06/13/2013 11:57AM

Weekend Warrior for June 15: Picks for Stephen Foster, Centaur, Matt Winn


With the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs owns the the first weekend of the Triple Crown. It can safely be said that Churchill also owns the weekend after the Triple Crown with its Stephen Foster card.

Saturday evening’s Grade 1, $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap tops a four-stakes race program at Churchill that also includes the Grade 2, $175,000 Fleur de Lis Handicap. As was the case when she won the Fleur de Lis last year, multiple champion Royal Delta will be making her first start back in the United States following an attempt at the Dubai World Cup.

There is one other Grade 1 event on Saturday’s schedule, the $250,000 Vanity Handicap at Betfair Hollywood Park.

Stephen Foster Handicap [Get PPs]

The Foster drew only six, but it is an excellent field that includes the last two winners of this race – Pool Play, who recorded a 36-1 upset of the 2011 Foster, and Ron the Greek. Ron the Greek just got up to win last year over Wise Dan, who, of course, went on to be the 2012 Horse of the Year. And yet, square prices will be available on both Pool Play and Ron the Greek Saturday night.

Successful Dan will be the favorite off a successful return in April from a 10-month absence in Keeneland’s Ben Ali Stakes, and his affinity for Churchill’s main track, although he runs very well on other surfaces, too. In any case, Successful Dan has finished first in all four of his starts on the main track at Churchill, though he was disqualified and placed third in the 2010 Clark Handicap. But while Successful Dan’s past successes at Churchill and elsewhere are imposing, they did take place several layoffs ago, and where he is right now is the important issue when it comes to betting the Foster.

That’s why Successful Dan’s Ben Ali performance must be scrutinized. The fact that he won off such a long break is certainly encouraging, and he has a right to move forward off that outing, even if it now took place two months ago. But Successful Dan has to improve upon his comeback if he is to win Saturday night because his Ben Ali left me a little cold.

After inheriting the lead in a speedless Ben Ali field and walking through fractions of 25.03 seconds, 50.18, and 1:16.05 (no, that’s not a typo), I expected the Successful Dan of old to draw off and win by a significant margin. Instead, Boisterous, who was making his first start ever on a synthetic surface, made a game run at Successful Dan and made him work some for the win. Boisterous is a hard-hitting horse, and he came back to win last Sunday’s Monmouth Stakes with a Beyer Figure of 94. But Boisterous on his best day is a Grade 2 horse. That he got as close as he did to Successful Dan in the Ben Ali has me wondering if Successful Dan is able right now to produce his best past form.

Take Charge Indy will have a lot of support, and for good reason. He ran the best race of his life last time out over the track winning the Alysheba Stakes on the Kentucky Oaks undercard by six with a 109 Beyer. But Take Charge Indy is meeting a tougher group here, and he must put two top performances together, something he has yet to do.

I’m giving Fort Larned another chance. After a tremendous campaign last year that saw him win the Cornhusker (in which he beat Successful Dan by three lengths), the Whitney, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic (albeit with the grain of a speed-favoring track), Fort Larned has been a mystery this year. He lost his rider at the start of the Gulfstream Park Handicap in his seasonal bow, though I suppose it was somewhat encouraging – even if he didn’t have 124 pounds on his back – that he galloped off far ahead of the field. But he was totally empty when fifth in the Oaklawn Handicap last time out.

Fort Larned has worked steadily since, and for the first time this year, he will actually be a playable price. And he was too good last year not to give him another chance at fair odds. But most importantly, the dynamics of this race afford Fort Larned a great opportunity to rebound. There isn’t any real speed here, and I expect Fort Larned to take them all the way, just like he did last year in the Breeders’ Cup and Cornhusker.

Centaur Stakes [Get PPs]

If you didn’t have General Election at 13-1 last time out in the Arlington Classic, and I didn’t, then it’s difficult to take him at a fraction of that price in this feature at Indiana Downs. And I’m uncertain about the two coming out of the American Turf – War Dancer and Anyriderill Do – because I question how strong that race really was.

I’m taking another pace play here in Free World. Free World, who might not have quite the class lines of some others in here but who does have the best Beyers, was most impressive winning over the course last time out. Free World took that race in front-running fashion and I think he will go right to the top again on this group.

Matt Winn Stakes [Get PPs]

Value won’t be hard to get in this undercard stakes at Churchill as there are several legitimate directions for the betting public to go. I’m going with the horse who I think has the most upside, Abstraction.

Abstraction has started only three times, and he showed stakes potential when he romped routing at Fair Grounds in his second start, earning a 92 Beyer, which is among the best in this field. Abstraction dropped to an 85 Beyer when he won the Federico Tesio last time out, but there were extenuating circumstances. Abstraction was boxed in on the rail early, on the first turn, and for much of the backstretch behind a slow pace, and thaty had to compromise the final time to some extent. Once clear in the stretch, however, Abstraction went on to dominate. This time, Abstraction projects to sit a pace-pressing trip from the outside, in the clear.