Updated on 09/17/2011 10:43AM

Distance key to Foster

Aldebaran is a Grade 1 winner at one mile. Saturday, he will try the nine-furlong Stephen Foster.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Maybe it's the extra furlong. Maybe it's the extra turn. Maybe it's both. The difference separating a miler from a route horse can sometimes be interpreted as simple, but on occasion, the boundaries are not so clearly defined.

Bobby Frankel will put those parameters to a dramatic test Saturday when he runs Aldebaran in the 1 1/8-mile Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. In his last two starts, Aldebaran closed strongly to win the May 3 Churchill Downs Handicap at seven furlongs and the May 26 Metropolitan Mile, staking a reasonable claim as perhaps the preeminent middle-distance runner in North America today.

Largely because he is trained by Frankel, whose stable has been extraordinarily dominant in recent months, no one would be overly surprised if Aldebaran were to successfully negotiate the additional furlong of the $750,000 Stephen Foster and give his Hall of Fame trainer yet another Grade 1 victory. Moreover, while Aldebaran once was widely dismissed as little more than a perennial bridesmaid - going into the Churchill Downs Handicap, he had four wins but a whopping 12 runner-up finishes from 19 career starts - those last two victories may well have signaled the 5-year-old has turned the corner.

Still, the move into the new dimension that the Foster represents seems an ambitious one indeed. Horseplayers are acutely aware that rallying behind the rapid pace of a one-turn race is one thing, while sustaining that rally in a two-turn race can be something entirely different. Frankel, who through decades of experience knows very well the pros and cons of stretching a horse out in distance, believes the Foster experiment is worth trying.

"I might as well try, especially for $750,000," he said.

In any given year, Aldebaran might be a solid favorite in the Foster, which is expected to attract a field of about 10 older horses for Saturday's 22nd running. But this year, with the ascendant Mineshaft in the field, his task has been rendered that much more difficult. Frankel acknowledged Mineshaft as the horse to beat, saying: "I know I'm running against a tough horse there."

The respect from Frankel has been quickly reciprocated by the Mineshaft camp. Trainer Neil Howard called Aldebaran "a quality horse, one that everybody's going to have to keep an eye on," and jockey Robby Albarado said the prospect of lining up against Frankel and jockey Jerry Bailey is seldom easy.

"Everybody knows what they've been getting done together," Albarado said, referring to Empire Maker's Belmont win and other major wins for the Frankel-Bailey team.

Yet, Howard and Albarado are finding comfort in the knowledge that Mineshaft is a proven entity around two turns, and Aldebaran is not. While Mineshaft has reeled off four wins in two-turn stakes races this year, including the New Orleans Handicap in March and the Grade 1 Pimlico Special last month, Aldebaran, at least in terms of distance, is wading into highly unfamiliar waters.

Howard said, "[Aldebaran] is a dead closer in shorter races, which probably means he'll be able to jump into a longer race like this whenever his rider feels like the time is right. What that means is you have to have a good turn of foot to hold him off. From what I've seen so far, Mineshaft has an unbelievable turn of speed. Combined with his tendency to never get too far back in any of his races, I think that should put us in pretty good shape."

Albarado called Aldebaran "quick and fast" and said Bailey is "probably the best at getting the most out of a horse" such as Aldebaran. He quickly added: "But having said all that, I believe I'm riding a great horse."

Frankel knows that Aldebaran may be vulnerable at 1 1/8 miles but said the Foster comes at an ideal time. There are no major middle-distance races scheduled in the near future, and "he's in a good cycle," said Frankel. "I don't have to do much with him between races."

Aldebaran has raced beyond a mile only twice in his 21-race career, and never on dirt. Before being imported from Europe, Aldebaran, a 5-year-old son of Mr. Prospector, finished second in a 1 1/4-mile turf race. And soon after Frankel assumed his training for Flaxman Holdings Ltd., Aldebaran finished third on turf behind Denon in the 1 1/8-mile Hollywood Derby late in his 3-year-old season.

Aldebaran is out of the Private Account mare Chimes of Freedom, making him a half-brother to the accomplished turf miler, Good Journey, whom trainer Wally Dollase was reluctant to try at distances much beyond a mile.

"I know people like to look at pedigrees to see which horses might like a distance, but the main thing is how they relax," Frankel said. "He turns off," meaning he is willing to settle when asked. "He's so rateable."

Clearly, Aldebaran has maximized those strengths by racing primarily at middle distances. Yet that doesn't necessarily mean he won't be able to jump up - er, stretch out - and win Saturday.

"I think it's a good spot for him right now," Frankel said.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman