The 35th running of the Grade 1, $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap features a trio of recent Grade 2 stakes winners in Effinex, Majestic Harbor and Are You Kidding Me competing for a win in the race and a spot in the Breeders' Cup Classic this fall at Santa Anita Park. Effinex won the Oaklawn Handicap in his most recent start and is the only horse in the field who has won a Grade 1 race at Churchill Downs, doing so when victorious in the Clark Handicap at the distance of the Stephen Foster last fall. Majestic Harbor won the Alysheba Stakes last month over the track and is also a previous Grade 1 winner, having captured the 2014 Gold Cup at Santa Anita. Are You Kidding Me enters the race off a wire-to-wire victory in the Eclipse Stakes at Woodbine, his fourth Grade 2 win in his last eight races. Alysheba runner-up Eagle attempts to follow in the footsteps of 2015 Foster winner Noble Bird, with multiple stakes winners Bradester, International Star and El Kabeir rounding out the talented field of seven.
I've been lucky enough to select the winner of this race two years in a row, first Moonshine Mullin ($22) in 2014 then Noble Bird ($11) in 2015. Using the same handicapping philosophy this year, I am giving slight preference to Are You Kidding Me as my top win contender. Are You Kidding Me is an accomplished handicap division horse who has earned over three-quarters of a million dollars winning seven of 26 career races. Although he's never won on conventional dirt, his top trainer Roger Attfield believes he can and I will not argue as the trainer gets the services of red hot Julien Leparoux, who has won more than 25 percent of his races at the Churchill Downs spring-summer meeting. Are You Kidding Me can win on the lead as well as from off the pace and the fact he has won four Grade 2 stakes in among his last eight races going back to June, 2015 is significant. Better still, Are You Kidding Me has earned 100 or better Equibase Speed Figures in every start in 2015 and 2016 to date and is on a pattern for a new top figure as he earned a 105 figure in his first start of the year (April 15) then improved to a 112 figure winning the Eclipse Stakes last month.
Effinex won the identical Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs last November at this distance. That big effort followed his runner-up finish behind American Pharoah in the Breeders' Cup Classic and capped a career-best year in which he earned over $1.7 million. With a 3-for-6 record at this distance and having improved to a 113 speed figure in the Oaklawn Handicap when last seen, Effinex has every right to improve back to the form that saw him earn a career-best tying 127 figure last July winning the Suburban Handicap. If that occurs, the rest of these may be running for second.
Bradester has run as well as Effinex on occasion, as when winning the Salvatore Mile last July at Monmouth Park with a 127 figure. Two races later Bradester earned a 118 figure winning the Monmouth Cup Stakes. Returning from seven months off last month, Bradester easily won the non-graded Majestic Light Stakes over his favorite track with a 113 figure, suggesting he is on a pattern for significant improvement. Returning to the track he won the 2014 Ack Ack Handicap over and with improving to do, Bradester could be a strong factor in this year's Stephen Foster.
Majestic Harbor and Eagle are two more that deserve respect as contenders in this deep and talented field. They finished first and second, respectively, last month over the track in the Alysheba Stakes on Derby weekend, earning 105 and 101 figures. Considering 2014 Alysheba winner Moonshine Mullin won the Foster in his next start and 2015 Alysheba runner-up Noble Bird won the Foster, the chances of these two runners must not be discounted when considering who may run well in this race.
International Star finished sixth in his most recent race with a 106 figure and his most recent win came in a non-graded stakes in January with a 107 figure that would not threaten the top contenders here if repeated. Similarly, El Kabeir earned his last win in November with a 94 figure and has been uncompetitive in three straight races.
Are You Kidding Me
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