Racing Roundtable: Kingsbarns' Stephen Foster victory and Churchill's closing weekend

July 2nd, 2024

This week, the Racing Roundtable discusses Kingsbarns' triumph in the Stephen Foster (G1), stakes results from Churchill Downs' closing weekend of the spring meet, and other racing action that caught their eye.

What were your takeaways from the Stephen Foster?

James Scully: Kingsbarns rebounded smartly from a runner-up finish in the Pimlico Special (G3) at odds-on, utilizing a strong turn of foot to take a clear lead leaving the far turn and rolling home to a 2 1/2-length win. Along with netting his first Grade 1 win, the four-year-old colt earned his initial triple-digit Brisnet Speed rating (102), but the competition will get tougher in upcoming engagements.

First Mission, the odds-on favorite following a convincing win in the 1 1/16-mile Aysheba (G2), weakened to fourth after showing the way on a moderate pace, and it’s fair to say his best distances are less than nine furlongs. The Dirt Mile (G1) going two turns at Del Mar this fall may be a perfect fit. Disarm, the 4.07-1 second choice in his second start since a runner-up in the Travers (G1), never made any impact, finishing an even sixth. Oaklawn H. (G2) victor Skippylongstocking, the third choice in the wagering, wound up a non-threatening third. 

Kingsbarns has now captured three of four starts this year, taking a Gulfstream allowance and the Ben Ali (G3) at Keeneland, but those wins came over suspect competition. He earned a measure of revenge over Pimlico Special victor Pyrenees, who edged Skippylongstocking for second, but the runner-up is still developing. I may be underestimating Kingsbarns’ potential this fall for Todd Pletcher, but there are doubts about his ceiling in terms of the 1 1/4-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).

Pyrenees has more upside for Cherie DeVaux in my estimation. A maiden scorer in mid-December, Pyrenees followed with a pair of convincing wins conditioned allowance wins at Fair Grounds and Keeneland, and the Into Mischief colt looks built for longer distances. The progressing four-year-old had a four-race win streak snapped in the Foster, but Pyrenees has gained valuable experience in a pair of stakes appearances and his numbers are eligible to keep improving. 

Vance Hanson: In light of the performances turned in by Kingsbarns and Pyrenees, the biggest takeaway from the Stephen Foster is that the Pimlico Special was a much stronger race than it appeared both at the time and on paper. There's little doubt their relative unpopularity in the market was due in part to their low speed figures earned in Baltimore, but in retrospect perhaps they were indeed skewed by the pedestrian pace of that race. It's an example handicappers (including myself) can learn from.

I wouldn't be in love with anyone from the Stephen Foster being quick enough to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. The top two remain open to further improvement, though, and perhaps Disarm might fare better one of these days if able to get out of the gate more quickly. But horses like Skippylongstocking and First Mission seem relatively more exposed at this point. 

Ashley Anderson: Despite a solid resume, Kingsbarns was overlooked as a 9.95-1 choice in the Stephen Foster, where the Todd Pletcher trainee drove home a clear 2 1/2-length winner over seven rivals. Now 3-for-4 in 2024, with a three-quarter-length second in the Pimlico Special (G3), Kingsbarns has entered himself into the discussion for older dirt male, a division that is a bit wide open at the moment. The son of Uncle Mo had previously won the Ben Ali (G3) at Keeneland in April and kicked off his four-year-old campaign with a half-length victory in an allowance optional claimer at Gulfstream.

Kingsbarns recorded a career-best 102 Brisnet Speed figure in his victory on Saturday and now owns a 9-6-2-0 lifetime record. Pletcher noted the Spendthrift Farm color bearer has been able to settle better compared to last season and rated a couple lengths off the pace before launching a rally in the far turn to dominate in the Stephen Foster. He'll return to Saratoga this week and begin training toward the $1 million Whitney on Aug. 2 or the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) on Sept. 1. The latter is run at 1 1/4 miles, the distance of the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1), which Kingsbarns earned a berth to with his win in the Stephen Foster.

What were your thoughts on the other stakes results from Churchill on Saturday?

JS: After rallying past Skelly in the Aristides S., Closethegame Sugar confirmed himself as a major player in the sprint division with a 1 1/2-length triumph in the Kelly’s Landing S. The four-year-old gelding has been racing on dirt for all of two months, switching to the main track on May 2 after making his first five starts on synthetic and turf, and Closethegame Sugar has impressively captured both dirt stakes attempts for Adam Rice.

He just missed the track record (1:14.34) when turning 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:14.89 Saturday, and I liked how he put the race away with a powerful move into the stretch, opening a clear advantage. 

Given the lack of depth and star power in the sprint division, one could make the argument that Closethegame Sugar will have more to offer in the second half of the season following a sharp win in the Kelly’s Landing.

VH: Brilliant Berti looked to have the makings of a nice horse when capturing his stakes debut Saturday in the American Derby. It was the Noble Mission colt's third win of the Churchill spring meet, which tied the meet mark set by Scylla one race earlier in the Fleur de Lis.

