06/10/2004 12:00AM

Foster Day has become a stakes spectacle

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Somewhere along the way, racetracks took a hard look at their most prestigious stakes races and began molding them into an entirely new concept. The results were multirace, festival-themed programs that attempted to capitalize on the idea that more is better and racing fans can never be given too much of a good thing.

Dozens of American racetracks have successfully adopted this approach, including Churchill Downs, where not only the Kentucky Derby and its surrounding events have become a marathon celebration of racing, but also a mid-June afternoon centered on what has become one of the most important handicap races on the calendar - the Stephen Foster. The evolution of "Foster Super Saturday," as Churchill now calls it, was a purposeful and gradual one that uses this so-called shotgun formula to capture the national racing spotlight: Besides the Grade 1 Foster, five other stakes are carded during one spectacular afternoon, leaving the impression that the day as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

This is the first year that Churchill has used as many as six stakes on Foster Day; the Jefferson Cup was incorporated from its former isolated spot on the spring stakes schedule, and the Opening Verse is being run for the first time. Those races join the traditional foursome of the Foster, Fleur de Lis, Northern Dancer, and Regret on what should be another memorable day of action.

Jefferson Cup: Kitten's Joy looms over field

Twice already this year, Prince Arch has taken a pretty sound whipping from , the colt who is 5 for 5 and figures as a heavy favorite in the Grade 3, $200,000 Jefferson Cup (race 5). Yet Ken McPeek, who trains Prince Arch for longtime client Ray Cottrell Sr., believes the margins between the colts are sufficiently small that Kitten's Joy, trained by Dale Romans, should have to run another giant race to defeat Prince Arch again.

"He's buried me twice," said McPeek, referring to the Palm Beach and American Turf, in which Kitten's Joy finished first and Prince Arch was second. "But maybe give us a little racing luck and a couple other things, and we could turn the tables. All I know is my horse is doing really well and keeps getting bigger, stronger, and better."

Kitten's Joy and Prince Arch are the principals in a field of 10 3-year-olds entered in the 27th Jefferson Cup. Fringe contenders in the 1 1/8-mile turf race include Cool Conductor, Terroplane, Capo, and More Bourb.

Northern Dancer: Slight edge for J Town

None of the six Foster Day events offers more wagering appeal than the $200,000 Northern Dancer (race 6), a Grade 3 race that has been elongated to 1 1/16 miles after being run at a one-turn mile during its first six years of existence.

, a McPeek-trained colt who earned a 100 Beyer Speed Figure in winning an allowance race here five weeks ago, has Pat Day riding and will take his share of action, but if he is the favorite, it won't be by much. A gang of legitimate challengers - including Shaniko, Suave, Ecclesiastic, Courageous Act, Two Down Automatic, and Indian War Dance - makes the Northern Dancer a bettor's paradise and a perfect spot to begin the guaranteed $250,000 pick four wager.

Regret: Baxter Hall tries to fulfill promise

Trainer Tony Reinstedler readily acknowledges that running in the $200,000 Regret Stakes (race 7) may be asking a bit much from Baxter Hall, but his unwavering faith in the promising 3-year-old filly convinced him to go ahead and try. The 1 1/8-mile grass race drew eight 3-year-old fillies.

"I've had this spot on her schedule since this winter in Florida," said Reinstedler. "I know it's a very competitive race, but I think the distance suits her, and I feel like she has a lot of quality. I'm really happy with where she is in her career right now, and I look for nothing but bigger and better things from her as she goes along."

, a late-running Rahy filly who again will have Brian Peck aboard, figures as one of the middle wagering choices in the Grade 3 Regret, behind likely favorites Western Ransom, Jinny's Gold, and Sister Star.

Western Ransom, based at trainer Michael Dickinson's Tapeta Farm in northern Maryland, has progressed steadily throughout the spring and represents yet another live mount for Day.

Opening Verse: Hard Buck returns

Hard Buck, unraced since finishing second in the $2 million Dubai Sheema Classic on March 27, could be vulnerable in Saturday's $100,000 Opening Verse Handicap (race 10), a race for which he was not initially pointed.

Trainer Ken McPeek cautions against such skepticism, however. He said he chose to run Hard Buck in the 1 1/16-mile turf race not because he needed the race to reach his summer goals, but because he was thriving.

"He's strong right now," he said.

has breezed only three times since returning from Dubai, with his latest being a half-mile in 49.60 seconds around the dogs on June 8 over the local turf course. That work, which came in company with Jefferson Cup starter Prince Arch, convinced McPeek to return Hard Buck in the Opening Verse, rather than the July 4 Stars and Stripes Handicap at Arlington.

Before his runner-up finish in Dubai, Hard Buck won the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup over Balto Star in February. Last fall he won the River City Handicap at Churchill Downs. Brice Blanc rides.

Senor Swinger, perfect in three starts over the Churchill Downs grass course, won the Crown Royal American Turf and the Jefferson Cup at Churchill in 2003, and also won an allowance here in April. He finished a close fifth in the Grade 2 Dixie at Pimlico on May 15 in his last race. Day has been given the mount by trainer Bob Baffert.

Everything to Gain, a recent allowance winner, heads the rest of the field.

- additional reporting by Byron King