On a quiet morning at Keeneland, trainer Charlie LoPresti talked about the chances of winning the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by Abu Dhabi with Successful Dan, a half brother to Horse of the Year Wise Dan who will face five others June 15 in the 1 1/8-mile test at Churchill Downs.
"That would be the ultimate," LoPresti said. "I'd like to see him get a grade I."
It will be the first start at that level for Successful Dan since the 2010 Clark Handicap, in which he crossed the line first but was disqualified and placed third by Kentucky Horse Racing Commission stewards for interfering with Redding Colliery entering the stretch.
The Stephen Foster has come up short but strong, attracting the earners of a combined $9.5 million. They include defending winner Ron the Greek, Breeders' Cup Classic victor Fort Larned, impressive Alysheba Stakes winner Take Charge Indy, 2012 Travers dead-heat victor Golden Ticket, and Pool Play, who won the Foster in 2011. Between them, they account for 17 graded scores, seven earned in Grade 1 races.
None represents unfulfilled potential quite as much as Successful Dan, a 7-year-old son of Successful Appeal who has raced just once this year, winning the April 21 Ben Ali Stakes at Keeneland. Morton Fink's homebred gelding did not run in 2011 due to a suspensory injury. He incurred similar injuries in 2009 after winning the Northern Dancer at Churchill and in 2012, following a runner-up effort to Fort Larned in the Cornhusker Handicap last June.
Missing the 2012 summer season took him out of consideration for a fall campaign, including a run at the Breeders' Cup Classic.
"I don't care how careful you are, when those horses run at that level, (injuries) happen," LoPresti said. "I've seen horses run races and win, and you come in the barn the next morning and you walk down the shedrow and one of these riders or grooms says, 'Hey, you'd better come look at so and so.' And that's the worst thing a trainer wants to hear when he walks down the shedrow: 'You'd better take a look at this one; you'd better take a look at that one.' "
Successful Dan returned well off the layup, winning the Ben Ali by a length over Boisterous. He turned in his final preparations for the Foster June 8, breezing a strong four furlongs in :48 2/5 on the all-weather track at Keeneland. Co-highweighted at 121 with Fort Larned, Successful Dan will carry jockey Julien Leparoux from the far outside.
LoPresti has maintained all along that Successful Dan is as talented as Wise Dan, who set the track record in the Breeders' Cup Mile and also holds a record on Polytrack at Keeneland. Successful Dan has crossed the wire first in four starts at Churchill, including the 2009 Northern Dancer Stakes and the 2012 Alysheba, in which he set a track record of 1:41.04 for a mile and a sixteenth, and has an 8-2-1 record from 12 outings.
"They may have taken his number down [in the Clark], but he won the race; he was in front at the wire," LoPresti said. "He has won a grade I, but they took it away from him. I'd just like to see him get a Grade 1, and I'd like the chance to go to the Breeders' Cup with him. He's coming into the race really good."
The Stephen Foster is the first of five "Win and You're In" races for the Breeders' Cup Classic (the Aug. 3 Whitney Handicap, Aug. 25 Pacific Classic, Sept. 28 Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Sept. 28 Awesome Again, all Grade 1 events, are the others). In addition to an automatic starting berth, Breeders' Cup will pay the entry fee of the Foster winner and provide a $10,000 travel allowance to the winning connections to start in the Nov. 2 Classic at Santa Anita Park if the winner is nominated to the Breeders' Cup program by Oct. 21.
Sometimes unlucky Fort Larned finished eighth and last in last year's Foster, never racing well after getting bothered and carried out in the first furlong. Off that lackluster performance, however, the 5-year-old son of E Dubai won the Cornhusker and the Whitney and then was third in the TVG Jockey Club Gold Cup en route to his Breeders' Cup Classic upset.
Trainer Ian Wilkes is hoping to get Janis Whitham's homebred back to victory after a couple of dismal starts; he stumbled badly at the start of the March 9 Gulfstream Park Handicap and lost rider Brian Hernandez Jr. He then finished fifth in the April 13 Oaklawn Handicap, in which Wilkes believes he did not handle the track.
Fort Larned bypassed the May 3 Alysheba and comes into the Foster after a freshening. His final pre-race move was June 10 at Churchill, where he breezed five furlongs on the dirt in 1:01 2/5. He leaves post 2 with Hernandez in the irons.
Take Charge Indy is the only runner in the field to come in off a stakes score and appears to be in extremely good form. The A.P. Indy colt out of three-time grade I winner Take Charge Lady rolled by six lengths in the Alysheba last time out, attending the pace before taking over and widening impressively for owners WinStar Farm and Chuck and Maribeth Sanford.
In 10 graded-stakes outings he has finished in the top three on seven occasions, including a win in the Florida Derby last year and a runner-up finish in the 2012 Clark, one length behind Shackleford.
Trainer Pat Byrne sent Take Charge Indy through a bullet four furlongs in :47 flat June 8 at Churchill. He leaves from post 4 carrying 119; Rosie Napravnik has the mount.
Ron the Greek, lightly raced this year by Brous Stable, Wachtel Stable, and Jack Hammer, seeks his first score since rolling by 11 ¼ lengths in the Jan. 19 Sunshine Millions Classic. The 6-year-old son of Full Mandate had two other starts this year -- a fourth in the Santa Anita Handicap in March and a third in the April 20 Charles Town Classic last time out for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott.
Ron the Greek won the Foster last year by a head over Wise Dan in the champion gelding's only dirt start.
"I think Fort Larned has to be respected an awful lot," LoPresti said. "He's the Breeders' Cup Classic winner. The other horse I'd worry about is Ron the Greek, who beat Wise Dan by a head last year. Those are the two I fear the most."
Ron the Greek will be ridden by Jose Lezcano under 120 pounds from the 3 hole.
Magic City Thoroughbred Partners' Golden Ticket is the only other Foster contender coming in off a win. He took a May 2 allowance optional claimer worth $57,000 over eight others going a mile by 2 1/2 lengths.
Ken McPeek trains the 4-year-old son of Speightstown who has not won in graded-stakes company since his Travers finish with Alpha. Golden Ticket drew the rail under Joel Rosario and carries 117.
W.S. Farish Jr.'s Pool Play, a 7-year-old by Silver Deputy, returned from a tendon injury to take the Hawthorne Gold Cup in October 2012. That was his most recent win for trainer Mark Casse. He was eighth in the Breeders' Cup Classic and second by a neck to Csaba in the Hal's Hope Stakes at Gulfstream this January before running sixth in back-to-back efforts in the Donn Handicap and Elkhorn Stakes.
Miguel Mena rides from post 5 as part of a lightest-weighted impost of 115 pounds.