LOUISVILLE — For the past month and a half, 3-year-olds had the racing spotlight virtually to themselves as the Triple Crown season played out.
Now that another classic series is in the books, attention can be turned to Saturday's gathering of what could be the best collection of equine talent this year.
An early battle for older male supremacy is set for Saturday night as a bang-up field of nine was entered in the Grade I, $400,000 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.
The Stephen Foster will be run under the lights for the first time with a post time of 9:39 p.m. It is one of four graded stakes on the "Downs After Dark" card along with the Grade II Fleur de Lis, featuring champion Royal Delta, the Grade III Regret, and the Grade III Matt Winn Stakes.
The entrants for the 11⁄8-mile Stephen Foster are a who's who of the current handicap division. In addition to Grade I winner Wise Dan, who was installed as the 123-pound highweight and will break from post No. 3, the red-hot Alternation will be in the gate along with Grade I Santa Anita Handicap victor Ron the Greek and graded-stakes winners Nates Mineshaft and Mission Impazible.
"I guess maybe minus the California horses, everybody on this part of the country looks to be in the race," said Donnie Von Hemel, trainer of Alternation.
The top-ranked horse in the latest National Thoroughbred Racing Association poll, Alternation is looking to add a Grade I triumph to what has been a string of successes in his 4-year-old season.
The dark bay son of Distorted Humor has won all four of his starts in 2012, including victories over Ron the Greek and Foster entrant Nehro. The Pin Oak homebred — who landed in post No. 8 for Saturday — showed promise last season in winning the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes, his first graded-stakes score. With maturity, the beautifully built colt has become a versatile runner who can beat his foes on the lead or in stalk-and-pounce style.
"You put your faith into a horse you really like and to see that finally come to fruition is very satisfying," Von Hemel said.
When no one else pressed the issue, Alternation carved out an opening half in :48.30 in the 11⁄8-mile Oaklawn Handicap on April 14 en route to a gate-to-wire, 21/2-length triumph over Ron the Greek. In his next outing, the Grade III Pimlico Special, Alternation sat back in third off honest early fractions then held off Nehro to prevail by a nose.
"I think part of it is just coming of age on his end," Von Hemel said. "Then probably having the blinkers on him have just put him a little more up into the race, made him a little more push button.
"He'll have to run better on Saturday to beat some of them in there. But I think whatever he needs to do he can."
Though Wise Dan has raced only once this year, his victory in the Grade III Ben Ali Stakes at Keeneland on April 22 made him the division leader. In what was his first start since taking the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill in November, the Wiseman's Ferry gelding broke the track record for 11⁄8 miles in a gallop, winning by 101/2 lengths in 1:46.63.
"He's doing really good, I think he's spot on," said Charlie Lopresti, trainer of Wise Dan, adding that if he repeats his Ben Ali performance, "he's going to be tough."
Wise Dan's older half brother, graded-stakes winner Successful Dan, was also entered in the Foster as a backup plan.
"They're both in the same spot fitness wise, but I would say Wise Dan goes in this one and Successful Dan goes in either the Cornhusker (at Prairie Meadows on June 30). or the Suburban (at Belmont Park on July 7)," Lopresti said. "The only reason Successful Dan is in there is, God forbid, we go to the barn in the morning and (Wise Dan) has a temperature or something."