The 36th running of the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs on June 17 offers up some intrigue as we kick off the chase towards the Breeders’ Cup Classic. As the first “win and you’re in” race for the $6 million Classic this season, the Foster gives us an early taste of potentially bigger things ahead. Let’s take a quick gander at what may lie ahead.

Gun Runner is the horse to beat in the mile and an eighth race beneath the twin spires. Steve Asmussen trained and currently ranked number 2 in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association poll, This son of Candy Ride will be looking for his eighth career win in his fifteenth lifetime start. In five previous starts at the Louisville oval, Gun Runner has three wins including the Clark Handicap last November and a third place finish in the 2016 Kentucky Derby. Coming in off a second place finish to Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup on March 25, this grandson of Giant’s Causeway looks primed for a big effort.

“The Foster shapes up as a good spot for him,” says his hall of fame conditioner. “He has trained very well and the spacing time wise has been excellent for us. He is a special horse that likes it here at Churchill.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge to Gun Runner will come in the form of Bird Song. Coming in off a gate to wire win in the grade 2 Alysheba at Churchill on Kentucky Oaks day ( May 5). Somewhat under appreciated perhaps, trainer Ian Wilkes is very proud of his son of Unbridled’s Song and is anxious for the opportunity presented at the Foster. Wilkes won the race in 2013 with Fort Larned.

“It’s always exciting when you get a chance to run against a horse as good as Gun Runner,” says the Australian born trainer of Bird Song. “This will be a good test for him. Right now he has been happy and healthy and those are the main things. We think he is a really fast horse, but we will let his racing do the talking.”

The four-year old Bird Song has two wins, two seconds, and a third in six lifetime starts. The Alysheba was his first graded stakes win in his first ever start beneath the twin spires.

Both Bird Song and Gun Runner like to get out of the gate and go. A quick early pace could mean we see a record race time (1:47.28 Victory Gallop 1999) or it could set things up for a deep closer like Mo Tom. Trained by Tom Amoss, this son of Uncle Mo enters the race off a second place finish in a one mile allowance race at Churchill on May 6.
“We are running against one of the best older horses in the country in Gun Runner,” says Amoss. “We certainly respect that, but our horse is doing well and we look forward to the challenge.”

Another runner that could push the early pace is Stanford. Trained by Todd Pletcher, this five-year old son of Malibu Moon will be looking to pick up his second win in four starts this year. Other starters include Breaking Lucky,, Honorable Duty, Hawaakom, and Texas Chrome. Post time for the Foster is set for 9:39pm eastern.