06/14/2012 12:07PM

Hovdey: Racing spotlight shifts from New York to Churchill Downs, Hollywood Park

Barbara D. Livingston
Mission Impazible (above) will try Wise Dan again in Saturday night's Stephen Foster Handicap.

If only some of those 85,811 fair weather fans who jammed Belmont Park last Saturday would hang around the game for another week. Unfortunately, the sport continues to deal with its own strain of ADD (attendance deficit disorder), so most of those 85,811 will be doing on the Saturday after the Belmont Stakes whatever it was they were doing the Saturday before, which was not going to the races.

That’s a shame, because the hard-working players who put on the show last weekend in New York will be back on stage this weekend in Louisville and Los Angeles in a cluster of events every bit as significant in their own way as the Belmont Stakes.

The most entertaining bunch of older male horses in years will convene at Churchill Downs for the $400,000 Stephen Foster Handicap at nine furlongs. The event has been run only 31 times, placing its genesis somewhere in Ronald Reagan’s first term, but the name and conditions alone fairly reek of racing’s arcane, intimidating nature. But then, once you get past the obvious snags -- “Who is Stephen Foster?”…”What is a handicap?”… “How much does a furlong weigh?” – what’s left is a race any one of the camps involved would be proud to win.

The hot money will be all over Wise Dan, who came off a long layoff to freak like Formal Gold in the Ben Ali Handicap at Keeneland on April 22. Cooler heads will note that the Ben Ali was on a synthetic surface, and that his opposition was less than stellar, and that the Ben Ali was on a synthetic surface. But still, Wise Dan’s score in the Clark Handicap at Churchill last fall was a solid piece of business, coming at the expense of the stubborn Mission Impazible.

Mission Impazible will try Wise Dan again in the Foster, along with Alternation, Ron the Greek and Nehro, who might as well be in harness for all the thrills they have supplied this year. Conditions permitting, they won’t need more than about a minute-47 seconds to get the job done, and it’s a good bet it will be a memorable minute-47.

In the race before the Foster, champion filly Royal Delta will return from her disappointing foray to Dubai and the World Cup to lead the parade for the Fleur de Lis Handicap, also at 1 1/8 miles. She never really picked up the bit that night in the desert, so now it is back to the reality of the American racing economy, running for the winner’s share of $150,000 rather than $10 million.

St. John’s River, making her second start off a rehab, could give Royal Delta a run. She won the Delaware Oaks in 2011 and just missed in the Kentucky Oaks. St. John’s River also could kick off a big day for the Broad Brush stallion Include, now 15, who was represented last week in New York by a romping Redeemed in the Brooklyn Handicap and has Include Me Out at the head of the field for the $250,000 Vanity Handicap at Betfair Hollywood Park.

Include Me Out, like Redeemed, is owned by Samantha Siegel’s Jay Em Ess Stable. The filly is on a roll of three stakes wins over three decidedly different surfaces, from fast dirt to slop to dry synthetic, which she gets again on Saturday.

Compared to the Foster, the Vanity has got some serious history – 71 runnings and winners like Honeymoon, Two Lea, Gamely, Sangue, Bayakoa, Paseana, Azeri, and Zenyatta, who pulled a three-peat. This version runs deep, with Include Me Out required to deal with Ellafitz, who was lapped alongside the favorite in the recent Marjorie Everett Handicap, and Zazu, the quality gray who was shaking off the cobwebs that day from a seven-month layoff.

At some point they all will need to confront the upstart Rock and Glory, a daughter of Rock Hard Ten bred and owned by Ernie Moody’s Mercedes Stable. She has run only four times, losing her first two starts earlier this year without much of a fight. But her two most recent races could hardly be called contests: a maiden win by 8 1/2 lengths and an allowance score by 11 1/4.

Then again, both wins featured fields of five, one was in the slop at Santa Anita, and the other was against nonwinners of a race other than yadda yadda yadda. Still, a filly who is fresh, untested, and clearly enjoys her work deserves to be tossed in against the big girls, which is pretty much how trainer Tim Yakteen has it figured.

“She’s a very big filly and still has a lot of learning to do,” Yakteen said. “She’s easily distracted. We tried her with blinkers at first just for that reason, but they seemed to get her more agitated than anything. Now without them, if you’ve seen her run you’ll notice how she tends to all of a sudden look up into the grandstand.”

This could be explained by the fact that Rock and Glory has won her last two races by 8 1/2 and 11 1/4 lengths.

“Exactly,” Yakteen said. “And with a lot tougher competition against her you wouldn’t think she’d be that far in front.”

Charlie Whittingham mastered the art of flooding a major race for older horses and announcing, “I’ve got ‘em surrounded.” Yakteen, a former assistant of both Whittingham and Bob Baffert, has his own version going in the Vanity, with the British invader Zafeen’s Pearl making her stateside debut.

“Surrounded, yeah,” Yakteen said with a laugh. “At least at some point there’s a good chance they’ll be running first and last. Zafeen’s Pearl has very good form on synthetic surfaces and has shown she’s got a pretty good finishing kick, so we’ll see how she does.”

It will be the swift Rock and Glory, though, who gets most of the attention. Yakteen is under no delusions about the challenge.

“Obviously Include Me Out is a very, very nice filly,” Yakteen said. “She was very impressive winning the other day when she made the lead and then was clearly waiting on horses.

“But it’s time to see if our filly can take that next step,” Yakteen added. “We’re not going to reinvent anything about her running style just because she’s moving way up in class. She’s shown she wants to go to the front, so we’ll let her run her own race.”