Grade 1 Stephen Foster Stakes trends and field analysis

June 26th, 2024

Closing weekend of Churchill Downs’ 2024 spring meet will present the $1 million Stephen Foster S. (G1), a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” challenge series race that will grant the winner free, automatic entry into the Nov. 2 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Del Mar.

First run in 1982, the Stephen Foster is a nine-furlong dirt event for older horses named after the famous composer who wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” the traditional song of the Kentucky Derby (G1). Initially a Grade 3, the Stephen Foster earned Grade 2 status in 1995 before becoming a Grade 1 in 2002. Since 2015, it has been a part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series.

Five horses have gone on to claim victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the same year as their Stephen Foster triumph: Black Tie Affair (1991), Awesome Again (1998), Blame (2010), Saint Liam (2005), and Gun Runner (2017). Black Tie Affair, Saint Liam, and Gun Runner also went on to win Horse of the Year, as did Curlin in the same season of his Stephen Foster conquest. 

Mark Casse (2011, 2015), Patrick B. Byrne (1997, 1998), Jere Smith Jr. (1994, 1995), and Forrest Kaelin (1982, 1983) are tied for most wins by a trainer, with two apiece, and Robby Albarado (2007, 2008, 2009) and Pat Day (1985, 1998, 2003) co-own the record for most victories by a jockey (three).

Ten-year trends in Stephen Foster S.

There has been no repeat winning trainer or jockey in the last decade, but Brad Cox could make a second consecutive trip to the winner’s circle with morning-line favorite First Mission.

Dating back to 2014, post-time favorites have won the Stephen Foster five times, including the last four runnings. The longest shot to win in the last decade was Moonshine Mullin at 10-1 in 2014, followed by Bradester at 9.20-1 in 2016.

The fastest winning time since 2014 is by Tom’s d’Etat, with a finish time of 1:47.30 in 2020, just barely slower than the overall speed record for the race, 1:47.28, clocked by former Belmont S. (G1) winner Victory Gallop in 1999.

Now that we've glanced at some of the recent Stephen Foster trends, let's look at each runner in the 2024 field.

Stephen Foster Stakes horse-by-horse analysis

Race 11, Stephen Foster S. (G3), 1 1/8 miles, 4yo and up (6:03 p.m. ET)

#1 Pyrenees (12-1) — The four-year-old Into Mischief colt rides a four-win streak dating back to Dec. 15, when he broke his maiden in his fourth career start while racing 1 1/16 miles at Fair Grounds. Pyrenees returned to win an allowance at the same distance in New Orleans, then stretched out to 1 1/8 miles over a sloppy Keeneland track and went gate to wire. Most recently, he made his stakes debut in the Pimlico Special (G3) and tracked the early pace before surging late to win by three-quarters of a length in the 1 3/16-mile test. His Brisnet Speed figures have improved with each of his last four starts, and he’s eligible to step forward here in his third start off a layoff for Cherie DeVaux, a 24% winner this meet. Regular rider Brian Hernandez Jr. will retain the mount. The rail post is also winning at a 23% clip this meet.

#2 First Mission (6-5) — The Brad Cox trainee has won by a combined nine lengths over his last two starts, with his most recent win a four-length rout in the 1 1/16-mile Alysheba (G2) at Churchill. The Street Sense son clocked a career-best 106 BRIS figure in the effort and will return to the track off a nearly two-month layoff. Florent Geroux (19% winner at Churchill) will stay in the saddle, and he’s 10-4-2-1 paired with Cox the last 14 days. First Mission put in a five-furlong workout on June 22 and should be sharp and ready at Churchill, where he has a win and a second from two career starts.

#3 Happy American (30-1) — The deep closer for Neil Pessin last got a win 14 starts back, in January 2023. The six-year-old gelding was last seen finishing third by 1 3/4 lengths in a one-mile allowance optional claimer at Churchill on May 31 and will stretch back out to a distance from which he’s 1-for-9. The son of Runhappy has recorded Speed figures ranging from 60 to 89 in his last four starts and will need major improvement to contend here. His record at Churchill is promising (8-3-0-3), but his recent form is a concern.

#4 Disarm (6-1) — Steve Asmussen’s Gun Runner colt finished fourth in the 2023 Kentucky Derby, then earned his first graded stakes win in the Matt Winn (G3) at today’s distance last June with a career-best 104 BRIS figure, which he matched in his next two starts, a fourth in the Jim Dandy (G2) and a second behind Arcangelo in the Travers (G1). The four-year-old hit the bench for nine months after that and made his first start of the 2024 season in an allowance optional claimer at Churchill, where he went gate to wire and recorded an 83 BRIS figure while beating three rivals. He’s put in sharp recent workouts and can progress second start off the layoff. The Winchell Thoroughbreds color bearer is 3-1-0-1 at Churchill and 1-for-2 at today’s distance, and will need a significant jump in speed to compete with the likes of First Mission and others.

#5 Dreamlike (10-1) — Another Gun Runner colt, Dreamlike has yet to win since breaking his maiden six starts back, but he came close with a half-length second in the 1 1/8-mile Pennsylvania Derby (G1) and a neck second in a competitive allowance at Keeneland in April. The Todd Pletcher pupil may step forward third start off the layoff and with blinkers back on. Irad Ortiz Jr. (23% winner this meet) will retain the mount. More likely to settle for the minor awards, with a 5 -1-1-2 record at 1 1/8 miles.

#6 Classic Causeway (30-1) — The Giant’s Causeway five-year-old is winless from three starts since shipping back to the U.S. after a brief stint in the UK. The lone true early pacesetter in today’s field, the Kenny McPeek trainee finished a head second and a distant fifth in two recent starts at 1 1/2 miles, then cut back to 1 1/16 miles in an allowance optional claimer taken off Churchill’s turf and came home fourth by 10 lengths. His Speed figures in his last two were light, and his best work has come away from this track. Classic Causeway owns a 4-0-1-0 record at Churchill, and he’s 3-0-0-1 from today’s distance.

#7 Kingsbarns (6-1) — The Uncle Mo colt made his four-year-old debut in a seven-furlong allowance optional claimer at Gulfstream and got up late to win, then jumped back up to graded stakes company in the Ben Ali (G3) and drove clear to prevail by 3 1/4 lengths in the 1 3/16-mile event. Last out, he was barely beaten at the wire by Pyrenees in the Pimlico Special when sent off as the 0.70-1 favorite. Todd Pletcher is a 20% winner with beaten favorites but just a 7% winner this meet. Luis Saez will stay in the saddle.

#8 Steal Sunshine (20-1) — The late runner by Constitution finished fourth to First Mission in the Alysheba and will look to get his first win at Churchill for trainer Bobby Dibona. His two most recent victories came at a mile, and he’s yet to finish in the money when racing at Churchill. Paco Lopez, who’s 0-for-9 this meet, will ride.

#9 Skippylongstocking (5-2) — The multiple graded stakes winner is looking for his third straight trip to the winner’s circle after recent successes in the Challenger (G3) and Oaklawn H. (G2). The five-year-old clocked a 102 BRIS figure last out and will return off a two-month layoff for Saffie Joseph, a 23% winner off 46-90 days of rest. Jose Ortiz is back in the saddle and ranks second in wins by a jockey this meet. Skippylongstocking is 9-4-1-1 from today’s distance, and he has a bullet work on June 15 at Palm Meadows.

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