Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Focus Shifts to Sprint Divisions
By Patrick Reed, courtesy America's Best Racing
This weekend, focus shifts to all three Breeders’ Cup sprint divisions, with one qualifying race set for each. At Gulfstream Park on July 1, male and female dirt sprinters will compete in the Grade 3 Smile Sprint Stakes and the Grade 2 Princess Rooney Stakes, respectively. The winners of those races earn automatic berths to the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint and the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. On July 2, turf sprinters will face off on the Queen’s Plate undercard at Woodbine in the Grade 2 Highlander Stakes, which is a new Challenge Series race for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint.
This year’s Breeders’ Cup promises to be one of the most exciting in recent memory, as the two-day event will be held for the first time at one of horse racing’s signature venues, picturesque Del Mar in Southern California, on Nov. 3-4.
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 an automatic spot for their horse in a Breeders’ Cup race, and that is by winning a stakes race in the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series.
In addition to the three Challenge Series races, there are several other important stakes over the upcoming weekend and on the July 4 holiday that bear watching for Breeders’ Cup implications. Those include the Grade 1 United Nations Stakes at Monmouth Park on July 1, a 1 3/8-mile event that often sends horses to the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf, the Grade 2 Dance Smartly Stakes on July 2 at Woodbine, a 1 ¼-mile turf race for older females, and the Grade 2 Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park on July 1, a 1 1/16-mile test for 3-year-old fillies that occasionally produces a major contender for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff (as happened in 2014 with champion Untapable).
Here’s some background on the three Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series races on tap in south Florida and Ontario:
Smile Sprint Stakes
The six-furlong Smile Sprint was part of Calder Race Course’s marquee “Summit of Speed” racecard until 2014. After a one-year hiatus, the Smile Sprint, the Princess Rooney Handicap and the rest of the “Summit” races were moved to Gulfstream Park. The race was originally named the City of Miami Beach Stakes/Handicap and dates back to 1958, but was not held during the late 1970s and early 1980s before resuming in 1984 as a sprint race, the same year the first Breeders’ Cup World Championships was held. In 1999, the Miami Beach Sprint Handicap’s name was changed to honor Florida-bred Smile. That horse, owned by Frances Genter of Unbridled fame, won the first seven starts in his career during 1984-85, all at Calder, and finished second to Precisionist in the 1985 Breeders’ Cup Sprint. In 1986, Smile took the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita Park after dueling with Pine Tree Lane through a blazing half-mile in :43 3/5, and was voted champion sprinter at that year’s Eclipse Awards.
A significant Breeders’ Cup connection occurred in 2002, when D. Wayne Lukas’ Orientate won the Smile Sprint at Calder under Mike Smith and then took the Breeders’ Cup Sprint over longshot Thunderello at Arlington Park with Jerry Bailey aboard. The Breeders’ Cup win was Orientate’s fifth straight stakes score, and his career finale. He was honored as 2002 champion sprinter by Eclipse Award voters.
One year later, Smile Sprint winner Shake You Down finished third in the 2003 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, and in 2006, Nightmare Affair would do the same in the respective races. In 2008, Benny the Bull won the Smile Sprint en route to earning year-end champion sprinter honors at the Eclipse Awards; he did not participate in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint that year after finishing fourth in 2007.
The second Smile Sprint-Breeders’ Cup Sprint double occurred in 2010, when Harold Queen’s homebred Big Drama won both races under Eibar Coa. Not surprisingly, the Florida-bred son of Montbrook received the Eclipse Award as 2010 champion sprinter.
Trinniberg, 2012 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner and champion sprinter, finished second in the ’13 Smile Sprint to Bahamian Squall, who would go on to finish sixth in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint. In 2015, Favorite Tale won the first running of the Smile Sprint at Gulfstream Park and then finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint behind champion Runhappy.
Among the horses nominated to Saturday’s Smile Sprint are: Mind Your Biscuits, who finished third in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint and won the Dubai Golden Shaheen Sponsored by Gulf News earlier this year; Awesome Banner, whose six career victories from 16 starts have all come at Gulfstream Park, including five stakes wins; last year’s Smile Sprint winner Delta Bluesman; and Three Rules, a 3-year-old who made some noise on the Triple Crown trail in the spring but started his career in 2016 with five consecutive wins at Gulfstream Park.
Princess Rooney Stakes
The Princess Rooney Stakes dates back to 1985 and thus has a longer history than the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, which was first held in 2007. It is named after Paula Tucker’s 1984 champion older female Princess Rooney. That eventual Hall of Famer began her career with four consecutive wins at Calder in 1982 and ten wins in a row overall, and ended it by winning the inaugural 1984 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Hollywood Park by a widening seven lengths under Eddie Delahoussaye.
During its first two decades, the Princess Rooney was won by such top-class racemares as Chaposa Springs, Hurricane Bertie, Dream Supreme, and Gold Mover, who won the race in both 2002 and 2003. Miraculous Miss, who finished second in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint in 2007, was runner-up in the ’08 Princess Rooney, and the latter race has had an impact on the Breeders’ Cup ever since. In 2010, Dubai Majesty finished third in the Princess Rooney but then won three out of her remaining four starts, culminating in the Filly and Mare Sprint, to claim the Eclipse Award as champion female sprinter (that divisional honor also was first awarded in 2007). One year later, Calder mainstay Musical Romance was edged by Sassy Image in the Princess Rooney; the daughter of Concorde’s Tune, trained and co-owned by Bill Kaplan, went on to win the Filly and Mare Sprint and earn an Eclipse Award. Musical Romance won the Princess Rooney in 2012.
Since the Princess Rooney has moved to Gulfstream Park, horses that won both runnings – Merry Meadow in 2015 and Spelling Again last year – each finished sixth in the Filly and Mare Sprint. Fillies and mares nominated for Saturday’s renewal include multiple graded stakes winners Birdatthewire, third in the 2016 Princess Rooney; and Curlin’s Approval, who has five career wins at Gulfstream.
The Grade 2 Highlander Stakes, a six-furlong turf sprint, was added as a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series qualifier this year. Among the horses nominated for the July 2 renewal are Calgary Cat, who was fourth in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint; and Green Mask, who was fifth last year and third in 2015. Another horse of note is Wesley Ward-trained Hootenanny, winner of the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.