There is Maxfield, looming over the rest of the Stephen Foster field like the 1,200-pound behemoth he is. And there’s Maxfield, running under the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs like the dominant older horse he has become.

Maxfield-Stephen Foster
Maxfield won his sixth race in seven career starts at April’s Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes. He is undefeated at Churchill Downs coming into Saturday’s Grade 2 Stephen Foster. (Image: Churchill Downs/Coady Photography)

Turning Maxfield loose at Churchill Downs has produced about as reliable an outcome as you get in this sport. The son of Street Sense is 3-for-3 under the Twin Spires, including his 3 ½-length cakewalk in the Grade 2 Alysheba on the Kentucky Oaks undercard April 30. That came with a career-best 115 Equibase Speed Figure.

It’s also one of several factors making this edition of the Grade 2 Stephen Foster one where trying to beat Maxfield may be a horseplayer’s fool’s errand.

Regardless, the 1 1/8-mile Stephen Foster provides a solid anchor for Churchill Downs’ closing day. It is the flagship race on a 12-race, seven-stakes card that also includes the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis and the Grade 2 Wise Dan.

Breeders’ Cup Classic berth on the line

The 40th edition of the Stephen Foster doubles as a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series race for the Breeders’ Cup’s marquee event – the Classic. Five Stephen Foster winners parlayed that into Classic victories: Black Tie Affair (1991), Awesome Again (1998), Saint Liam (2005), Blame (2010) and Gun Runner (2017). The latter two punched their Classic tickets at the Stephen Foster. Curlin (2007) and Fort Larned (2012) won the Stephen Foster the following year after their Classic victories.

As that glittering honor roll attests, this is traditionally one of the better Grade 2 events for older male horses. The Breeders’ Cup entry to its flagship event gives this Grade 2 a status enjoyed by few other Challenge Series races.

Which brings us back to Maxfield, the 4/5 favorite. As noted earlier, he is back in his native habitat, where he is untouchable. Aside from the Alysheba, Maxfield captured the Grade 3 Matt Winn last spring. He opened his career winning a maiden special weight there in September 2019. Throw in his Breeders’ Futurity win at Keeneland a month later, and Maxfield is undefeated in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Maxfield sets up well in so many ways here

In fact, Maxfield is undefeated everywhere but California. His third behind Idol and Express Train in March’s Santa Anita Handicap marked his only loss in seven races.

Here, Maxfield’s stalking style figures to wreak havoc again. This is a field where horses like Warrior’s Charge, Sprawl, Empty Tomb and second-favorite Silver Dust (6/1) like being in or near the lead. Ergo, there figures to be plenty of early pace for Maxfield to stalk and pounce on. And he has plenty of speed to do so.

That brings us to the enigma that is Silver Dust. The 7-year-old may remind some of last year’s Stephen Foster geezer: Tom’s d’Etat. In fact, Silver Dust finished third behind Tom’s d’Etat and By My Standards in last year’s Foster.

Can another 7-year-old win the Stephen Foster?

The gelding comes in off a half-length victory in the Grade 3 Ben Ali at Keeneland in early April. That was his fourth graded stakes victory, dating to the first of his two Mineshaft Stakes wins at Fair Grounds in 2019. But he doesn’t have a stakes victory at Churchill Downs: posting a second, three thirds and a fourth.

Silver Dust’s other issue manifested itself in a planned prep for the Stephen Foster: the May 29 Blame Stakes. Trainer Bret Calhoun had to scratch him after Silver Dust became unmanageable in the gate.

“He’s never been the best horse in the gate,” Calhoun told Churchill Downs. “Maxfield is a really nice horse and it’s a tough race.”

Grade 2 Stephen Foster/Churchill Downs

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Chess Chief, 12/1 (John Velazquez/Dallas Stewart)
  2. Empty Tomb, 30/1 (Ricardo Santana Jr./Mike Maker)
  3. Necker Island, 15/1 (Mitchell Murrill/Chris Hartman)
  4. Sprawl, 10/1 (Brian Hernandez Jr./Tommy Drury Jr.)
  5. Silver Dust, 6/1 (Adam Beschizza/Bret Calhoun)
  6. Warrior’s Charge, 6/1 (Florent Geroux/Brad Cox)
  7. South Bend, 12/1 (Tyler Gaffalione/Bill Mott)
  8. Maxfield, 4/5 (Jose Ortiz/Brendan Walsh)
  9. Visitant, 6/1 (James Graham/Bill Morey)

The other interesting contender here is Visitant (6/1), last seen finishing second to Maxfield in the Alysheba at 11/1. He didn’t threaten Maxfield down the stretch. But he did run a career-best 110 Equibase in finishing 4 ¼ lengths clear of third-place Chess Chief.

The fact this effort came on dirt is a key plot twist. So is the fact Visitant seems to be peaking now, posting his three career-best Equibases in his last three races. This son of Ghostzapper spent the winter in Kentucky, where he dominated Turfway Park’s meet by winning three times: including the Listed Stakes Kentucky Cup Classic. Visitant did this on Turfway Park’s synthetic Tapeta surface.

Combine that with his three victories on Golden Gate Park’s Tapeta and all six of Visitant’s career victories came on synthetic surfaces.

The pick: Maxfield. He is the only Grade 1 winner in this field and his class here goes beyond that to the fact he’s simply better than anyone else. For exotic purposes, stuffing Silver Dust, Visitant and closer Chess Chief underneath should provide some value you won’t get with Maxfield. Otherwise, single him in the Derby City Pick 6 — which features a mandatory payout — and move on.