Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Major Turf Preps at Arlington

Gio Ponti

By Patrick Reed, courtesy America's Best Racing

Saturday’s International Festival of Racing at Arlington Park takes center stage on the Road to the Breeders’ Cup, with two Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” events that historically have been key prep races for the male and female turf divisions.

Arlington’s signature race is the Arlington Million, which became the first race to offer a $1 million purse when it was unveiled in 1981. It will anchor a stakes-packed Saturday card that also includes the Beverly D. Stakes for turf females. The winners of the Million and the Beverly D. receive berths to the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf and the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, respectively.

The Arlington Million and Beverly D. will be featured in an hour-long broadcast by NBC Sports as part of the network’s “Win and You’re In” series of telecasts presented by Lane’s End and America’s Best Racing. The broadcast will air on NBCSN from 6:30 - 7:30 p.m. ET.

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 the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series races on tap this weekend:

Arlington Million

The 1 ¼-mile Million has been a cornerstone of American racing since its inaugural running due to its record-breaking seven-figure purse and its first winner, future Hall of Famer John Henry (who also won the 1984 Million). John Henry did not race in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Turf in 1984, and the first Million winner to make an impact in the Breeders’ Cup was 1986 winner Estrapade, who finished third in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita Park. Manila, winner of the 1986 Turf and that year’s Eclipse Award winner as champion turf male, scored in the 1987 Arlington Million, which would prove to be his final race as he was retired days after the race after suffering an injury. The son of Lyphard won 10 out of his final 11 races, and Theatrical, the horse who ran second to him in the 1986 Turf and third in the ’87 Million, would go on to win the ’87 Turf and the Eclipse Award. Manila was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2008.

With Approval, Canada’s Horse of the Year in 1989, finished second in both the 1990 Arlington Million and the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Two years later, a similar event occurred, as three-time Canadian champion Sky Classic took runner-up honors in the Million and Breeders’ Cup Turf, losing by a head and a nose, respectively. Nonetheless, Sam-Son Farm’s Sky Classic received the Eclipse Award as champion turf male in 1992.

There was little crossover between the Million and Breeders’ Cup Turf for the next several years, and the Arlington Million was not held in 1998 and 1999. In 2003, two horses from the Arlington Million – first-place finisher Storming Home and winner Sulamani – were sent off as the two post-time favorites in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at 2-1 and 3.10-1, respectively. They exited the Million having escaped disaster, when Storming Home ducked out sharply at the finish and unseated rider Gary Stevens in a horrific finish that resulted in Storming Home’s disqualification. Both Sulamani and Storming Home won their next races after the Million in Grade 1 stakes, but finished fifth and seventh at Santa Anita in arguably the most exciting race in Breeders’ Cup history: the dead-heat finish between High Chaparral and Johar.

In 2004, eventual champion turf male Kitten’s Joy finished runner-up to Better Talk Now in the Breeders’ Cup Turf as the 7-10 favorite, and the next summer Kitten’s Joy ran second to Powerscourt at 9-10 odds in the 2005 Million, which was his final race before going on to a successful stud career (Powerscourt had finished first in the 2004 Million but was disqualified).

Gio Ponti, a dead-cinch future Hall of Famer, was a regular presence both at Arlington Park and the World Championships during the turn of the 21st Century’s first decade. The three-time champion made his first start in the Million a winning one in 2009, scoring by 1 ¼ lengths. He would go on finish second to the supreme Zenyatta in the ’09 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita. In 2010, Gio Ponti returned to Arlington but could not withstand European invader Debussy’s late push and finished second by a half-length. That autumn, he would again settle for second behind a superstar, this time to recent Hall of Fame inductee Goldikova in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. In 2011, Gio Ponti returned to contest the same two races again. He finished second to Cape Blanco in the Arlington Million over a rain-saturated turf course, and then fourth in the Mile behind Court Vision, Turallure, and Goldikova in an absolute thriller.

Finally, in 2012, a horse achieved the Arlington Million-Breeders’ Cup Turf double. Little Mike was a hard-knocking gelding who only knew one way to win – take the lead early and see how far he could go. He entered the Arlington Million in career-best form, having won the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic and finishing a good third in the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile. He made his first start at 1 ¼ miles in the Million and, under a skillful ride from Ramon Dominguez, managed to carry his speed farther than ever before to win by 1 ½ lengths. Little Mike then faded badly in his next start, the 1 ½-mile Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational, defeated by 28 ½ lengths. That made his subsequent presence in the 1 ½-mile Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita a curiosity to many bettors, but Little Mike, again with Dominguez aboard and coming from slightly off the pace for a change, rewarded his faithful fans at odds of 17.30-1 with a half-length win over Point of Entry.

Magician, winner of the 2013 BC Turf, finished second in an upset to Hardest Core in the 2014 Million, while The Pizza Man and Big Blue Kitten, first and second in the 2015 Million, finished fifth and third, respectively, in a tough Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf that fall at Keeneland. Thirteen horses are pre-entered for this Saturday’s Arlington Million, including local favorite The Pizza Man, who would be making his third straight start in the race, 2016 third-place Million finisher Deauville, and 2016 Secretariat Stakes winner Beach Patrol.

Beverly D. Stakes

The Beverly D. was first run in 1987 and has been held at its current distance of 1 3/16 miles since 1988. Like the Arlington Million, the Beverly D. was not run in 1998 and 1999, and 1999 marked the first year the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf was held at Gulfstream Park. Several accomplished fillies and mares won the Beverly D. during the 1990s, but only one made a big impression on the Breeders’ Cup: world traveler Hatoof. That English One Thousand Guineas winner won the 1994 Beverly D., defeating Hall of Famer Flawlessly, and ran a good second to Tikkanen in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs, the final race in a career that saw her win graded/group stakes on four continents.

Through the 2000s, many Beverly D. winners went on to run in the Filly and Mare Turf, with the best showing coming from Film Maker, who was second in both races in 2006. Marketing Mix repeated that runner-up double in 2012. And in 2013, a European invader broke through to take both events. Dank made her first domestic start in the Beverly D. and was sent off at 3.20-1 odds, which seemed like manna from the heavens to her backers after she romped home by 4 ¼ lengths. The Sir Michael Stoute-trained filly did not start again until the Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita, where she scored by a half-length as the 3-2 favorite. Dank only made two starts in the U.S. in 2013, but those two were good enough to earn her the Eclipse Award as champion turf female. She finished fourth in the 2014 Filly and Mare Turf.

In 2015, Watsdachances and Stephanie’s Kitten were elevated to first and second, respectively, in the Beverly D. after Secret Gesture was disqualified to third after drifting out late. Watsdachances went on to finish sixth in the BC Filly and Mare Turf, but Stephanie’s Kitten won the race at Keeneland to cap off a $4.2 million-earning career that may place her in the Hall of Fame in the years to come.

This year’s Beverly D. has 10 fillies and mares pre-entered, including Modesty Handicap winner Dona Bruja, three Chad Brown trainees – Dacita, Grand Jete, and Rainha da Bateria – and Rain Goddess, a Group 1-placed European shipper trained by Aidan O’Brien.