbed the class ladder in a hurry, going from a $25,000 claimer to a winner of three graded races. Breaking from post 1 with Jesse Campbell aboard, he figures to establish a solid pace when putting his superior early speed on display.

Fort Larned also has made tremendous progress in recent months, winning back-to-back stakes in Florida before finishing second to Successful Dan in a rugged renewal of the Alysheba here last month. Julien Leparoux returns to his former stomping grounds from his new base in New York to take the call from post 2.

Ron the Greek is the reigning champion of the Santa Anita Derby, which in most years would make him a fearsome entity within the handicap ranks. A 5-year-old horse from the Hall of Fame barn of Bill Mott, he has earned nearly $850,000 and was most recently second as the favorite to Alternation in the Oaklawn Handicap. Jose Lezcano has the mount from post 5.

Nehro (post 4, Corey Nakatani), Rogue Romance (post 6, Manny Cruz), and Mission Impazible (post 7, Javier Castellano) fill out a standout cast.

What the Foster might boil down to is whether Wise Dan can duplicate the kind of effort he gave in earning a 105 Beyer Speed Figure in the Clark and a 117 in the Ben Ali. In the latter, he pulled Velazquez to the front with about six furlongs to go and never stopped pulling, running off to a 10 1/2-length romp.

“I hope there’s enough speed that he can lay off it somewhat, then make his move at the half-mile or three-eighths pole,” Lopresti said. “I hope he’s not on the engine. He sure has been training like he’ll wait until Johnny pulls the trigger.”

The Foster will conclude a pick five (races 4-8) and an all-graded-stakes pick four (races 5-8), with the lead-in races being the Grade 3 Matt Winn (race 5), the Grade 3 Regret (race 6), and the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis (race 7). Those multi-race wagers join three other pick fours and one other pick five on the card.

The weather forecast is for dry conditions and evening temperatures in the low 80s. Considering the import of the races and the local marketing efforts Churchill is expending, ontrack attendance figures to be at least 25,000. The June 2 night program drew 21,872. This is the first year the Foster will have been run at night.

The Win and You’re In designation for the Foster makes it the first of six such races toward the $5 million BC Classic. The winner gets an exemption from $150,000 in entry and starting fees as well as a $10,000 travel voucher.