Crown of Thorns a healthy contender for Stephen Foster Handicap

Crown of Thorns "proved how good he is" by winning the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap, trainer Richard Mandella said.
Crown of Thorns "proved how good he is" by winning the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap, trainer Richard Mandella said. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Among horse trainers' more common refrains is the desire to take things race by race.

Such reluctance to make long-term plans has been necessary where Crown of Thorns is concerned. The fact there are still plans to be made at all is a testament to his connections' patience and his unmistakable talent.

Though his career on the track began in 2007, Spendthrift Farm's Crown of Thorns is more lightly raced than some of the sophomores on this year's Triple Crown trail. The now 6-year-old bay horse sports just 10 career starts heading into Saturday's Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs, the product of a variety of injuries that seem to come on at the worst moments.

Crown of Thorns was made the 4-1 second choice when entries were drawn Wednesday. Giant Oak is the 7-2 favorite.

The list of ailments that have temporarily derailed Crown of Thorns include a stress fracture that knocked him off the 2008 Kentucky Derby trail, a throat ulcer found after his runner-up effort in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Sprint, and a right knee injury that flared up last fall to keep him out of the 2010 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.

When he's not nursing a physical setback, Crown of Thorns can be darned impressive. Among his three career wins are two graded-stakes triumphs, including his recent victory over Grade I winner Sidney's Candy in the Grade II Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at Hollywood Park on May 7.

"It's sad he doesn't just get to keep going, but he's never had any great injuries he won't come back from — and he usually pays us back when he does," trainer Richard Mandella said Wednesday. "We're just excited to still have him.

"The stallion market is just not that strong and he had so much left talent-wise we thought to go ahead and try him again this year. We get him as good as we can and aim for something good."

With multiple Grade I winner and 122-pound highweight Giant Oak among the 11 horses entered in the Stephen Foster, the 11⁄8-mile test probably will provide a good read on Crown of Thorns' current standing in the older male division.

As much as he is accident-prone, Crown of Thorns is versatile enough to make him dangerous over a variety of distances. In 2009, the son of Repent was beaten just a nose by Dancing in Silks in the 6-furlong Breeders' Cup Sprint, and he was also second, beaten only half a length by El Brujo, when he made his comeback in the 7-furlong, Grade I Pat O'Brien Stakes last August.

Quick as the bay horse is, Crown of Thorns was best suited to two-turn action, Mandella felt. That notion, as well as the decision to bring him back another year, was solidified when Crown of Thorns dug in to beat Sidney's Candy in the stretch of the 11⁄16-mile Mervyn LeRoy — his first win since taking the Grade II Robert B. Lewis in 2008.

"He proved how good he is," Mandella said of the Mervyn LeRoy win. "The horse he beat was in very good form and he had to work like a real horse to do it.

"I always thought he'd be better at two turns but he's plenty fast enough that if you're short of time you can just crank him up and sprint him. He's a pretty nice horse to have in that respect."

Just because Crown of Thorns requires a bit more careful handling doesn't mean he gets a pass when it comes to Mandella's expectations.

The Stephen Foster will mark Crown of Thorns' first start outside California and just his second effort over dirt. It's a tall order he will face when he breaks from post No. 2, but it's one Crown of Thorns is often up to in those moments when he is at his physical best.

"Nothing surprises me about him, because I expect a lot of him," Mandella said. "I haven't given much thought to how good the others are, but I've always considered him one of the best. It's just a matter of whether some of his ailments start to bother him. Right now they're in good shape so we keep our fingers crossed."