Road to the Breeders’ Cup: A Stacked Saturday Prep Lineup at the Spa

Sword Dancer

By Patrick Reed, courtesy America's Best Racing

Aug. 26 marks an important point on the Thoroughbred racing calendar as owners, trainers, and jockeys continue to hone in on the Breeders’ Cup World Championships as November approaches. Year-in, year-out, the last weekend of August is one where several horses will emerge as leading contenders for various Breeders’ Cup races, many of them doing so at historic Saratoga Race Course.

The penultimate weekend at the Spa traditionally is highlighted by the track’s signature race for 3-year-olds, the $1.25 million Travers Stakes, which, although not an official Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” qualifying race, often sends its best performers on to the World Championships. Four other races on the card are “Win and You’re In” preps – the $1 million Longines Sword Dancer Invitational Stakes (Longines Turf), the $700,000 Personal Ensign Stakes (Longines Distaff), the $600,000 Priority One Jets Forego Stakes (Las Vegas Dirt Mile), and the $500,000 Ketel One Ballerina Stakes (Filly and Mare Sprint).

Del Mar, which is also winding down its popular summer meet, will host one “Win and You’re In” qualifier on Saturday – the $200,000 Pat O’Brien Stakes, which is a prep for the Las Vegas Dirt Mile. The Breeders’ Cup World Championships will be held for the first time at the picturesque Southern California track on Nov. 3-4. And three foreign races this week are part of the Challenge Series as well, all held at the boutique Ebor festival meet at York Racecourse in England. The Group 1 Juddmonte International Stakes, held on Aug. 23 is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Longines Turf. The Darley Yorkshire Oaks, held one day later, is a qualifier for the Filly and Mare Turf. Lastly, the Coolmore Nunthorpe Stakes held on Aug. 25 at York offers an automatic berth in the Turf Sprint to the winner.

Saturday’s television coverage will be led by NBC Sports’ national broadcast of the Travers and the Longines Sword Dancer Invitational, which airs on NBC from 4:30 – 6 p.m. ET as part of its its “Win and You’re In” Series Presented by Lane’s End and America’s Best Racing. The other three Saratoga Breeders’ Cup preps will be televised as part of “Saratoga Live,” NYRA's flagship show presented by Claiborne Farm. That broadcast will air from 2 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. ET and will be available in 75 million households nationally through Fox Sports 2 and regionally through MSG+, Fox Sports Prime Ticket, Fox Sports San Diego, Fox Sports Ohio and the Altitude Sports Network.. The Pat O’Brien Stakes will be televised by TVG.

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:

Longines Sword Dancer Invitational Stakes

The Sword Dancer, a 1 ½-mile prep for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf, was held at Belmont Park during the early years of the Breeders’ Cup era before moving to Saratoga in 1991. It has been won by some of the best U.S.-based grass horses from the past 30-plus years, starting with Theatrical in 1987. That Irish-bred son of Nureyev began his career in his native country and actually finished 11th in the 1985 Breeders’ Cup Turf in his third career start. By mid-1986, he was in the States to stay, and came just a neck short of capturing that autumn’s Turf, won by Hall of Famer Manila. In 1987, Theatrical won both the Sword Dancer and the Breeders’ Cup Turf, with Pat Day aboard for both victories. He was honored as champion turf male of 1987 by Eclipse Award voters, and went on to become a successful sire.

In 1988, Darby Dan Farm’s Sunshine Forever finished second in both the Sword Dancer and the Breeders’ Cup Turf, the latter by a half-length to Great Communicator. El Senor won back-to-back editions of the Sword Dancer in 1989 and 1990, and finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Turf in ’90. And in 1992, a second horse scored the Sword Dancer-Breeders’ Cup Turf double, as Madeleine Paulson’s Fraise won at Saratoga by four lengths, and, after two losses, rallied from last along the rail under Pat Valenzuela to edge champion Sky Classic in the Breeders’ Cup Turf by a nose.

Popular gelding John’s Call romped by 9 ¼ lengths in the 2000 Sword Dancer and went on to finish a close third in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs. Another fan favorite gelding, With Anticipation, won the Sword Dancer in both 2001 and 2002; he finished second to Ireland’s High Chaparral in the ’02 Turf. (Volponi, third in the ’02 Sword Dancer, would score a 43.50-1 upset win in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic).

Yet another beloved gelding, Better Talk Now, would become the third horse to win both the Sword Dancer and Breeders’ Cup Turf in 2004. Owned by Bushwood Stables and trained by Graham Motion, the son of Talkin Man earned his first top-level win in the Sword Dancer with a last-to-first charge under jockey Ramon Dominguez. Two starts later, he posted a driving, 27.90-1 upset win over champion Kitten’s Joy in the Breeders' Cup Turf at Lone Star Park. Better Talk Now would be a constant presence in Grade 1 turf stakes over the next five years, finishing second in the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Turf and runner-up in both the 2008 and 2009 editions of Sword Dancer (the latter his final start) as part of a splendid nine-season career that saw him earn more than $4.3 million.

Grand Couturier, an English-bred horse who started his career racing in Europe, finished third in the 2006 Sword Dancer but won the next two runnings, defeating English Channel in 2007 and Better Talk Now in 2008. English Channel, arguably one of the two or three best U.S.-bred turf horses of the 2000s, rebounded to win the ’07 Breeders’ Cup Turf by seven lengths on a rain-softened grass course at Monmouth Park. Horses who won or ran well in the Sword Dancer have continued on to the Breeders’ Cup more often than not over the subsequent 10 years, with notable showings coming from Point of Entry (won the Sword Dancer in 2012, second to Little Mike in the Breeders’ Cup Turf) and Flintshire (won the 2015 and 2016 Sword Dancers, and second in both the 2014 and 2016 Breeders' Cup Turfs).

