Odds-on favorites swept all three of Saturday’s turf stakes on Stephen Foster Preview Day at Churchill Downs.
In anticipation of a fast pace set-up in the $206,750 Arlington (G3), Set Piece went off as the 0.76-1 favorite. The tempo didn’t materialize after all, but the Juddmonte homebred still delivered a last-to-first performance.
Trained by Brad Cox and piloted by Florent Geroux, who also teamed up with Juddmonte’s Idiomatic in the Shawnee (G3), Set Piece helped himself by not dropping too far back in his anchor spot. That had been a contributing factor in his comeback loss, a belated third in the May 4 Opening Verse S. here on “Thurby.”
Up front, Get Smokin was let alone, and the controlling speed got comfy through fractions of :24.16, :48.96, and 1:13.31 on the firm course. Projected pace rival Classic Causeway, content to sit in second early, tried to lift in the stretch. But Get Smokin kicked away from him and opened up by two lengths.
By that point, Set Piece was just beginning to hit top gear. Surging one length clear, the Dansili gelding negotiated 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.42.
“He’s one of my favorite horses I’ve ridden,” Geroux said. “He has no early speed, so it’s always tough in bigger fields because you can’t go super wide turning for home, but if you stay too far on the inside you end up in trouble. He always tries hard, and I’m so happy he was able to get a win today.”
Get Smokin, who nearly wired last year’s Arlington before getting nailed late, settled for runner-up honors again. The 27-1 Harlan Estate finished well to snatch third from Classic Causeway. Royal Patronage never factored in fifth, and Kentucky Ghost brought up the rear. Tiberius Mercurius was scratched.
Set Piece’s eighth stakes victory – half of them at Churchill – put him on millionaires’ row with $1,068,647 in earnings from a record of 27-12-2-2. The British-bred earned his first stakes credits in his homeland, placing third in the 2019 Craven (G3) and capturing the Hyde S. before venturing stateside. In addition to graded scores in the 2021 Wise Dan (G2) and last season’s Dinner Party (G2) and Baltimore/Washington International Turf Cup (G3), he was runner-up in the 2021 Fourstardave (G1).
“He’s a barn favorite of ours,” Cox said. “Juddmonte sent him over to our barn in North America a couple years ago and he’s knocked at the door of a Grade 1 in the past. Today he rallied strongly against a pace that wasn’t very fast at all. He loves it here at Churchill, and we’re very proud of his win today.”
The seven-year-old is a half-brother to multiple Group 3-placed French stakes queen Alocasia. They were produced by the Kingmambo mare Portadora, a descendant of the influential matron Modena.
A hampered third in the May 5 Edgewood (G2) on Kentucky Oaks Day, Mission of Joy got the needed seam in the $205,000 Regret (G3). The 0.73-1 favorite muscled her way through for new rider Tyler Gaffalione and held sway by 1 1/2 lengths.
“She came out of the Edgewood in great shape, and she had a tough trip that day,” trainer Graham Motion said. “Today, Tyler got her into a beautiful position, and she really impressed me.”
Mission of Joy was initially in the clear as Miss Riddler went forward, but she was racing a tad keenly on the outside. Gaffalione accordingly dropped her in just behind Miss Riddler, who carved out splits of :23.63, :48.39, and 1:13.14. The tracking Girl Named Charlie kept Mission of Joy pocketed until the top of the stretch, when she wasn’t going well enough to hold that position. The winner exploited the opportunity and breezed home to finish 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.05.
Papilio was the one to endure the tough-luck trip, stuck in traffic as Mission of Joy put the race away. Once changing lanes and following in the winner’s wake, Papilio rallied smartly as best of the rest. Another four lengths back in a closing third came Mrs. Astor, trailed by Miss Ridler, Girl Named Charlie, and Sabalenka.
Campaigned by RyZan Sun Racing and Madaket Stables, Mission of Joy has compiled a record of 6-4-0-1, $289,567. The Kitten’s Joy filly scored a hat trick at Tampa Bay Downs over the winter, culminating in the Florida Oaks (G3).
A Canadian Triple Crown nominee, Mission of Joy was bred by the iconic Sam-Son Farm in Ontario. But she brought only $32,000 as a yearling at Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October. Her dam, Smart Mission, is a Smart Strike half-sister to dual Canadian champion Irish Mission, who beat males in the 2012 Breeders’ S.; multiple Grade 3 winner French Beret; and stakes veteran Mythical Mission, who placed in all three Canadian fillies’ classics in 2017.
“She’s a Canadian-bred, so we’d obviously look at some of those races,” Motion said, “but also some of the longer turf races in New York this summer. She handled the mile and an eighth today and proved it wouldn’t be an issue moving forward.”
D. J. Stable’s Webslinger, who sprang a 22-1 upset of the American Turf (G2) on Kentucky Derby Day, made it two straight at a much shorter price in the $225,000 Audubon S. Bet down to 0.71-1 favoritism, the Mark Casse trainee rolled from just off the pace with Hall of Famer Javier Castellano.
The longshot shot on the board, the 55-1 Lazarus, established the early lead through splits of :24.34 and :49.04. His time in the limelight was over by the far turn, however, as Mendelssohns March crept through on the rail to head him passing six furlongs in 1:13.78.
Fellow stalker Desert Duke was also on the move wider out, but Webslinger was circling them all. Despite careening wide off the turn, the favorite had superior momentum to strike the front. His winning margin was 1 1/4 lengths in a final time of 1:49.87 for 1 1/8 miles.
Mendelssohns March and Desert Duke persevered for the length of the stretch, with the former taking second by a half-length. Next came the dead-heaters in fourth, Scoobie Quando and Sharar, Lady Eli’s half-brother in a one-paced U.S. debut; J. P. Race; and the tailed-off Lazarus.
“I thought Javier gave him a beautiful trip in this race that was very paceless,” Casse’s assistant David Carroll said. “He’s a horse that each time you run him he seems to get better. He’s proven that in his last couple of efforts, but today’s race was a bittersweet one.
“Lois Green, who was the matriarch of the owner’s family, died earlier this week. She was a wonderful woman, and our heart goes out to the entire Green family during this time. Hopefully this win was able to give them a little bit of happiness during a difficult week for their family.”
Webslinger has now bankrolled $860,320 from his 9-4-2-1 line, including a maiden-breaking tally in last fall’s Nownownow S. at Monmouth Park and placings in the March 4 Colonel Liam S. and April 7 Transylvania (G3).
Bred by Ken and the late Sarah Ramsey in Kentucky, the bay gelding is by Constitution and out of the Hard Spun mare Arana.