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Breeders' Cup 2017

HRN Original Blog:
Past the Grandstand

Photo Blog: Stephen Foster Night at Churchill Downs

Photo: Mary Cage

On Churchill Downs’ biggest day (or rather, night) other than Kentucky Oaks or Kentucky Derby Days, a crowd of more than 20,000 filed in beneath the twin spires for a special edition of Downs After Dark: Stephen Foster night. With five graded stakes on the card, featuring top horses like Gun RunnerMcCraken, and Forever Unbridled, the atmosphere was electric as the sun began to set on Louisville, Kentucky.

The crowd overlooks the paddock prior to the Matt Winn. Pictured is eventual

runner-up Colonelsdarktemper.

The first stakes of the action-packed card was the Matt Winn Stakes (gr. III) for three-year-old colts – a race won last year by Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) favorite Gun Runner. This year's edition featured standout McCraken, who won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) over this very track to cap off his undefeated juvenile season and recently finished eighth as one of the top choices in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Making his first start since the first Saturday in May, McCraken showed why he had been one of the Derby favorites. Despite a troubled start, he rallied to edge clear in a professional manner, winning by 2 1/4 lengths.

McCraken in the paddock prior to the Matt Winn

McCraken proves best in the Matt Winn

Brian Hernandez Jr. smiles aboard McCraken after winning the Matt Winn, which would be one of his five wins on the night

Trainer Ian Wilkes makes sure his Matt Winn victor is cooled off

before leaving the winner's circle

The stakes jumped to the turf course for the next stakes race of the night: the Wise Dan Stakes (gr. II). Originally the Firecracker Handicap, the mile and one-sixteenth grass contest was renamed to honor two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan, who captured the race twice in his career. 

Pleuven was sent off as the favorite, but it was second choice Kasaqui (ARG) who stole the show.

Pleuven being sent to the track

Kasaqui strutting his stuff in the post parade

Coming from off the pace, Kasaqui made a powerful move to swallow the field and kick clear with an impressive turn of foot as he coasted to an easy 2 3/4-length triumph. This gave the hard-knocking seven-year-old his first win since last July's Arlington Handicap (gr. III).

First time by in the Wise Dan

Kasaqui posts a powerful win in the Wise Dan 

Jockey James Graham gives Kasaqui a well-deserved pat after their win

A joyous James Graham celebrates his win aboard Kasaqui

Kasaqui's groom gives the grey some love as they leave the winner's circle

Stephen Foster night isn’t known solely for its strong racing card; it is also the night on which the winning Kentucky Derby connections are presented their official trophies. The winning breeder, trainer, jockey, and owners of Derby winner Always Dreaming were present to accept their trophies, and the emotion on their faces were evident as they were honored for their victory in this year’s Run for the Roses.

On behalf of himself and Gerry Dilger, Mike Ryan accepts the

trophy for winning breeder

Todd Pletcher collects the trophy for winning trainer 

John Velazquez accepts the trophy for winning jockey
Part of the Always Dreaming ownership group accepts the official 2017 Kentucky Derby trophy

Older fillies and mares took the stage next in the Fleur de Lis Handicap (gr. II), led by multiple grade one winner Forever Unbridled, making her first start since finishing third to the great race mares Beholder and Songbird in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (gr. I). She did not disappoint, coming from off the pace to overtake her competitors with a confident ride from Joel Rosario to score by 1 3/4 lengths.

Forever Unbridled looking the part prior to the Fleur de Lis
Forever Unbridled crosses the wire under the lights at Churchill
Joel Rosario thanks Forever Unbridled for her winning effort

The electricity in the air became even more apparent as the horses for the Foster arrived on the grandstand side. Nighttime had fully set in, leaving the lit up track a stark contrast against the black night sky. All eyes were on Gun Runner, one of the top-rated horses in the world, who was making his return to the races after finishing second to the richest racehorse in history and the top-rated horse in the world – Arrogate – in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I).


Gun Runner leads first time by in the Stephen Foster

Like he does so well, Gun Runner claimed the lead early and never looked back. Through quick fractions of 23.59, 47.23, 1:10.69, and 1:34.86, Gun Runner led his seven rivals throughout. Graded stakes winner Stanford made a run at him around the far turn, but Gun Runner quickly erased any doubt onlookers may have had, shaking away the challenge as he effortlessly drew off to a 7-length victory with minimal asking from Florent Geroux.

Gun Runner draws away from his rivals with ease

Florent Geroux pumps his fist as he and Gun Runner cross the wire

Celebrations were all around for Team Gun Runner


Florent Geroux was thrilled with his win aboard Gun Runner

Gun Runner and Florent Geroux head into the winner's circle
I unfortunately was unable to stay for the Regret Stakes (gr. III), won by Sweeping Paddy, but I still had a terrific time at Downs at the Dark. Churchill Downs truly knows how to host a party at the races, complete with top-notch graded stakes action. With an exciting atmosphere and quality racing, it is difficult to beat a big day beneath the twin spires.


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About Mary Cage


Mary with champion Classic Empire

Mary Cage, a 21-year-old avid fan of horse racing, has been around horses all her life, having owned, shown, and judged them for as long as she can remember. She began writing her own horse racing blog, Past the Grandstand, in August 2011 and has since been published in America's Horse, American Racehorse and the Appaloosa Journal, as well as with the websites of The Blood-Horse and The Equine Chronicle. She has also had photos published with Paulick Report and Thoroughbred Daily News. In addition, she works as one of the social media coordinators for the Texas Thoroughbred Association and has interned at WinStar Farm with a marketing focus - with projects involving photography, videography, giving tours, data entry, etc. 

In her personal horse experience, Mary has been around horses all her life and has won several Appaloosa National Champion and Reserve World Champion titles in the show ring. She has also worked as a hotwalker and groom.

Mary has always aspired to have a career with horses and since her love for horse racing began, she has dreamed of pursuing a career in the Thoroughbred racing industry, possibly as a writer/photographer and marketing/communications specialist. She is currently attending the University of North Texas, where she is a journalism major with a concentration in advertising and a minor in marketing. With this blog, she hopes to show readers horse racing through the eyes of a young fan and transport you to some of racing's biggest events through her photos and words.

University of Louisville College of Business Equine Program

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