Using History to Bet the 2019 Stephen Foster Handicap

Gambling
Horses race through the stretch of the 2018 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs, with eventual winner Pavel (purple cap and jockey sleeve) tracking on the far left. (Coady Photography)

The $600,000 Grade 2 Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by GE Appliances at Churchill Downs on June 15 serves as a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Nov. 2 Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic, and suffice to say its performed well in that role.

Five horses (Black Tie Affair, 1991; Awesome Again, 1998; Saint Liam, 2005; Blame, 2010; and Gun Runner, 2017) have used victories in the Stephen Foster as springboards to success in the Classic. We know the Stephen Foster is a productive prep for the Breeders’ Cup, but what else can its history reveal?

Let’s examine the recent history of the Stephen Foster to identify trends and tendencies uniting past winners. Then let’s take that information and try to identify the most likely winner of the 2019 Stephen Foster, which will anchor a live broadcast on NBCSN starting at 8:30 p.m. ET on June 15, with a scheduled post time of 9:47 ET.

Lately, Speed Horses Have Excelled

After a seven-year streak from 2006 through 2012 that saw every Stephen Foster winner rally from off the pace, it appeared speed horses just couldn’t succeed in this testing 1 1/8-mile race. But then something changed in 2013. The Churchill Downs main track, which had been playing slowly for several years, seemed to speed up noticeably. All of sudden, the Stephen Foster started favoring speed horses, to the extent that we’ve seen three gate-to-wire winners, one pace-pressing winner, and two stalking winners over the last six years. Since speed in general tends to dominate U.S. dirt racing, it would be wise to expect similar outcomes until further notice.

Year

Winner

Position after first 1/2-mile

1/2-mile & 3/4-mile (track condition)

2018

Pavel

4th by 2.5 lengths (9 starters)

47.25, 1:11.95 (fast)

2017

Gun Runner

1st by 2 lengths (8 starters)

47.23, 1:10.69 (fast)

2016

Bradester

1st by 1.5 lengths (7 starters)

47.58, 1:11.69 (fast)

2015

Noble Bird

2nd by 2 lengths (7 starters)

46.81, 1:10.93 (fast)

2014

Moonshine Mullin

2nd by 0.5 lengths (9 starters)

47.91, 1:12.42 (fast)

2013

Fort Larned

1st by 2.5 lengths (6 starters)

46.96, 1:10.48 (fast)

2012

Ron the Greek

6th by 9.5 lengths (8 starters)

47.27, 1:10.95 (fast)

2011

Pool Play

11th by 9.5 lengths (11 starters)

48.74, 1:13.37 (fast)

2010

Blame

5th by 3 lengths (11 starters)

48.72, 1:12.63 (fast)

2009

Macho Again

8th by 8.5 lengths (8 starters)

48.13, 1:12.71 (fast)

Feel Free to Bet Longshots

Just one favorite (Gun Runner at 1-2 odds in 2017) has prevailed in the last ten editions of the Stephen Foster, making this race a perfect spot to get creative betting longshots. The average winner has paid 9.21-1, while the median payoff has been 7.25-1. During that same timeframe, four favorites have finished off the board entirely, including in 2011, when Pool Play sprung a memorable 36.60-1 upset.

Gun Runner in 2017. (Eclipse Sportswire)

You Should Play Proven Graded Stakes Winners…

Just because favorites are frequently beaten doesn’t mean you should bet on unaccomplished runners. Nine of the last ten Stephen Foster winners (Noble Bird in 2015 being the lone exception) had previously won a graded stakes races, demonstrating their quality and class.

…But Not Necessarily Grade 1 Winners

Although graded stakes winners tend to prevail in the Stephen Foster, proven Grade 1 winners hold no particular edge over their Grade 2- or Grade 3-winning counterparts. Seven of the last ten Stephen Foster winners – Macho Again (2009), Blame (2010), Pool Play (2011), Moonshine Mullin (2014), Noble Bird (2015), Bradester (2016), and Pavel (2018) – recorded their first Grade 1 triumphs in the Stephen Foster. This trend could become even more pronounced in the future since the Stephen Foster has been lowered from Grade 1 to Grade 2 status for 2019.

Respect California Shippers

Horses coming out of races in California rarely contest the Stephen Foster Handicap, but when they do, it’s wise to pay attention. Since 2000, just four California shippers have participated in the Stephen Foster: Brahms (third at 7.60-1 in 2001), Saint Liam (first at 9-10 odds in 2005), Hoppertunity (third at 3.20-1 in 2015), and Pavel (first at 6.80-1 in 2018). Betting $20 to win on each one would have yielded a 50% strike rate and a return of $194 on an $80 investment; betting $20 to show on each one would have generated a 100% strike rate and a return of $158 on an $80 investment.

Conclusions

The field for the Stephen Foster remains in flux, but it’s expected to feature the graded stakes winners Gift Box, Quip, Seeking the Soul, Yoshida, and King Zachary, guaranteeing a high-quality and competitive race.

Notably, one of those runners – Gift Box – is shipping in from California, where he won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap Presented by San Manuel Indian Casino and Bingo back in April. Gift Box is a classy runner with plenty of tactical speed, so based on history he’s a horse you won’t want to leave off your tickets.

But Gift Box is also a Grade 1 winner and the likely favorite, and while these aren’t exactly negatives, history suggests bettors might want to get clever and try to beat Gift Box for the top spot with a horse offering better odds. Quip, who enters off a victory in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, could be just such a horse. He’ll almost certainly start at a higher price than Gift Box, but with his tactical speed and improving form, Quip is just the type of runner who can spring a mild upset in the Stephen Foster Handicap.

Good luck, and enjoy the race!

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