Stephen Foster Super Saturday Has FG Flavor

While the focus will be squarely on the 4-year-old United States debut of Curlin in Saturday’s $1 million Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap, Fair Grounds fans will have the opportunity to see several horses that wintered in New Orleans.

Though Curlin has never raced at Fair Grounds, he’s no stranger to the Gentilly oval. When he was privately purchased after his maiden victory in February 2007 and transferred to the barn of Steve Asmussen, Curlin worked over the track for a month before taking the Arkansas road to the Kentucky Derby. Three Grade I wins (in the Preakness, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic) propelled Curlin to 2007 Horse of the Year.

After a brief break following his BC Classic triumph, Curlin spent nearly three months at Fair Grounds this winter, with weekly workouts from early January through mid-February, when he was sent to Dubai. Wins in the Jaguar Trophy and Dubai World Cup set the stage for a return to the states and a run at becoming the first $10 million earner in racing history.

Asmussen, who claimed his seventh Fair Grounds training title in record fashion in March, again gives a leg up to six-time FG leading rider Robby Albarado on Curlin. (On a related note, congrats to Robby, who is being honored by the Sugar Bowl Thursday night as the Outstanding Pro Athlete in Louisiana for 2007. Well deserved!)

Curlin isn’t the only horse with Fair Grounds ties in the Foster. Grasshopper was an impressive winner of the Grade III Mineshaft Handicap here in February before finishing second in a stretch duel with Circular Quay in the Grade II New Orleans Handicap. Brass Hat, who won the 2006 New Orleans Handicap as part of the post-Katrina Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs, was fourth in this year’s edition. Einstein, who races on the dirt for only the second time in 18 months, won the Grade II Mervin Muniz Memorial Handicap in 2007. And the other Asmussen horse in the race, Red Rock Creek, won a pair of starter allowance races here last season, but was beaten only 1 1/2 lengths in his last start in the Grade III Dallas Turf Cup.

In terms of Fair Grounds connections, the Foster is topped by the Northern Dancer Stakes, a $175,000-added Grade III race for 3-year-olds in which five of the seven entrants raced here last winter. The top two finishers in the Louisiana Derby, Pyro and My Pal Charlie, are part of the field of seven. Also in the Northern Dancer field is Recapturetheglory, who raced once at Fair Grounds in a turf allowance in February before winning the Illinois Derby for a pair of New Orleans natives, co-owner and trainer Louie Roussel III and co-owner Ronnie Lamarque; Visionaire, who responded from a third in the Grade III Risen Star (behind Pyro’s last-to-first stretch move) to win the Grade III Gotham at Aqueduct, and Unbridled Vicar, who was a solid fourth in the Risen Star and is coming off an allowance win at Hawthorne.

In the Grade II Fleur De Lis Handicap, which leads off the all-graded stakes Pick 6, Kathleens Reel, trained by former jockey Ray Sibille, will look to find the winner’s circle for the first time in 2008. She was third in the Truly Bound Handicap and sixth in the Chou Croute in New Orleans last winter.

The Grade III Early Times Mint Julep Handicap for fillies and mares on turf closes out the Pick 6 sequence and the Saturday Churchill card, and that field includes Tears I Cry, who won an optional claimer and was fourth in the Fortin Handicap for trainer Cody Autrey, and Sousaphone, who broke her maiden at Fair Grounds in 2007.

We’ll watch and see Saturday how those we saw this winter fare on Churchill’s “other” big day of the Spring Meet. Remember, Twin Spires Club members receive double points every day when using their card to wager on Churchill Downs and all Churchill-owned racetracks.