Gun Runner, Forever Unbridled among stars on dynamite Downs After Dark program
A highly-accomplished pair of older horses, Gun Runner and Forever Unbridled, head respective stakes races on a terrific 11-race card at Churchill Downs Saturday evening. The action kicks off at 6 p.m. (EDT) under the Twin Spires and patrons are encouraged to dress in Miami-inspired bright colors as part of the “South Beach” theme on the “Downs After Dark” program.
Five graded stakes will be offered, with the $500,000 Stephen Foster H. (G1) $200,000 Fleur de Lis H. (G2) serving as “Win and You’re In” events for the 2017 Breeders’ Cup, and total purses are worth $1.358 million.
Last seen finishing second to Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup (G1), Gun Runner will face seven rivals in the 36th running of the 1 1/8-mile Stephen Foster. The 4-year-old gave a fine account of himself in three Churchill appearances last season, posting smashing wins in the Clark H. (G1) and Matt Winn (G3) and a respectable third in the Kentucky Derby, and Gun Runner has bankrolled more than $4.3 million from a 14-7-3-2 career record.
Eventual Breeders’ Cup Classic champion Blame was the last horse to win the Foster after capturing the Clark the previous fall.
Steve Asmussen trains Gun Runner and oddsmaker Mike Battaglia installed the chestnut as the prohibitive 4-5 favorite on the morning line. He’s displayed high speed in his last three starts but figures to revert to stalking tactics due to the presence of other speed, with expected pacesetter Bird Song drawn to his inside in the starting gate. Gun Runner has proven tractable previously and will break from post 3 with regular rider Florent Geroux.
Seven of the eight contestants are graded winners and Bird Song rates as one of the main challengers following a wire-to-wire tally in the Alysheba (G2) on the Kentucky Oaks undercard. The gray colt has come to hand for trainer Ian Wilkes at age 4, recording his first stakes victory in the March 4 Fred Hooper (G3) three starts previously, and the co- 6-1 third choice will be looking to steal the race on the front end with Julien Leparoux.
Grade 2 winner Stanford hails from the mighty Todd Pletcher stable and is listed as the 5-1 second favorite with John Velazquez, but his front-running style may not prove ideal given the abundance of speed entered.
Alysheba runner-up Honorable Duty, who registered triple-digit BRIS Late Pace Ratings winning the New Orleans (G2) and Mineshaft (G3) at Fair Grounds earlier this year, has the right run style to benefit from a projected hot pace and the Brendan Walsh-trained gelding receives an interesting jockey switch to reigning four-time Eclipse Award winner Javier Castellano. He’s an early 6-1.
Winner of the Apple Blossom (G1) and Beldame Invitational (G1) in 2016, Forever Unbridled will make her first start since finishing a close third behind Beholder and Songbird in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) when she lines up for the 1 1/8-mile Fleur de Lis. Joel Rosario will be in to ride for Dallas Stewart and the 5-year-old mare towers over eight rivals as the 4-5 morning line favorite.
The 1-2 finishers in the May 5 La Troienne (G1) at Churchill, Big World and Romantic Vision, will look to take advantage if the heavy favorite falters off a long layoff and Walkabout also merits respect after offering an eye-catching rally to win the Matron (G3) over the track on May 20.
Following a rough trip in the Kentucky Derby, McCraken will return to action in the $100,000 Matt Winn (G3), the first stakes race of the evening. He wound up eighth after being severely interfered with at the start and Wilkes is using the 1 1/16-mile race as a confidence builder before stepping back up to face elite company. McCraken is listed at 4-5 and will meet five foes with Brian Hernandez Jr.
Pleuven will make a title defense in the $200,000 Wise Dan (G2) and enters in good form for trainer Phil Simms and jockey Corey Lanerie off a 2 ½-length score in the May 4 Opening Verse at Churchill. Eight horses are set for the 1 1/16-mile turf affair.
Twelve 3-year-old fillies will contest the $100,000 Regret (G3) at a 1 1/8 miles on turf and Chubby Star looms as a serious win threat after finishing second to Belmont Derby (G1)-bound Yoshida in the James W. Murphy on the Preakness undercard. Sweeping Paddy and Proctor’s Ledge, the respective third- and fourth-place finishers in May 5 Edgewood over the local course, are also contenders.