Mandaloun starts ambitious 2nd half of 2022 in Stephen Foster

Mandaloun starts ambitious 2nd half of 2022 in Stephen Foster
Photo: Saudi Cup/Jane Barrell

Mandaloun is such a familiar face in the morning around Churchill Downs that it is easy to forget he has not raced there since last year’s Kentucky Derby.

After four months on the bench, he finally gets back to racing there Saturday. That is when he faces a competitively stacked field in the Grade 2, $750,000 Stephen Foster Stakes, a 1 1/8-mile race on what may be a wet main track.

“He’s been doing great over this track, so it makes sense to target a race like the Foster that is at home,” trainer Brad Cox said last month. “This race you don’t have to ship – and can run out of your own stall.”

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Not that his trainer and owner originally planned for Mandaloun to be in a comeback race against the likes of three-time graded-stakes winner Olympiad, who is 4-for-4 this year, and Americanrevolution, whose five wins in the past 13 months included last year’s Cigar Mile Handicap (G1).

“It wasn’t our primary plan,” Juddmonte Farms manager Garrett O’Rourke said on Horse Racing Nation’s Ron Flatter Racing Pod. “Originally we were going to go to the Salvator Mile (G3, June 18 at Monmouth Park). But the weather was so hot that week, I didn’t want to ship him. It was a tough race and would have been a tough comeback race.”

With Florent Géroux riding him again, the homebred, 4-year-old colt by Into Mischief finds himself in a home game for the first time since he crossed the line second in the 2021 Kentucky Derby only to be promoted last winter, when the late Medina Spirit was disqualified because of his positive drug test.

“I don’t think it’s any easier of a race,” O’Rourke said of the Stephen Foster. “It probably is a tougher race. But at least he got an extra work or two into it to prime him for it. He’ll have to be at his best.”

Coming back from a ninth-place disappointment in February’s one-turn, nine-furlong Saudi Cup (G1), there is no time like the present for Mandaloun, especially considering the big dates that O’Rourke and Cox have in mind for him.

“It’s time to get back to work,” O’Rourke said while looking ahead to a showdown with Life Is Good and Hot Rod Charlie in the Whitney (G1) on Aug. 6 at Saratoga.

But back to the Saudi Cup – and the long time it has taken Mandaloun to rebound from the long trip. A trip made even longer, O’Rourke said, because of the red tape getting the colt back home from the Middle East.

“Unfortunately, we got held over in the traveling on the way back,” he said. “We probably would have run before now if that didn’t happen. By the time we got back, we just decided to give him another couple weeks here on the farm. It took this long just to get him back to peak fitness.”

The main attraction of the $20 million race in Riyadh was that it was a home game for Mandaloun’s owners – the family of the late Prince Khalid of Saudi Arabia.

“Prince Khalid’s sons obviously had a main goal to go to the Saudi Cup,” O’Rourke said. “It did play into our decision to skip the Breeders’ Cup and then go on to Saudi with a fresh horse because of the tough summer that he had had. That was that was our decision. It didn’t work out.”

O’Rourke said Mandaloun’s fade from third to ninth in the last half of the race was less about its being only one turn and more about the hot early pace. There also was the makeup of the unique track at the King Abdulaziz Equestrian Field.

“He’s usually a horse that can go and take his track with him,” O’Rourke said. “But that’s an unusual surface out there. It has a lot of wood chip mixed in with the fine silt. Not an awful lot of sand. It’s a different surface to what he was used to running in. ... You just have to draw a line through it.”

After racing eight times in his first nine months of competition, Mandaloun will make only his third start since he was promoted to victory over the disqualified Hot Rod Charlie in the 2021 Haskell (G1). Some of that was the decision to prioritize the Saudi Cup. O’Rourke said it also had to do with the lack of races for a seasoned horse whose last five wins have come at 1 1/16, 1 1/8 and 1 1/4 miles.

“There aren’t an awful lot of races for a horse like him between the Dubai World Cup (in March) and now,” O’Rourke said. “We’d want to have him primed for all the championship races from here on in.”

Yes, those races include the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 5 at Keeneland, just down the road in Lexington, Ky., from O’Rourke’s Juddmonte home base.

“I think he has no trouble getting a mile-and-a-quarter, and he’s won at Keeneland,” O’Rourke said, referring to Mandaloun’s debut victory nearly two years ago.

Then he considered the best of the likely rivals for the race. And how Mandaloun may have an edge against them at the classic distance.

“I’d hate to take either Life Is Good or Flightline on at a mile,” O’Rourke said. “I’d feel better about taking them on at a mile-and-a-quarter.”

The National Weather Service forecast a 60 percent chance of showers or an afternoon thunderstorm delivering a quarter-inch of rain during Saturday’s Stephen Foster card at Churchill Downs with a high near 89 degrees.

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