Searching for a score in the 2020 Stephen Foster


The Grade 2, $500,000 Stephen Foster Stakes brings together a field of eight quality horses in the Breeders’ Cup Classic division, each hoping to earn an automatic spot into the gate for the Nov. 7 running of the race at Keeneland, just 72 miles down the road from Churchill Downs. Leading the field in terms of accomplishments is Tom’s d’Etat, winner of the Grade 1 Clark Stakes presented by Norton Healthcare, the fall version of the Stephen Foster. Since the Clark, Tom’s d’Etat won the Oaklawn Mile Stakes in his only start of 2020 and although third in last year’s Foster he is the one to beat on paper. Owendale is among many who have top stakes credentials, having won the Blame Stakes at Churchill Downs last month after finishing second to Tom’s d’Etat in the Clark last fall.

NBC Sports will broadcast theStephen Foster as part of the “Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series: Win and You’re In” schedule. Watch the Fleur de Lis Stakes and the Stephen Foster Stakes from Churchill Downs on Saturday, June 27 from 5 to 6 p.m. ET on NBC, and the NBC Sports app.

Another strong contender is By My Standards, who has a perfect 3-for-3 record this year including the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap last month in his most recent race. Silver Dust is no slouch either, having led late in the Blame Stakes last month and coming up a neck short in the Grade 2 Lukas Classic Stakes last summer at this nine-furlong distance while crossing the wire first in the Grade 3 Mineshaft Stakes and Grade 3 Louisiana Stakes in between. Pirate’s Punch finished third in the Mineshaft, as well as third in the Grade 3 Super Derby last summer and may have an edge in the pace department as the only horse who likes to lead early in the race. Multiplier won the Grade 3 Illinois Derby in 2017 at the distance of the Stephen Foster and proved he belongs with these when coming up a neck short in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap in March. Fearless makes his stakes debut off an eye-catching rally from last of 11 to win an allowance race last month at Churchill Downs. Alkhaatam rounds out the field, having won his last two dirt starts, noting however he finished 11th of 12 in last year’s Foster.

Although there’s no doubt Tom’s d’Etat leads the field in terms of having earned field-high 116 and 118 Equibase Speed Figures in similar races, Pirate’s Punch may have a significant edge in terms of early speed that could help him to post the upset. Winner of four races from 14 starts, Pirate’s Punch was most impressive in two of his last four efforts when winning by five and by 11 ½ lengths, respectively. In both cases, Pirate’s Punch established the lead and got very brave to be well in front when the field turned for home, giving no horse a chance to make up any ground. It may also be that Pirate’s Punch can take back and sit off the pace as well. This is evidenced by his last effort where he rallied from fifth to get within a neck of the leader with an eighth of a mile to go, before being outfinished but only beaten a half-length and a neck for the win. Getting the No. 2 post position in the Foster, as well as the services of Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, I believe the tactic will be to go for the lead from the start, especially since the only horse inside of Pirate’s Punch in the gate (Fearless) usually drops back and closes from far back. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind Pirate’s Punch has the breeding to win this Grade 2 race and to run well at a mile and an eighth. Using STATS Race Lens to look at the history of other foals of the dam, I note both were exceptional, with combined earnings of $2.1 million. One of those was Girvin, winner of the 2017 Grade 1 Haskell Invitational Stakes. As such, I’ll take Pirate’s Punch to get the lead from the opening of the gate and never look back in this year’s Stephen Foster Stakes.

Tom’s d’Etat doesn’t need much talking up, if any, in terms of being a strong contender to win this race. Winner of 10 races from 16 dirt starts, Tom’s d’Etat proved himself last summer at the distance when winning the Alydar Stakes at Saratoga with a career-best 118 figure.  Two races later, Tom’s d’Etat duplicated the feat with a victory in the Grade 3 Fayette Stakes at the same distance, earning a 116 figure. Winning the Clark Stakes in November at Churchill Downs with a 113 figure led to a 4 ½ month layoff. Returning as if he had never been away, Tom’s d’Etat earned a 113 figure winning the Oaklawn Mile Stakes in April. Having proven capable of winning off a layoff, there’s no problem with the 2 ½ months off since his last race and as he’s won five of eight races at the distance including three of his last four, there is nothing to knock about this talented horse. Although he rallied from sixth and eighth, respectively, in his last two races, Tom’s d’Etat raced closer up in second in the early stages of the Fayette Stakes so it is entirely possible Pirate’s Punch will not get the easy early lead I envision, and in that case it’s very likely Tom’s d’Etat will earn his 11th career win in this race.

By My Standards has really blossomed as a 4-year-old, winning in his 2020 debut by six lengths then taking two straight graded stakes. Winner of the Louisiana Derby at the distance of the Foster last March as a 3-year-old, By My Standards had already proven to be one of the top of his class, but after a poor 12th-place effort in the Kentucky Derby the colt went on the sidelines. Given time to mature, he did just that with a win around two turns off a nine-month layoff with a 102 figure, then two races later he earned a career-best 106 figure in the Oaklawn Handicap at this mile and one-eighth distance. Showing he’s fit as a fiddle with a half-mile workout one week ago that was the 11th-best of 113 on the day and with it likely he has improving to do, By My Standards could really put his mark on the division with a win in this race and by doing so, stamp his name as one of the horses to strongly consider this fall in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

I could make the case for any of the other five entrants in this race as their best efforts could be good enough to win. These horses, and their best Equibase Speed Figures, are Alkhaatam (105), Fearless (99), Multiplier (109), Owendale (108), and Silver Dust (114).

Win Contenders:

Pirate’s Punch

Tom’s d’Etat

By My Standards

Watch the Fleur de Lis Stakes and the Stephen Foster Stakes from Churchill Downs on Saturday, June 27 from 5 to 6 p.m. ET on NBC, and the NBC Sports app.