Go ahead and envy the spoils bestowed on WinStar Farm in recent days.
Since Saturday evening, Kenny Troutt's breeding and racing operation is known as the home of stallion Pioneerof the Nile, who will be immortalized as the sire of 2015 Triple Crown hero American Pharoah. Though WinStar initially planned to start its multiple Grade I winner Carpe Diem in the 147th Belmont Stakes, its consolation prize in opting to freshen the colt was becoming the first farm to stand a stallion who produced a Triple Crown winner since Spendthrift stood Exclusive Native, sire of 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed.
Shortly after American Pharoah is paraded at Churchill Downs this Saturday, the WinStar crew will have an opportunity to assemble more good fortune. Commissioner, the WinStar homebred who was a head away from a Belmont Stakes triumph of his own last season, goes for his first Grade I win against a field of six others, including 7-5 morning-line choice Lea, in the Grade I, $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap.
The 11⁄8-mile Stephen Foster heads a "Downs After Dark" lineup that is sure to attract a massive crowd, thanks to a scheduled appearance by a certain brilliant bay colt who achieved what no horse had in 37 years.
While American Pharoah has locked up every piece of year-end hardware for which he will be eligible by virtue of his 51/2-length win in the Belmont, the older male division is splayed out for the taking.
Commissioner showed his ability last year when he led every step of the Belmont Stakes, except for that stride at the wire when Tonalist got his head down over Commissioner. That narrow loss was the fifth straight at the time for the son of A.P. Indy, and he sparked further frustration when he was beaten in his first two starts of 2015.
Beginning with the Grade III Skip Away Stakes at Gulfstream Park on March 28, Commissioner finally mastered the difference between almost getting it done and delivering unequivocally. The 4-year-old Todd Pletcher trainee broke his seven-race losing skid when he prevailed by a neck, and he followed that with a 21/2-length score in the Grade III Pimlico Special on May 15.
Jockey "Javier (Castellano) thinks that he's just starting to figure things out in his last two starts," WinStar Farm president Elliott Walden said of Commissioner. "He feels like the light switch is going on. He felt a big surge from him at Pimlico when they turned for home, which he had never felt before. Most of the time he has to kind of encourage him to keep him going.
"He's now starting to learn what it's like to be a racehorse."
Commissioner will break from the rail in the seven-horse Foster field and was installed as the 3-1 third choice behind Grade I winners Lea and Hoppertunity (5-2). Given the colt's ability to flash early speed, Walden is unconcerned with Commissioner having to make his luck from down inside.
"We'll see how he breaks and go from there, but (the post) in a seven-horse field shouldn't be too much of an issue," Walden said.
Bill Mott-trainee Lea won the Grade I Donn Handicap in 2014 but was sidelined until winning his season debut in the Grade II Hal's Hope Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 10.
The 6-year-old is coming off a third-place finish in the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 28 and has won over the Churchill main track before, taking a 1-mile allowance race that came off the turf in June 2013.
Hoppertunity is one of two horses that newly minted Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert will send out in the Foster; the other is Cat Burglar. The former won the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs in November and is coming off his own mini-layoff, having run third behind champions Shared Belief and California Chrome in the Grade II San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita Park on Feb. 7.
The four graded stakes on Saturday's card will most certainly be overshadowed by the presence of American Pharoah, only the 12th Triple Crown winner. Once the best offspring of their rising stallion is done being feted, Walden hopes one of WinStar's own can lock down a place in the stallion barn with a top-level triumph.
"We're taking it one step at a time with him, but this is a logical progression off his last two races," Walden said of Commissioner. "It's a chance for him to step up."