Stephen Foster value line: Cox looks for first Stephen Foster with Mandaloun

June 30th, 2022

There are quite a few questions that run through my mind looking at the field for the $750,000 Stephen Foster (G2). Is this the year Lousiville-native Brad Cox wins his first Foster? Who has Mandaloun beat? Who will go to the lead? Will Joel Rosario make a difference on Proxy? Can Olympiad win in front-running fashion if need be? Is Last Samurai sitting on a career effort? 

Thinking through these questions in the right way will lead us to find value in a race that has three of the most formidable dirt-routing foes in our sport: Mandaloun, Olympiad, and Americanrevolution. 

At $2 million in earnings, including being promoted to being the 2021 Kentucky Derby winner, #6 Mandaloun (2-1 Morning Line) will most likely be sent off as the favorite. I asked his trainer Brad Cox a few questions searching for clarity around a horse who has had some racing luck.

Medina Spirit (right), Mandaloun (center), and Hot Rod Charlie (left) at the finish of the 2021 Kentucky Derby (Photo by Churchill Downs/Coady Photography)

After showing a different running style in the Saudi Cup, tightly pressing a hot pace and fading to 9th, will he be up close in the Foster?

“We maybe rushed him a bit early on the backside (in the Saudi Cup),” Cox said over the phone last week. “Anyone that was close to the pace or on the pace finished up the track. Back around two turns is going to benefit him a good bit.”

How is he doing coming into this given the transition from being overseas?

“It’s a first run off a layoff so I’m not going to say he’s the best he’s ever going to be because he hasn't run since February. But he’s training the part since he freshened up a bit at Juddmonte, he put some weight on him. Physically this horse looks fantastic.”

What’s Mandaloun’s preferred distance?

“I think anywhere between 1 mile and a 1 1/4 miles which obviously gives us confidence in 1 1/8 miles. If we ever decided to shorten him up, he has enough tactical speed to be up close going one mile.” 

Mandaloun #3 with Florent Geroux riding won the $1,000,000 Grade I Haskell Stakes after #4 Hot Rod Charlie with Flavien Prat riding was disqualified from first (Photo By Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO)

Two of Mandaloun’s six wins have come finishing second and then being awarded first after a disqualification that did not interfere with his run - the Kentucky Derby and the Haskell. Another two of his wins came against Midnight Bourbon, a $3.5 million earner who only won twice in 16 races. Mandaloun’s other two wins were his maiden and first-level allowance, the first two of his career.

I put Mandaloun at 7-2 on my value line, but I have no reason to think I will get that price, so I am looking for value elsewhere.

#3 Olympiad I have on my value line at the Morning Line odds of 5-2. Bill Mott’s winner of four straight has shown the talent and the tenacity I want when backing a short price. Passed in the home stretch by Happy Saver in the Alysheba, he immediately responded and surged back to the lead. Then proceeded to look like he won for fun. 

Mott has been saying it since he first sent Olympiad to Fair Grounds from Gulfstream: this guy benefits from a longer stretch. He puts himself near the lead early and when he opens up late, he gathers more speed with every stride.

The question of race design is my only pause with Olympiad. Who will be on the lead in the Foster? If no one sends, will Olympiad take over early?

Both Brisnet and TimeForm US project that #2 Americanrevolution (7-2) has the fastest early pace figures. But Todd Pletcher's Cigar Mile winner has never won gate-to-wire, though he did lead or duel for the lead in his six-furlong maiden win at Belmont. I have him at 5-1 on my value line.

Cox’s decision to throw #1 Caddo River (10-1) into the deep end here seems to be driven by the fact he could try to steal this race on the front end. Almost the entirety of his 3-year-old Derby trail campaign was spent on the front end, but as a 4-year-old he has learned to relax. I have him at 8-1.

All #5 Proxy (9-2) can do is hope for a tussle out front, setting up a meltdown for his late kick. Otherwise he just hasn’t run fast enough to beat these foes on the square, which makes him 10-1 in my line. Although maybe his speed figures in the Blame would have been better had he not encountered late trouble. Trainer Michael Stidham calls upon Rosario to right this late-running ship, and for me, that increases his chances. 

Having won the Stephen Foster in 2019 with Seeking the Soul and in 2009 with Macho Again, trainer Dallas Stewart sends out #4 Title Ready (15-1), who I have targeted at 20-1. Stewart has won four of his last 17 stakes races on the dirt with horses coming in for their third start off a layoff. That includes his win in the Oaklawn (G2) with #7 Last Samurai (8-1), who will line up in the gates to face Title Ready in the Foster. 

But this time Last Samurai will be running out of D. Wayne Lukas’ barn after the ownership decided to part ways with Stewart. Last Samurai had a big spring, but since arriving at Churchill Downs after winning the Oaklawn (G2), his morning works say his form has stayed strong. He had an easy ground-saving trip when beating next-out winner Fearless by four lengths. But I expect this guy has more to show us, which makes him my longshot play. I’ll be looking for better than 11-1 to consider a win bet.

Will this be Cox’s first Stephen Foster? 

“It's a race that we have run some live horses in before,” Cox said. “And it’s a race we definitely want to win. We want to win all these graded stakes races here at Churchill and it's one we are looking to check off the list. And after we win it, we’ll want to win it again.”

Cox has to feel good about Mandaloun’s chances, but I’m guessing we won’t like his price.