April 12, 2021

Pavel breaks out of slump, punches Breeders’ Cup ticket in Stephen Foster

Pavel and jockey Mario Gutierrez win the Stephen Foster Handicap (G1), and an automatic berth to the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1), at Churchill Downs on Saturday, June 16, 2018 (c) Rickelle Nelson/Horsephotos.com

It wasn’t a meteoric rise, but Pavel showed so much potential in the span of four races over three months last season that owner Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O’Neill took a shot at the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) with the gray son of Creative Cause.

Unfortunately for Pavel, he beat just one horse in that field of 11 at Del Mar, and was slow to find his best form in four subsequent starts. On Saturday night at Churchill Downs, Pavel finally did, in the $500,000 Stephen Foster H. (G1), not only winning with authority but also punching his ticket to this year’s Classic in the 1 1/8-mile “Win & You’re In” Breeders’ Cup challenge race.

“We were very optimistic with him all along and to see him put it together was great,” said O’Neill, who trained I’ll Have Another and Nyquist to Kentucky Derby (G1) wins with Mario Gutierrez aboard. “We went through a bit of a funky phase with him and had some traffic troubles in his last couple of races.”

Sent off as the 6-1 third choice in a field of nine, Pavel broke well and settled in fourth into the clubhouse turn and down the backside under Gutierrez. Up front, Uncle Mojo led over Irish War Cry through splits of :23.58 and :47.25, with 4-5 favorite Backyard Heaven a stalking third inside of Pavel after bumping Lookin at Lee at the start.

Around the far turn, Backyard Heaven bid for the lead and Pavel advanced to third after Irish War Cry swiftly dropped back. Making a three-wide bid at the quarter pole, Patch seized the lead at the top of the stretch from that dueling pair and was never seriously challenged to the finish. He drew off to win by 3 3/4 lengths in a time of 1:49.21 over a fast track in hot conditions.

Honorable Duty, runner-up to Gun Runner in the 2017 Stephen Foster, won a three-way photo for the place over 68-1 chance Matrooh and 26-1 outsider Hawaakom. Uncle Mojo and Backyard Heaven weakened to fifth and sixth, respectively, and were followed by Patch and Lookin at Lee.

Irish War Cry was pulled up and vanned off, but trainer Graham Motion reported on Twitter that Irish War Cry “seems fine. It was too hot tonight and unfortunately he was not able to cope. Jose (Ortiz) did the right thing to pull him up.”

After winning his 6 1/2-furlong debut at Santa Anita last July 1, Pavel was thrown to the wolves in the nine-furlong Jim Dandy (G2) at Saratoga. He finished fourth to Good Samaritan, but was only a head behind Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Always Dreaming and out-finished Preakness (G1) winner Cloud Computing.

A dynamite six-length winner of the Smarty Jones (G3) at Parx next out, Pavel turned in another impressive effort to finish third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) in his first try against older horses. However, he never seriously challenged in the Breeders’ Cup, finishing 34 lengths behind Gun Runner.

Pavel had run fourth in four consecutive starts since the Classic, as the beaten favorite in the Malibu (G1) and San Pasqual (G2), in the Dubai World Cup (G1), and in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1) in his most recent start May 26. His record now stands at 10-3-0-1, $1,175,000.

“In his last couple of races, he got really worked up in the paddock and didn’t run to his best effort,” O’Neill said.

Bred in Kentucky by Brereton Jones and WinStar Farm, Pavel was a $90,000 Keeneland November weanling. He’s out of Mons Venus, by Maria’s Mon, making him a half-brother to multiple Grade 2 winner Caracortado and the stakes-winning He’ll Pay.