06/11/2010 11:00PM

Foster packed with talent

Barbara D. Livingston
General Quarters (right) wins the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Stephen Foster died broke at age 37 in what has become a great paradox, seeing how he left a treasure of ageless songs behind. The race that Churchill Downs named nearly three decades ago in his honor is rich, too, in history and prestige, a fitting and lasting tribute to the man who wrote "My Old Kentucky Home."

The Stephen Foster Handicap will be run Saturday at Churchill for the 29th time, and its Grade 1 ranking and $600,000 purse have drawn a field of horses to match all that wealth. Short of Quality Road, the indisputable leader atop the North American handicap division, the Foster drew an outstanding group, one of genuine depth and promise, and nobody should be surprised if the race produces a viable contender or two for divisional honors as the post-Triple Crown segment of the 2010 racing season starts to unfold Saturday.

"There are four or five horses in there that have the potential to be big factors in the division by the end of the year," said Al Stall Jr., who trains Blame, one of the co-highweights and favorites.

Eleven older horses are entered in the Foster, a fine number by any standard, especially considering that all but two - A.U. Miner and Giant Oak - are graded stakes winners. The lone two-time Grade 1 winner in the group, General Quarters, will carry co-high weight of 120 pounds, along with Blame and Arson Squad. General Quarters is the storybook horse who comprises the entire stable of 76-year-old owner-trainer Tom McCarthy.

"We're shooting for the [Aug. 21] Arlington Million, and I couldn't find the right kind of race for him until I thought to just run him in here," said McCarthy. "The son of a gun is doing great. We'll lead him over there looking to win."

General Quarters, winner of the Blue Grass Stakes last year on Keeneland's synthetic track and the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill in his latest start, will be trying to become the only horse besides Lava Man to win Grade 1 events on the three varieties of surfaces in use in American racing today.

General Quarters, with Alex Solis to ride, is one of a handful of Foster runners with the kind of tactical speed to tuck in behind the likely leader, Battle Plan, a lightly raced Overbrook Farm homebred who might well wind up the race favorite. Battle Plan, trained by Todd Pletcher, will carry 119 pounds, including Javier Castellano, when he breaks from post 2 in the 1 1/8-mile race.

"There isn't a whole lot of pace in there to run with Battle Plan, and that's something to worry about," said Stall.

Blame, another with tactical speed, was assigned the outside post, a potentially tricky spot for jockey Garrett Gomez.

"He'll just have to try to get over as best he can," said Stall.

Like most of the other top contenders, Arson Squad enters off a sharp victory, having captured the Grade 3 Alysheba on April 30 Kentucky Oaks undercard.

"I'm expecting him to run another huge one Saturday," said trainer Rick Dutrow.

Others in with a solid chance include Florida shipper Duke of Mischief, a romping winner of the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap last out, and Macho Again, the stretch-running gray who won the Foster last year at 7-1 and is the leading earner in the race with more than $1.8 million banked.

The longer-priced starters figure to be A.U. Miner, Giant Oak, Honest Man, No Advantage, and Demarcation, the last of whom will be scratched from a Friday night turf race to go in the Foster, according to trainer Paul McGee.

The Foster highlights an 11-race Saturday card that also features the return of the 2009 Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra, in an earlier race, the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap. The Fleur de Lis is the first and the Foster is the last of five straight stakes (races 6-10), with three Grade 3 races in between: the Jefferson Cup, Northern Dancer, and Regret.

First post Saturday is 12:45 p.m. Eastern, with the Fleur de Lis at 3:26 and the Foster at 5:29. HRTV will be providing extensive onsite coverage, with Caton Bredar and Aaron Vercruysse as hosts.

The weather forecast for Saturday calls for oppressively hot and humid conditions, with temperatures in the low 90s and a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms.

Saturday also will feature the return of the highly popular Kentucky Derby Alumni festivities that Churchill inaugurated in 1998 but discontinued after several years. Connections of Derby winners from the 1970s -- including Penny Chenery, Ron Turcotte, Angel Cordero Jr., and Steve Cauthen -- will be on hand for televised interviews, an autograph session, and other special events, all starting at 11:45 a.m.