Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Final Tune-ups at Belmont and Santa Anita
By Patrick Reed, courtesy America's Best Racing
The upcoming weekend of racing holds the final opportunities for horses aiming for an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Del Mar on Nov. 3-4, as Belmont Park, Keeneland, and Santa Anita Park offer a total of 13 Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” qualifying races that provide a spot in the Breeders’ Cup starting gate for each winner.
Four Challenge Series races will be held at Belmont Park on Saturday and Sunday – the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes (prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic) and Grade 1 Champagne Stakes (Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile) on Saturday, and the Grade 1 Frizette Stakes (14 Hands Winery Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies) and the Flower Bowl Stakes (Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf) on Sunday.
Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., hosts eight “Win and You’re In” races during its Fall Stars weekend, starting with the Grade 1 Darley Alcibiades Stakes and Grade 2 Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix Stakes on Friday. Those races offer automatic berths for the 14 Hands Winery Juvenile Fillies and the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint, respectively. On Saturday, Keeneland runs the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile Stakes (a prep for the Breeders’ Cup Mile); the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity (Sentient Jet Juvenile); the Grade 1 First Lady Stakes (Filly and Mare Turf); and the Grade 2 Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes (Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint). And then on Sunday, Keeneland features the Grade 1 Juddmonte Spinster Stakes (Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff) and the Grade 2 Dixiana Bourbon Stakes (Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf). To read about the preps in Kentucky, click here.
In addition to the smorgasbord of preps in New York and Kentucky, Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., holds the Grade 1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship Stakes on Saturday, a qualifier for the TwinSpires Sprint.
Television coverage of Saturday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup as well as the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity and Shadwell Turf Mile will be featured in an NBC Sports broadcast on its parent network from 5-6 p.m. ET. The Juddmonte Spinster Stakes and the Dixiana Bourbon Stakes, both on Sunday, will be broadcast on NBCSN from 5-6 p.m. Both programs conclude NBC Sports’ “Win and You’re In” series presented by Lane’s End and America’s Best Racing. The other Keeneland and Belmont qualifiers, in addition to the Santa Anita race, will be broadcast by TVG as part of its comprehensive coverage. For more information, click here.
The 13 Breeders’ Cup races attract the best Thoroughbreds in the world to compete for $28 million in purse money and awards, and the selection of starters in each race (fields are limited to 14, and 12 for this year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint) is determined in part by a points system for graded stakes and the selection criteria of a panel of experts. However, there is one way for an owner to bypass the secondary criteria and secure a spot for their horse in a Breeders’ Cup race, and that is by winning a stakes race in the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series.
Here’s some background on this weekend’s “Win and You’re In” qualifying races from Belmont and the lone race at Santa Anita:
The Jockey Club Gold Cup is arguably one of the top ten most important races in the history the sport in North America. It was first run in 1919 and has been won by a group of horses that, taken in total, comprise a good chunk of real estate in the Racing Hall of Fame. Needless to say, the 1 ¼-mile test on Belmont’s oval (owing to the vast circumference of “Big Sandy,” the Jockey Club is still a one-turn race) has been an important Breeders’ Cup Classic prep since 1984.
In the very first running of the Classic, Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Slew o’ Gold was part of a three-horse charge to the wire in deep stretch and was bumped hard by Gate Dancer, forcing him into longshot winner Wild Again. Slew o’ Gold, the dominant part of a 3-5 favored entry in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, was placed second. He was voted champion older male of 1984 and entered the Hall of Fame in 1992.
In 1985 and 1986, Jockey Club Gold Cup runners-up Gate Dancer and Turkoman each finished second as well in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and 1989 dominant Jockey Club Gold Cup winner and future Hall of Famer Easy Goer did the same, losing to Sunday Silence in arguably the most exciting Breeders’ Cup Classic ever.
The 1992 Jockey Club Gold Cup was the pivotal race for that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. Pleasant Tap won the Gold Cup by a commanding 4 ½ lengths over 1991 Kentucky Derby winner Strike the Gold, with 1992 Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy another 2 ¼ lengths back in third after stumbling at the break. But in the ninth Breeders’ Cup Classic, held at Gulfstream Park, it was A.P. Indy who took command in the stretch to pull away and win by two lengths over Pleasant Tap. A.P. Indy would be voted Horse of the Year in 1992 and subsequently became one of the most influential sires in North American Thoroughbred breeding.
