Nine Vie for Filly and Mare Sprint Berth in Ballerina

By Teresa Genaro

NBC’s Summer at Saratoga: Breeders' Cup Challenge Series returns to the track known as the Spa for a double-header this Saturday. Before 3-year-old males contest the Grade 1 Travers, fillies and mares will vie in the Grade 1 Ballerina for a spot in Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at Santa Anita on October 31.

Named for a stakes-winning filly from the 1950s, the seven-furlong Ballerina boasts five graded stakes winners, including the 2011 2-year-old filly champion My Miss Aurelia. She started her career with a six-race winning streak and in 10 career starts has never finished worse than third, but she raced only once last year, finishing third in the Grade 3 Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn Park, a result she repeated in her only race this year, last month at Saratoga off a 16-month layoff.

The speedy New York-bred La Verdad faltered in her last start, a fifth-place finish in the Grade 2 Honorable Miss at Saratoga, only the second time in 12 starts that the 4-year-old filly has failed to hit the board. Regular rider Jose Ortiz kept the frontrunning La Verdad off the pace that day, a role to which she didn’t seem to take kindly; her open-lengths wins have come when she’s allowed to use her speed to leave her rivals in her wake.

A fellow New York-bred, the lightly raced Artemis Agrotera began her career at Saratoga last summer with an eye-catching 11-length win and followed it up with a Grade 1 victory in the Frizette at Belmont Park. Off-the-board finishes in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and Acorn, both Grade 1 races, led to speculation that she’d lost whatever had propelled her to those early victories, but after getting class relief in a race last month at Saratoga, she won by 10 lengths and is back in Grade 1 company this weekend.

Inaugurated in 2007, the Filly and Mare Sprint is a relatively new race to the Breeders’ Cup, and only that first edition was won by a Ballerina winner when Maryfield, the eventual 2007 champion female sprinter, took Breeders’ Cup honors with a win. Other notable Ballerina winners are Hall of Famers Davona Dale, 1979 champion 3-year-old filly, and Lady’s Secret, 1986 Horse of the Year.

In addition to automatic entry to the Filly and Mare Sprint, Breeders’ Cup-nominated horses that win Challenge races also have their Breeders’ Cup pre-entry and entry fees paid. North American horses based outside of California also earn $10,000 in travel money.

Horses can be nominated to the Breeders’ Cup as foals the year they’re born; they can be nominated once their racing careers have begun; and they can be nominated once they’ve become stallions. In most cases, the earlier you nominate, the lower the fees, and once nominated, horses are eligible for the Breeders’ Cup program and races for life. Nominators of horses who win Breeders’ Cup Challenge races also earn $10,000.

NBC’s Summer at Saratoga: Breeders' Cup Challenge Series broadcast of the Ballerina and the Travers begins at 4:30 PM this Saturday, August 23. The final installment of the series airs on August 30 with the Grade 1 Forego and Grade 1 Woodward.