Florida-bred Ron the Greek rallied along the rail in the stretch to win the Stephen Foster Handicap (G1) under the lights at Churchill Downs Saturday night.
Under jockey Jose Lezcano, Ron the Greek grabbed the lead from heavily favored Wise Dan in the final strides to win the 31st running of the $437,200 event by a head before 25,417 ‘Downs After Dark’ night racing fans.
Owned by Brous Stable, Wachtel Stable and Jack T. Hammer, the 5-year-old son of Clear Mandate earned an automatic berth in the $5 million, Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita with his victory. For the first time, the Stephen Foster Handicap was part of the Breeders’ Cup’s “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series.
The victory by Ron the Greek in the Stephen Foster, a 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds and up, capped a memorable night for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, who is the all-time leader in training victories at Churchill Downs. One race earlier, Mott saddled Besilu Stables’ Royal Delta, the champion 3-year-old filly of 2011, for an easy eight-length victory in the in the $161,700, Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap.
Ron the Greek, who notched his second victory in a Grade 1 stakes in 2012 after winning the Santa Anita Handicap in March, went off at odds of 9-1 and paid $20.80, $6.40 and $5.40. Wise Dan, ridden by John Velazquez, overcame a troubled start to seize the lead from the pace-setting Nates Mineshaft in deep stretch before giving way late, paid $3 and $2.80. Nates Mineshaft opened a 2 ½-length lead in midstretch under Miguel Mena, but could not hold on in the final strides and returned $9 to show.
The winner covered 1 1/8-miles over a fast track in 1:50.51. Ron the Greek won for the second time in four 2012 starts and improved his career record to 7-4-1 in 19 races. The first-place prize of $262,932 boosted his career earnings passed the $1 million mark to $1,112,597.
“Everything went right for me tonight,” said Lezcano, who scored his first Stephen Foster Handicap victory. “The whole way I saw the hole on the rail and I thought I could get through. I asked him and he gave me a great run.”
The setback for Wise Dan, the 4-5 favorite for trainer Charlie Lopresti, snapped a three-race win streak that included a victory in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap in November at Churchill Downs. His career slate dropped to 9-1-0 in 16 races with the narrow loss.
“Johnny said he was concentrating on putting the other horse (Nates Mineshaft) away,” said Lopresti. “He put the other horse away, but he never saw that horse (Ron the Greek) coming. He thought he had it won and he just never saw the horse coming.”
Rogue Romance rallied to finish fourth, 1 ¼ lengths behind Nates Mineshaft.
–Churchill Downs Communications contributed to this report.
Ron the Greek/Reed Palmer photo