Tabasco Cat, fourth in the 1994 Jockey Club Gold Cup, lost by a neck to Concern in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. And then in 1995, a Jockey Club Gold Cup winner broke through to take the Breeders’ Cup Classic for the first time. That horse, of course, was the “unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar,” as racecaller Tom Durkin so memorably described in the ’95 Classic. Cigar merely went 10-for-10 that year, with his closest margin of victory a length in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. By the next fall, Cigar’s streak of perfection had ended in the Pacific Classic, and he finished second by a head to Skip Away in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and then third by a head to Alphabet Soup and Louis Quatorze in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. That would be Cigar’s final start, and due to infertility he would become one of the most popular residents of the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington until his death in 2014.
Skip Away repeated in the Jockey Club Gold Cup in 1997, setting the stakes record time of 1:58.89, and won the Breeders’ Cup Classic that year as well to join Cigar in the exclusive club. Carolyn Hine’s future Hall of Famer would then finish third in the 1998 Jockey Club Gold Cup and sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but win Horse of the Year for his overall campaign.
Moving on several years, 2005 Jockey Club Gold Cup fourth-place finisher Flower Alley came in second to Saint Liam in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. A year later, Bernardini easily prevailed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and then yielded to Invasor in the Classic. Both of those horses did so as 3-year-olds.
In 2007, another 3-year-old went one better and became the third Jockey Club Gold Cup-Breeders’ Cup Classic winner. Curlin had already run third in the Kentucky Derby, first in the Preakness, and second in the Belmont as he entered the autumn racing season and had a strong argument to make as champion 3-year-old among a very high-quality group. But then Curlin defeated older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup for the partnership of Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Stables, Padua Stables, George Bolton, and Midnight Cry Stables, winning by a neck over Lawyer Ron. He came back to defeat many of his 3-year-old rivals convincingly in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on a sloppy Monmouth Park main track. Curlin was named champion 3-year-old male and Horse of the Year by Eclipse Award voters, and would extend his dominance well into his 4-year-old campaign. He repeated in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and then ran fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Santa Anita’s artificial main track to conclude his career with another Horse of the Year award.
Claiborne Farm’s and Adele Dilschneider’s Blame finished second in the 2010 Jockey Club Gold Cup to New York mainstay Haynesfield, but he returned in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs to hand champion racemare and eventual Horse of the Year Zenyatta her only defeat. A year later, it was the Jockey Club Gold Cup runner-up once again who took the Classic at Churchill, as Drosselmeyer backed up his 2010 Belmont Stakes win with another long-distance triumph in the 2011 Classic. And in 2012, Jockey Club Gold Cup third-place finisher Fort Larned scored a career-defining win when shipped to Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, turning back Mucho Macho Man (who would win the Classic a year later) by a half-length at odds of 9.40-1.
Effinex, third to Tonalist in the 2015 Jockey Club Gold Cup, was a distant second to Grand Slam champ American Pharoah in the ’15 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland. Last year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Hoppertunity finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and hasn’t raced since his sixth-place finish in the Dubai World Cup in March. That hard-trying 6-year-old is training steadily for Bob Baffert in California but was not entered in this year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup. Among those who are: Suburban Handicap winner Keen Ice, third in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic; and talented 3-year-old Jim Dandy Stakes winner Good Samaritan.
Another historic race, the one-mile Champagne Stakes was first held in 1867 and is the key race for New York-based juveniles on the road to the Breeders’ Cup. Tank’s Prospect, third in the Champagne in 1984 (the race was run at Aqueduct that year), finished second to Chief’s Crown in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Over the next three years, a few horses came out of the Champagne to capture minor awards in the Juvenile, but the first really important year came in 1988. That’s when 1-2 Champagne finishers Easy Goer and Is It True reversed positions in the fifth Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. Eugene Klein’s Is It True upset Easy Goer by 1 ¼ lengths in the Juvenile, but Easy Goer would still win the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male before going on to even greater feats (see above for some of them).
In 1989, Rhythm finished second to Adjudicating in the Champagne but would win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile convincingly and earn champion honors for owner Odgen Phipps and trainer Shug McGaughey. A year later, Thomas Valando’s Fly So Free became the first 2-year-old to take both the Champagne and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, romping in both races under Jose Santos en route to the Eclipse Award at year’s end.
Three years after Fly So Free’s feat, D. Wayne Lukas-trained Timber Country became the second juvenile to win both races, taking the Juvenile by a widening two lengths under Pat Day. The son of Woodman trained on to become a leading Kentucky Derby contender at three; he finished third in the run for the roses to stablemate Thunder Gulch, won the Preakness, and then was retired due to injury while training for a start in the Travers.