After a modest debut at Fair Grounds over the winter, Brilliant Berti has looked really good, a very handy horse that settles well and responds readily when called upon for his run. Trainer Cherie DeVaux is leaving all options open for Brilliant Berti, who might turn up at Saratoga, Colonial Downs, or Ellis Park this summer. If he can run as well outside Louisville as he does inside, he could make some noise in the three-year-old turf division.

AA: We've seen a few Charlie Appleby runners struggle since shipping to the U.S. this season, but Ottoman Fleet is not one of them. The Godolphin homebred followed up his Arlington (G3) win at Churchill on June 1 with a victory in the Wise Dan (G2) at the same track on Saturday. He improved his U.S. record to 3-for-5 and has finished in the money in all five starts in the states. The Sea The Stars gelding clocked a 97 BRIS figure in his latest effort and went gate to wire, with none of his five rivals wanting the early lead. His connections had previously stated that Ottoman Fleet has a tendency to lose focus when he makes the lead too soon, but on Saturday he had no issues setting early fractions of 23.63 and 48.05. As rider Flavien Prat noted, "turning for home, he still had a lot left in the tank to kick clear at the wire."

Ottoman Fleet beat runner-up Chasing the Crown by 1 1/2 lengths after besting the same rival by a length in the Arlington last month. He'll now head to Saratoga to join the rest of Godolphin's U.S.-based contingent, including Master of the Seas, Naval Power, Silver Knott, Measured Time, and Nations Pride. His next start will likely be at the Spa or Colonial Downs.

What else caught your eye?

JS: Cogliostro in Sunday’s Hanshin (G3) at Churchill Downs. A Grade 3-type performer last year, he’s improved at age four, recording a strong allowance win at Keeneland and runner-up effort in the 1 1/8-mile Blame (G3) to open 2024. Cogliostro had a clear lead in the stretch of the latter, giving way to Highland Falls late. 

The cutback to a one-turn mile worked in the Hanshin, which featured seven graded stakes winners. That group didn’t include Cogliostro or 1.74-1 favorite Extra Anejo, who weakened to seventh after contesting the lead, and this year’s Hanshin field will make a compelling case for graded status in the future. Cogliostro prompted Zozos and Extra Anejo until the conclusion of the far turn, surging to a two-length lead in upper stretch, and comfortably held Tumbarumba safe for a one-length victory.

Cogliostro handled a one-turn mile fine, but he’s probably more formidable at a two-turn mile or 1 1/16-mile distance. He's established himself as a serious Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile contender for DeVaux.

I’ll also mention Subrogate, who romped by six lengths over a solid allowance field at Aqueduct Saturday. A maiden winner last spring at Belmont, the Arrogate colt jumped straight to stakes competition next out, finishing a close fourth in the Pegasus S. at Monmouth Park, but made only one more start before heading to the sidelines.

Since returning in April, Subrogate has recorded three consecutive allowance wins at Aqueduct, registering increasing Speed ratings (101-104 last two) that bode well for his return to sprint stakes competition, and the six-furlong Alfred G. Vanderbilt (G1) on July 27 will be an option for Jorge Duarte Jr. trainee. 

VH: Scylla's win in the Fleur de Lis was another feather in the cap for her dam, Close Hatches, the champion older mare of 2014. Close Hatches has turned into an outstanding producer for Juddmonte, rearing not only Scylla, but also last week's Ohio Derby (G3) winner Batten Down. Her first offspring was the three-time Grade 2 winner Tacitus, who also placed in the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Belmont S. (G1) but frustratingly fell short of winning a Grade 1.

I believe there is a technical rule that a mare must produce a Grade 1 winner to be considered for the prestigious Kentucky Broodmare of the Year honor, but even if Scylla and Batten Down fall short of achieving that goal this season, I think Close Hatches would nonetheless be a deserving recipient, given the success her family has already achieved.

AA: Star Guitar mare Ova Charged extended her win streak to seven on Saturday with a 2 3/4-length triumph in the Chicken Fried S., a five-furlong turf event at Lone Star. What makes the six-year-old's current streak all the more impressive is the fact all seven consecutive victories have come against stakes company, and she's been switching between dirt and turf as well. Ova Charged had been racing primarily in Louisiana but shipped to Churchill and earned her first graded stakes win in the Unbridled Sidney (G3) on the Kentucky Oaks (G1) undercard. She then shipped to Evangeline Downs and switched from turf to dirt, where she won a non-graded stakes event over a sloppy track. The Shane Wilson trainee went back to grass on Saturday and showed the ability to win from off the pace as well. One of the most versatile sprinters in the country, Ova Charged could next show up at Ellis Park in August for the Kentucky Downs Preview Ladies Turf Sprint S. Winner of all six starts thus far in 2024, Ova Charged's lifetime line reads 18-15-1-0, and she's earned $918,575 for her connections.