LOUISVILLE — The only downside for trainer Mark Casse's barn the last two weeks is they keep having their major moments overshadowed by, of all things, the presence of a Triple Crown winner.
One week after saddling the filly Tepin to her first Grade I win on the Belmont Stakes undercard, the Casse crew had another improving charge score his first top-level victory. Five starts removed from breaking his maiden, John Oxley's Noble Bird showed how game and talented he has become, holding off Grade I winner Lea by a neck to capture the Grade I, $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs on Saturday night.
The Foster was one of four graded stakes on the "Downs After Dark" card and was also part of a night that saw newly minted Triple Crown winner American Pharoah paraded for the fans one week after cementing his place in history with his 51/2 length triumph in the Belmont Stakes.
Norman Casse, assistant to his father Mark, had to watch Tepin's victory in the Grade I Just a Game Stakes from afar last weekend but saw firsthand Noble Bird validate his rising faith that this was a colt on the upswing.
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The 4-year-old son of Birdstone was second, beaten only a head by Protonico in the Grade II Alysheba Stakes at Churchill Downs on May 1 in what was his first try against graded stakes company.
"I've been around a lot of good horses and he was working about as good as I've seen a horse work, just week after week," Norman Casse said. "In the Alysheba, he ran a really big race and he just got better from there. Today he rewarded our confidence."
Noble Bird made his first five career starts on turf and synthetic surfaces before trying dirt for the first time at Oaklawn Park this February, finishing sixth. He won back-to-back allowance tests heading into the Alysheba and, in the Stephen Foster, was perfectly relaxed as he sat a stalking trip behind Paganol through early fractions of 23.39 and 46.81.
When jockey Shaun Bridgmohan let the chestnut colt roll to the lead coming off the final turn, he got a determined response as Noble Bird kept finding more to turn back 9-to-5 favorite Lea mounting a surge to his outside.
"Every time I came to that horse (Noble Bird), he just kept going," said Joel Rosario, jockey of Lea. "Every time I began to get to the winner, he would respond."
Grade I winner Hoppertunity got up for third. Final time for the 11⁄8-mile race was 1:47.94.
In the day's other graded stakes, Frivolous won the Grade II Fleur de Lis Handicap, Prado's Sweet Ride took the Grade III Regret Stakes on the turf and Island Town prevailed in the Grade III Matt Winn Stakes.