Big Ass Fans DG Derby winner ($43) puts Ellis trainer in spotlight
FRANKLIN, Ky.— How do you top winning a $750,000 race and your first graded stakes?
Eric Foster will try to find out Saturday when he runs Johnny Unleashed in the $1 million, Grade 2 FanDuel Turf Sprint at the FanDuel Meet at Kentucky Downs, one of six graded stakes on what will be one of the best betting cards all year anywhere in the country.
Johnny Unleashed will try to one-up Foster’s victory with 20-1 shot Kitodan in Monday’s $750,000, Grade 3 Big Ass Fans Dueling Grounds Derby at Kentucky Downs.
“I’m excited for Johnny,” Foster said by phone from Ellis Park. “Even (Monday), we had three horses in and we thought we had a good shot with all three. The first one, I don’t know if it was the scenery or the track. The second one just had bad racing luck. So by the third race, I was already telling myself, ‘Now don’t be too upset if you don’t get anything.’ So then we won. You want to have fun when you win.”
So did he? “I did have fun,” he said. Now he’s hoping for more fun with the 5-year-old Johnny Unleashed, a $10,000 yearling purchase who has earned $294,359 for Foster’s Foster Family Racing, Lonnie Reynolds, H&H Horses LLC and Joseph Mills, all from Owensboro in Western Kentucky.
“Johnny” has yet to win a stakes, but last April at Keeneland, he finished second to two-time Breeders’ Cup winner Golden Pal in the Grade 2 Shakertown, in the process beating major winners Gear Jockey (last year’s FanDuel Sprint winner), multiple graded-stakes winner Diamond Oops, The Lir Jet (last year’s Grade 2 Franklin-Simpson winner) and eight-time stakes winner Just Might. Most recently Johnny Unleashed was fourth in Churchill’s Mighty Beau Overnight Stakes on June 11.
“Johnny’s always been right there,” Foster said. “Just a matter of everything going his way. Don’t know about being as confident in him as like a horse like Kitodan. He’s really fast, and if he just got out there going, one of these days he’s going to win one of these big races.
“Hey, what about that: If we won the Big Ass Fans and the FanDuel (Turf Sprint)?”
Well, that certainly would make him a fan favorite. Foster laughed, adding, “I mean, Kitodan ought to have a Big Ass Fan blowing on him this morning.”
Foster, who hauls all of his horses to their out-of-town races, was driving back the two hours to Ellis Park Monday evening with wife Brooklyn and assistant trainer Juan Medina when he suddenly remembered that he had bet on Kitodan through his online account.
“I bet $50 across and forgot all about it during the excitement,” he said. “I did not even know what he paid. My assistant said, ‘He paid $43.’ I said, ‘Holy cow!’ So that was a pretty good bet.”
Though it pales compared to the $432,450 that Kitodan earned for Foster, Doug Miller and Bill Wargel, the $1,740 that Foster won betting is certainly a nice perk. But beyond the monetary rewards, Kitodan’s victory provided public recognition of the years of hard work by the Fosters. Eric trained for a year, back in 2000, when he realized “it was hard to make enough money to be able to settle down and buy a house and a farm, doing some of the stuff you want to make sure to get done.
“Training horses can be tough,” he said. “Sometimes you’re just spending all your money just to try to keep being able to work.”
Foster got a job as a tube welder, working mostly on power and electric plants and taking outside emergency welding work to pay the bills, buying their house and farm outside of Owensboro. While raising cattle, Foster built a barn and bought a thoroughbred baby with the intent of re-selling it for a profit, only to determine the costs of preparing a horse for the sale might be more than racing it themselves. So Foster built a track on his farm, again doing most of the work himself.
He jumped back into training in 2014. Today Foster trains 19 horses at Ellis Park and estimates Foster Family Racing is a partner in 75 percent of them.
Foster Family Racing is indeed a family venture. Daughter Jolie, 16, helps take care of the babies and layups on the farm in between being a star soccer player and team captain for Apollo High School in Owensboro. Son Ethan, 23, also helped his parents before opening his own business.
The Fosters’ big break came teaming with Miller and Wargel and other notable clients who gave him more financial firepower. That included claiming Kitodan for $80,000 in May. They won Churchill Downs’ $200,000 Audubon Stakes three weeks later. While subsequently fourth in a dirt stakes and then a close fifth against older horses on turf at Ellis Park, Kitodan now is 2-for-2 on grass against fellow 3-year-olds.
“It wasn’t just one pattern of how we did things that got us going,” Foster said. “It was just a little bit of everything. Until we got with this group of people, we just didn’t have the money to claim expensive horses.”
Foster also has Ellis Park’s Groupie Doll third-place finisher Recoded – who is on the also-eligible list for the $1 million The Mint Ladies Sprint — and Stonevicious, fourth in Turfway’s Animal Kingdom. The barn has easily had its best year at about $1.13 million in purse earnings.
“So we’ve had a pretty good year,” Foster said. “We went from claimers to stakes horses.”
Among those in the crowded Kentucky Downs winner’s circle with Kitodan was Don Campbell, a fellow trainer and owner based at Ellis Park.
“I was so tickled for him,” Campbell said. “It’s great to see one of the guys from back there do something like that. Eric and Brooklyn, they work real hard. I came down there because he had those horses in. Kitodan was the main one. I really thought he had a heck of a shot if he took to that track. And he did. It shows if you work hard and get with the right horses, you can achieve anything. Anybody can. That’s the neat thing about horse racing.”
Campbell had a lot of company rooting for the Fosters.
“My phone has been busy since the race,” Foster said. “We got back to Ellis about 9:30, then we drove home an hour. Then our dog, she wants a little bit of attention, so we didn’t get to bed until 11:30. Then right back up at 3:30. So time flies. But thank goodness, you win and you have a little bit more energy.’’
Kentucky Downs Press Release
Main photo: Johnny Unleashed (Coady Photography)