06/11/2012 12:11PM

Churchill Downs: Zayat hopes to end string of seconds with Nehro in Stephen Foster Handicap

Tom Keyser
Nehro will try to end a spate of second-place finishes in major stakes for owner Ahmed Zayat in Saturday's Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Ahmed Zayat would like to end his stable’s streak of runner-up finishes by winning the Stephen Foster Handicap on Saturday night at Churchill Downs. Problem is, Zayat considers the record that Nehro has compiled – seconds in four major stakes, including the 2011 Kentucky Derby and the recent Pimlico Special – and he just has to laugh.

“I’m picking the wrong horse to break this streak, aren’t I?” he said in hearty self-deprecation. “He’s notorious for being second, I think.”

Zayat Stables made a remarkable bit of history when their 3-year-olds finished second in each of the recently concluded Triple Crown races. Bodemeister led all but the crucial final yards in the Derby and Preakness, and then Paynter did the same Saturday in the Belmont Stakes. All were for trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith.

Now comes the Grade 1, $400,000 Stephen Foster, the symbolic kickoff to the second half of the racing year, and it would surprise no one, including Zayat, if Nehro – with Corey Nakatani riding for trainer Steve Asmussen – would somehow find a way to be second again. Wise Dan, with John Velazquez in to ride, figures a solid favorite in the 1 1/8-mile race after earning a 117 Beyer Speed Figure in winning the Ben Ali Stakes at the end of the Keeneland spring meet.

“Wise Dan – we’re up against a very fast horse,” Zayat said. “But our horse is doing really well. He ran a winning race in the Pimlico Special,” losing a head-bob photo to Alternation, “and I really think he has become significantly better this year than last. He seems much stronger and has more fight. I’m just hopeful that this will be a breakthrough for the stable.”

Nehro had his final work for the Foster when going an easy half-mile in 50.40 seconds Sunday over a fast Churchill track. Asmussen also has another possible Foster runner in Astrology, who breezed five furlongs Sunday in 1:02.40.

The Foster anchors a big night of racing, with three other graded races also on the schedule. Entries for all Saturday races will be taken and drawn Wednesday. As of Monday, this was the prospective lineup for the 31st Foster: Wise Dan, 123 pounds; Alternation, 122; Ron the Greek, 119; Nates Mineshaft, 118; Fort Larned, 117; Mission Impazible, 116; Nehro, 116; Astrology, 115; and Rogue Romance, 115.

Alternation, undefeated in four starts this year, arrived here Sunday morning from Arlington Park. Luis Quinonez has the mount for trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel.

In the three other stakes:

◗ Grade 2, $150,000 Fleur de Lis: Royal Delta, the 123-pound highweight, was scheduled to arrive here Monday from New York and represents something of a coup for Churchill in this 1 1/8-mile race for fillies and mares, which is back after a one-year hiatus. Others under consideration include St. John’s River, 118; Absinthe Minded, 116; Afleeting Lady, 116; It’s Tea Time, 115; and Distorted Love, 114.

◗ Grade 3, $100,000 Matt Winn: Asmussen could have an uncoupled duo in Macho Macho and Master Rick in this 1 1/16-mile race for 3-year-olds, with the favorites possibly being Stealcase for Mark Casse and Neck ’n Neck for Ian Wilkes. A mid-sized field is likely.

◗ Grade 3, $100,000 Regret: This 1 1/16-mile turf race for 3-year-old fillies figures to be perhaps the deepest of all the stakes, with as many as 12 likely to go. Top names include Centre Court, Karlovy Vary, Heart of Destiny, Left a Message, Treasured Up, and Silver Hustler.

The Saturday card will start at 6 p.m. Eastern. It will be the second of three Downs After Dark programs this month, with 21,827 having attended the first June 2. The last one is set for June 30.