Marty McGee, DRF
Jack Oxley has known true glory at Churchill Downs, but still, it seemed like almost forever since he experienced the thrill of winning a major race under the famed twin spires.
Barbara D. Livingston
Noble Bird (right), under Shaun Bridgmohan, edges Lea by a neck in the Stephen Foster Handicap.
“It’s been a long time since ’01,” Oxley said with a laugh, referring to his Kentucky Derby victory with Monarchos.
Oxley is the owner of Noble Bird, the rapidly improving 4-year-old colt who turned back Lea in the desperate final yards Saturday night to win the 34th running of the Grade 1, $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap on a warm and memorable evening under the lights.
Ridden by Shaun Bridgmohan, Noble Bird was prominent throughout the 1 1/8-mile race, stalking the early leader, Paganol, until taking command leaving the final turn. Without urging, Noble Bird glided away from Lea, the 9-5 favorite who also was forwardly placed, then was all-out under a vigorous hand ride to prevail by a neck. Hoppertunity, the 3-1 second choice, was another 5 1/2 lengths back in third.
Noble Bird returned $11.40 as fourth choice after finishing in 1:47.94 over a fast track. Not only did he earn $303,800 with easily the richest score of his 10-race career, but also the first Win and You’re In berth toward the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Oct. 31 at Keeneland, a stipend worth up to $100,000. Oxley bought the colt as a yearling for $105,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky summer sales.
Bridgmohan had ridden Noble Bird in his last three starts, all strong efforts, and gave a pronounced wave of his whip after passing under the wire.
“I didn’t turn my stick over,” he said. “I just kind of gave him a little reminder because he was trying and giving me everything he had. He just ran lights out.”
Noble Bird, a Kentucky-bred son of Birdstone, was edged in a photo by Protonico at 19-1 in his prior start, the Grade 2 Alysheba, a Kentucky Oaks undercard race that marked his stakes debut. Before the Alysheba, he won a first-level allowance at Oaklawn and a second-level allowance at Keeneland, both by a nose.
The colt obviously is familiar with the photo-finish camera.
“He ran a really big race in the Alysheba,” said Norman Casse, son of and assistant to his father, Mark Casse. “He’s just gotten better from there and he rewarded our confidence.”
It was the second win in the Foster for Casse, following Pool Play in 2011.
Lea, making his first start since finishing third in the $10 million Dubai World Cup for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, ran very well when barely missing.
“The horse ran big that won,” said jockey Joel Rosario. “My horse tried every time I asked him. We just fell a little short.”
After the top three, the order was Majestic Harbor, Cat Burglar, Commissioner, and Paganol.
Easily the disappointment of the race was Commissioner, the 3-1 third choice who was coming off an authoritative win in the Pimlico Special.
The $2 exacta (4-2) paid $39.20, the $1 trifecta (4-2-5) returned $83.90, and the 10-cent superfecta (4-2-5-6) was worth $69.42.
The Foster was run about an hour after Triple Crown winner American Pharoah was paraded before an enthusiastic crowd, one that roared its appreciation for the colt and his human connections, all of whom were presented with their engraved Kentucky Derby trophies in a winner’s circle ceremony.
Attendance was not immediately available but was estimated at 30,000, short of the Downs After Dark record of 38,142 set four years ago. This was the fourth year the Foster was run under the lights. Churchill first used lights in 2009.