A team that has earned a pair of Kentucky Derby victories returned to Churchill Downs to win another one of the historic track’s major races when Pavel surged to the lead at the top of the stretch and rolled to a 3¾-length victory in Saturday night’s 37th running of the Grade 1, $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap before a crowd of 21,053.
Pavel, a 4-year-old son of Creative Cause, scored the most important victory of his 10-race career for owner Reddam Racing LLC, trainer Doug O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez, the team that earned Kentucky Derby victories at Churchill Downs in 2012 with I’ll Have Another and Nyquist in 2016.
“We were very optimistic with him all along and to see him put it together was great,” O’Neill said. “We went through a bit of a funky phase with him and had some traffic troubles in his last couple of races.”
Pavel surged past the pace-setting Uncle Mojo and heavily-favored Backyard Heaven at the top of the stretch, quickly pulled clear and increased his advantage in the run to the finish. The winner returned $15.80, $7.80 and $7.20 as the 6-1 third choice in the field of nine 3-year-olds and up. Honorable Duty edged late-running longshot Matrooh by a head for the runner-up spot under jockey Corey Lanerie and paid $8 and $7.20. Matrooh, the longest shot in the field at 68-1, returned $26 to show under Santo Sanjur.
Backyard Heaven, the 4-5 favorite following a string of three consecutive victories, faded to finish sixth, 10½ lengths behind the winner.
“It wasn’t his day today,” said Backyard Heaven’s jockey, Irad Ortiz Jr. “He just never really picked up things around there. He just didn’t fire.”
The victory in the Stephen Foster Handicap, a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In Classic Division” race, earned Pavel a guaranteed spot in the starting gate for the Grade 1, $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, which will also be run at the Louisville track on Saturday, Nov. 3. Starting fees and travel expenses will also be paid for the Southern California-based winner.
Pavel completed the 1 1/8-mile distance over a fast track in 1:49.21.
The victory snapped a string of six consecutive losses by Pavel that dated back to a victory in the Grade 3 Smarty Jones at Parx Racing in December. He had finished fourth in each of three 2018 races, which included a trip to Dubai’s Meydan Racecourse to compete in the Grade 1, $10 million Dubai World Cup. The Stephen Foster Handicap victory improved his career record to 10-3-0-1 as he became racing’s latest millionaire when the $297,600 winner’s share of the purse improved Pavel’s lifetime earnings to $1,175,000.
“He got the perfect setup tonight,” Gutierrez said. “He’s been training really well into this race so I was confident he’d run well. When we turn for home I could feel like I had a lot of horse underneath me still. It was a great feeling and he won very easily under his own. I knew this horse could be better than his last couple of races and he had some bad luck. He overcame that tonight.”
Uncle Mojo battled Irish War Cry for the early lead as Backyard Heaven and Pavel settled just behind the leaders. Honorable Duty, who hit the rail heading into the first turn, settled behind the top group as the pace-setting Uncle Mojo established early fractions of :24.35 for the opening quarter and a half-mile in :47.25. Pavel moved outside the leaders heading into the turn as Uncle Mojo continued to lead as Backyard Heaven moved up, while Irish War Cry dropped back suddenly on the turn. Gutierrez and Pavel launched a three-wide move for the lead at the head the stretch as the colt quickly surged past that pair in the upper stretch and drew clear. The winner steadily increased his advantage in the run through the stretch as Honorable Duty and Matrooh battled for the runner-up spot and Hawaakom made a late run to finish fourth.
After the top four, the order of finish was completed by Uncle Mojo, Backyard Heaven, Patch, Lookin At Lee and Irish War Cry, who was pulled up in the homestretch and was vanned off but OK.
“I second-guessed my decision (to run),” said Irish War Cry’s trainer, Graham Motion. “I thought it would cool off. When we shipped out here it was really hot and tonight it just didn’t cool off at all.”