In 1995, two Champagne Stakes also-rans – fourth-place finisher Unbridled’s Song and sixth-place finisher Hennessy – finished 1-2 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Both would become successful stallions, Unbridled’s Song especially so as the sire of current superstar Arrogate among many others. A year later, Champagne sixth-place finisher Acceptable nearly upset Boston Harbor in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, with Champagne winner Ordway third. And starting in 1998, for three straight years horses exiting the Champagne – Aly’s Alley (sixth), Chief Seattle (second), and Point Given (second) – each ran second in their respective Breeders’ Cup Juveniles. Point Given would go on to win the 2001 Preakness, Belmont, Haskell, and Travers Stakes and be voted Horse of the Year as a 3-year-old.
Afleet Alex, like Point Given one of the most popular and accomplished 3-year-olds of the first decade of this century, finished second as a 2-year-old in both the Champagne and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. A year later, Champagne winner First Samurai checked in third in the Juvenile. And two years after that, War Pass dominated both races to become the third dual winner and a cinch choice for the Eclipse Award. Unfortunately, Robert LaPenta’s charge would only race three times at three before retiring; he passed away in 2010, early in his stud career.
Arguably one of the most talented juveniles of this century, Uncle Mo became the fourth dual Champagne-Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner in 2010. He only raced three times total as a 2-year-old, romping by 14 ¼ lengths in a six-furlong Saratoga maiden and then taking the Champagne by 4 ¾ lengths and the Juvenile – his first two-turn race – by 4 ¼ lengths at Churchill Downs. Like War Pass, Uncle Mo would only race three more times at three before retiring. But his stud career is something else entirely, as he’s already sired a dual classic winner in Nyquist and several other graded stakes winners from three crops to race.
Union Rags, winner of the 2011 Champagne, finished a good second to Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile before maturing into a Belmont Stakes winner in 2012 and then retiring to a promising stud career. In fall 2012, Todd Pletcher-trained Shanghai Bobby captured the Champagne by a dominant five lengths before shipping to Santa Anita for the Juvenile. Under a skillful ride from Rosie Napravnik, Shanghai Bobby held off He’s Had Enough by a head to become the fifth 2-year-old to win both races.
2013 Champagne winner Havana finished second to New Year’s Day in that year’s Juvenile, also held at Santa Anita, and last year’s Champagne winner, Practical Joke, finished third to Classic Empire and Not This Time in the Sentient Jet Juvenile. That colt has trained on to become one of the best 3-year-olds of 2017 and a leading contender for the Las Vegas Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
Saturday’s Champagne Stakes drew Sanford Stakes winner Firenze Fire and several promising maiden winners in an 11-horse field.
Belmont’s filly companion race to the Foxwood Champagne Stakes was first held in 1945. The one-mile test sent its first notable runner to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies in the second year of the World Championships, as 1985 Frizette winner Family Style ran second by a length to stablemate Twilight Ridge at Aqueduct. Three years later, 1988 Frizette runner-up Open Mind won the fifth Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs en route to an Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old filly for owner Eugene Klein and trainer D. Wayne Lukas. That superb filly would go on to win important Grade 1s at age three, including the Kentucky Oaks and Alabama Stakes, and finish third in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff while picking up another Eclipse Award. She was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.
Meadow Star became the first filly to sweep both races in 1990, and Carl Icahn’s filly absolutely dominated, rolling by 14 lengths in the Frizette and then by five lengths in the Juvenile Fillies, also at Belmont Park. The Juvenile Fillies was the seventh in what would extend to a nine-race win streak to begin Meadow Star’s career. One of the most popular fillies of the early 1990s, she finished fourth against males in the 1991 Wood Memorial before notching two more Grade 1 wins against her gender – including the “Mother of All Gooses” over Lite Light – and then never winning again in her final eight starts.
Educated Risk and Heavenly Prize won the 1992 and 1993 renewals of the Frizette and finished second and third in their respective editions of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. And in 1994, William T. Young’s precocious filly Flanders became the second Frizette-Juvenile Fillies winner by romping to a 21-length score in the former race and then edging Serena’s Song by a head in the latter. Flanders won all five of her starts during a championship juvenile season but never raced again after 1994 due to injury.
