On a night full of upsets at Churchill Downs, Reddam Racing's Pavel provided the exclamation point with a 3 ¾-length win in the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap on June 16. The win earned Pavel an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 3 at Churchill as the Stephen Foster is a Breeders' Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” race.
Both Pavel and odds-on favorite Backyard Heaven stalked early leader Uncle Mojo through much of the race, but when the pair turned for home, only one powered away from the field.
As Backyard Heaven tired, Doug O'Neill-trained Pavel surged to the front and drew clear under jockey Mario Gutierrez in a final time of 1:49.21 for 1 1/8 miles. Pavel was the third betting choice in the Foster at 6.80-1 odds.
Grade 2 winner Honorable Duty edged longshots Matrooh and Hawaakom for second. The order of finish was completed by Uncle Mojo, Backyard Heaven, Patch and Lookin At Lee.
Irish War Cry, who pressed the pace in the Foster, backed up rapidly in the second turn, was pulled up by jockey Jose Ortiz and was vanned off.
Since breaking his maiden at first asking in July 2017, Pavel has built his stamina and his career competing in top-level graded stakes, shipping back and forth across the country and across continents, with moderate success. At his best, he won last year’s Smarty Jones Stakes by six lengths. But he also ran 10th of 11 in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Opening this season with three consecutive fourth-place finishes, the son of Creative Cause had missed the winner's circle more times than not, but trainer O'Neill was convinced it was the strategy, not the horse, that needed changing.
"I think we just loved him but kept thinking, 'We can't wait to take him two turns,' and then when he ran his debut the way he did, we were like, 'This is a really special horse,'" O'Neill said. "You know you get those vibes, and we did. We kept going with it. He went through a little funky phase, and he had some traffic troubles, too, in a couple of them. But his Dubai race (fourth in the 2018 Dubai World Cup), when you really dissect it, he ran a dynamite race over there.
"I think, as horsemen, when you get a horse that gets worked up, you do everything to calm them: school them, put cotton in their ears, whatever you can do to get them relaxed. We took all that off of the table and said, 'You know what? We are going to lead him over here, and he'll be however he's going to be, and that's when he's on his best.'"
Raring to go from the moment he entered the paddock, Pavel was restless in his stall before even walking onto the track, which O'Neill took as a good sign.
"We had really hoped he would get all worked up, because in the past when he's won, he'd get lathered up and washed out. He did tonight, and he ran his race."
With the fact he was beaten 34 lengths in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic hanging over the colt's head, the chance at a return engagement should be enough to spark the fire going forward.
"He always trains like a Grade 1 horse, even though he hasn't had a Grade 1 win before today. He trains like a really special horse," O'Neill said.
Pavel’s career record now stands at three wins in 10 starts with earnings of $839,600.–Meredith Daugherty