In 1995, My Flag finished second to Golden Attraction in the Frizette but improved in the Juvenile Fillies at Belmont, defeating Cara Rafaela by a half-length with Golden Attraction third. And the Frizette-Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies connection remained strong in 1996, as Storm Song became the third dual winner by putting together the two best races of her career back-to-back. The Dogwood Stable filly won the Frizette by four lengths and then the Juvenile Fillies by 4 ½ lengths with Craig Perret aboard.
Storm Flag Flying joined Meadow Star, Flanders, and Storm Song as a Frizette-Juvenile Fillies dual winner in 2002. The Ogden Phipps homebred would finish second to Ashado two years later in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, her final start. Ashado, third in the 2003 Frizette, then ran second to Halfbridled in the Juvenile Fillies early in her Hall of Fame career.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s Balletto won the 2004 Frizette and finished second in the Juvenile Fillies to Sweet Catomine. Three years later, Indian Blessing became the fifth Frizette-Juvenile Fillies winner, dominating both races by a total of 11 lengths. Those were only the second and third starts of her career, and the daughter of Indian Charlie would train on to compete well through her 4-year-old season, winning 10 of 16 career starts with five seconds and earning nearly $3 million before she was retired.
Sky Diva (won 2008 Frizette, third in Juvenile Fillies) and R Heat Lightening (second in 2010 Frizette, second in Juvenile Fillies) made good showings in the World Championships leading up to yet another standout dual race winner in 2011. My Miss Aurelia, owned by Stonestreet Stable and George Bolton and trained by Steve Asmussen, won her first two races at Saratoga, including the Grade 2 Adirondack Stakes, at sprint distances, but she really turned heads when stretched out to a mile in the Frizette, which she won by 5 ½ lengths. Sent off as the 2.10-1 favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs, the daughter of Smart Strike made those odds look like a gift in a three-length romp over Grace Hall. The champion filly would continue to perform well in her 3- and 4-year-old seasons, finishing second to Royal Delta in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (Distaff), but she was at her best during an undefeated juvenile campaign.
In 2013, Ria Antonia finished a well-beaten fifth in the Frizette (won by Artemis Agrotera) but outran her 32.30-1 odds considerably in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita. She was elevated from second to first in that race after She’s a Tiger drifted out and made contact as the two fillies neared the finish line.
Sunday’s Frizette is expected to draw the 1-2-3 finishers of the Spinaway Stakes in Lady Ivanka, Maya Malibu, and Separationofpowers.
The 1 ¼-mile Flower Bowl Stakes, first held in 1978, has been without a doubt one of the most influential Breeders’ Cup preps in the entire event since the Filly and Mare Turf was first run in 1999. Nearly every year it seems, a filly or mare exiting the Flower Bowl goes on to hit the board in the Filly and Mare Turf, which is contested at distances between 1 1/8 and 1 3/8 miles, depending on the host track.
Many Flower Bowl females to shine in the Breeders’ Cup have not necessarily been the race winners. But that was not the case in 1999, when James Toner-trained Soaring Softly won the Flower Bowl by a length and then posted a three-quarter-length win in the inaugural Filly and Mare Turf with Jerry Bailey in the irons. The Kris S. filly defeated Irish-bred Coretta in both races.
In 2002, Flower Bowl fourth-place finisher Starine spoiled Banks Hill’s attempt at a Filly and Mare Turf repeat with a 1 ½-length win over that champion, resulting in a Bobby Frankel-trained exacta. And from 2004-06, the ultra-consistent racemare Film Maker exited the Flower Bowl three times – where she finished fourth, third, and second – to finish second, third, and second again in the Filly and Mare Turf (2006 Flower Bowl winner Honey Ryder finished third in the ’06 Breeders’ Cup behind the great Ouija Board and Film Maker).
In 2007, Lahudood became the second dual winner of the Flower Bowl and Filly and Mare Turf, taking the latter race on a very soft Monmouth Park turf course by three-quarters of a length over Honey Ryder. In 2009, Flower Bowl winner Pure Clan was runner-up to England’s Midday in the Filly and Mare Turf, and Midday returned in 2010 on the heels of three consecutive Group 1 wins in Europe. The Henry Cecil trainee was sent off as the 9-10 favorite at Churchill Downs, but it was Flower Bowl fifth-place finisher Shared Account who won the photo finish by a neck in a 46-1 upset for Sagamore Farm and Graham Motion to spoil Midday’s bid for a repeat.
In 2012, Flower Bowl runner-up and French import Zagora won the Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita by three-quarters of a length for owner Martin Schwartz and trainer Chad Brown. Since then, Brown has won two more Filly and Mare Turfs – in 2014 with Dayatthespa and in 2015 with Stephanie’s Kitten. Dayatthespa defeated ’14 Flower Bowl winner Stephanie’s Kitten in the Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita, completing an all-Chad Brown exacta in emulation of his mentor Bobby Frankel a dozen years earlier. A year later, Stephanie’s Kitten closed out what is almost certain to be a Hall of Fame career with a Flower Bowl-Filly and Mare Turf double. Her final win was at Keeneland, which held the Breeders’ Cup for the first time in 2015. Keeneland is also the home base of Stephanie’s Kitten’s owners-breeders Ken and Sarah Ramsey, which made for a poignant winners’ circle celebration at the picturesque Lexington track.
Last year, Brown’s champion Lady Eli won the Flower Bowl but came up a nose short to Queen’s Trust in the Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita. The trainer has two listed as probables for Sunday’s Flower Bowl in Beverly D. Stakes 1-2 finishers Dacita and Grand Jete.
Formerly known as the Ancient Title Stakes until 2012, the six-furlong Santa Anita Sprint Championship was first held in 1985, one year after the inaugural World Championships. Groovy, winner of the race in 1986, finished fourth as the odds-on favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint also held at Santa Anita; the Texas-bred would go on to finish second in the Sprint a year later and win an Eclipse Award. No other winner would go on to make an impression in the Breeders’ Cup for several years, until 1993. That year, both races were also held at Santa Anita, and West Coast mainstay Cardmania swept the Ancient Title and Breeders’ Cup Sprint for owner Jean Couvercelle to earn champion sprinter honors at the Eclipse Awards. The son of Cox’s Ridge, who began his racing career competing in France for several years in low-level races, made an impressive 77 starts over eight seasons, and also finished fourth in the 1994 Ancient Title and third in that year’s Sprint.
Paying Dues, elevated to third in the 1996 Ancient Title, ran second to Lit de Justice in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. A year later, Elmhurst became the second dual winner, prevailing in the Sprint at odds of 16.60-1 to defeat Hesabull by a half-length. His win was the second consecutive Breeders’ Cup Sprint for trainer Jenine Sahadi, following Lit de Justice’s score in ’96.
The years 1998-2000 saw California sensation Kona Gold make his mark on the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, and the Bruce Headley trainee used the Ancient Title to prep for the Sprint each year. He finished fifth in the ’98 Ancient Title and third in the Sprint, second to Lexicon in the 1999 Ancient Title and second to Artax in the Sprint, and then won both races in 2000, taking the Sprint at Churchill Downs and setting a track record at the time of 1:07.77 for six furlongs. Kona Gold would also compete in both races the next year, finishing second in the Ancient Title but seventh in the Sprint. He then contested the Sprint for a fifth straight time in 2002, finishing fourth. He was a finalist for the Racing Hall of Fame this year.
Bluesthestandard, third in the 2003 Ancient Title, finished second to Cajun Beat that year in the Sprint, and three years later Thor’s Echo ran second to Bordonaro in the Ancient Title but posted a dominant win in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs, winning by four lengths. 2007 Ancient Title winner Idiot Proof was runner-up to Bob Baffert’s champion Midnight Lute in that year’s Sprint, and in 2009, Ancient Title horses Gayego (winner), Crown of Thorns (runner-up), and Cost of Freedom (fourth) came home fourth, second, and third, respectively, to Dancing in Silks in a heart-pounding Breeders’ Cup Sprint as all four horses hit the finish with less than a half-length between them.
Smiling Tiger won the 2010 Ancient Title, held at Hollywood Park that year, and ran third in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint … which brings us to 2011 and the fourth dual winner, Amazombie. Co-owned and trained by Bill Spawr, the Northern Afleet gelding was known for his a stalk-and-pounce running style, and he used that to perfection in both the Ancient Title and Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs, winning by three-quarters of a length at Santa Anita and then by a neck in Louisville. Hall of Famer Mike Smith was aboard on both wins.
Goldencents finished second to Points Offthebench in the 2013 Santa Anita Sprint Championship but then won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in his next start. A year later, the Doug O’Neill trainee would repeat the same finish in both races, losing to Rich Tapestry by a nose in the Sprint Championship but taking the Dirt Mile by 1 ¼ lengths (the Breeders’ Cup was held at Santa Anita both years). Secret Circle, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 2013, finished third in the 2014 Santa Anita Sprint Championship and then second in his bid for a Breeders’ Cup Sprint repeat to Work All Week.