In 2014, another Graham Motion-trained horse won both the Sword Dancer and the Breeders’ Cup Turf, as Flaxman Holdings’ Main Sequence scored a hard-fought victory by a head at Saratoga and then defeated Flintshire by a half-length in the Turf in the latter’s first start in the U.S. He received Eclipse Awards for both champion turf male and champion older male that year.

This year’s Sword Dancer is expected to draw recent Bowling Green Stakes winner Hunter O’Riley as well as Aidan O’Brien-trained Idaho, a multiple group stakes winner in Europe, and last year’s Pattison Canadian International Stakes winner Erupt.

Personal Ensign Stakes

The Personal Ensign was named after Ogden Phipps’ champion filly and 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff winner in 1998 and prior to that was run as the John Morris Handicap (from 1986 to 1997) and as the Firenze Handicap (from its beginning in 1948 to 1985). The race was held at 1 1/8 miles during the early years of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff before being extended to its current 1 ¼ miles in 1995. There was not a lot of crossover between the two races through the early 1990s, although Versailles Treaty did finish second in both in 1992, and Heavenly Prize won the John Morris and finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in 1995. But in 1999, that all changed in a very big way. Beautiful Pleasure, owned by John Oxley and trained by John Ward, took the Personal Ensign by 2 ¼ lengths over odds-on favorite Banshee Breeze, and then defeated that foe again in a swiftly-run ’99 Distaff at Gulfstream Park. Not surprisingly, Beautiful Pleasure would receive the champion older female Eclipse Award for ’99, and she would go on to win the 2000 Personal Ensign and finish second in the 2001 edition as well.

In 2004, Storm Flag Flying, the champion juvenile filly of 2002, won the Personal Ensign, defeating ’02 Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner and Horse of the Year Azeri. Storm Flag Flying would go on to finish second to another champion and Hall of Famer, Ashado, in the ’04 Distaff. Ginger Punch, winner of the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Distaff and that year’s champion older female, returned in 2008 to take the Personal Ensign. And in 2012, the great Royal Delta finished second to Love and Pride in the Personal Ensign before winning the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic, as it was then named, at Santa Anita Park. The Bill Mott trainee returned in 2013 to win the Personal Ensign, which turned out to be her final career victory.

Two years ago, Stopchargingmaria finished fourth in the Personal Ensign but summoned a peak performance to win the Breeders’ Cup Distaff months later at Keeneland (Personal Ensign winner Sheer Drama finished fourth in the Distaff). Last year, Forever Unbridled finished third in both races. That top-class mare is slated to contest Saturday’s Personal Ensign but will get second billing behind champion Songbird in what is expected to be a short field.

Priority One Jets Forego Stakes

The Forego is a qualifying race for the Las Vegas Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, but has had more of an impact on the Breeders' Cup Sprint through the years, as the Dirt Mile was not held until 2007. The Forego was first held in 1980, named after the mid-1970s superstar, and made its first impression on the Breeders’ Cup Sprint during 1986-87, when Groovy won the Forego in both years and ran second as the odds-on favorite to Very Subtle in the ’87 Sprint at Hollywood Park. Two years later, Ogden Phipps homebred Dancing Spree was runner-up to Quick Call in the Forego but won the 1989 Breeders’ Cup Sprint by a neck over the eventual Hall of Fame filly Safely Kept, who would be voted champion sprinter that year at the Eclipse Awards and win the Sprint in 1990. Rubiano, winner of the 1992 Forego, finished third as the favorite in that fall’s Sprint, but over the next 10 years no Forego winners went on to distinguish themselves at the Breeders’ Cup, although many ran.

Orientate had established a reputation as a solid, if inconsistent, stakes winner during 2001 and into 2002, but when shortened up for good by D. Wayne Lukas that summer he proceeded to win five consecutive stakes races to close out his career, his last two being the Forego and the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. That was more than good enough to earn an Eclipse Award as champion sprinter.

Five years later, another dominant sprinter won both the Forego and Breeders’ Cup Sprint in the Bob Baffert-trained Midnight Lute. He won those races back-to-back en route to champion male sprinter honors in 2007, and the injury-plagued horse then came back to win the Sprint in 2008 in somewhat of a surprise before starting a promising stud career.

In 2010, Big Drama finished second to Here Comes Ben in the Forego and then won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs. Private Zone, arguably one of the best sprinters in recent years, finished third in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, won the 2015 Forego Stakes, and then finished second in the ’15 TwinSpires Sprint. And last year’s Forego winner A.P. Indian ran fourth in the TwinSpires Sprint but was elevated to third via runner-up Masochistic’s disqualification.

Meanwhile, there had been very little crossover between the Forego and the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, until last year. That’s when Tamarkuz, who had finished sixth in the 2015 Forego, returned to the Spa to try again and came in second behind A.P. Indian. The Shadwell Stable-owned son of Speightstown then finished second in the Kelso Handicap at Belmont Park before contesting a tough renewal of the Las Vegas Dirt Mile, where he defeated the likes of Gun Runner and Accelerate by 3 ½ lengths at 11.90-1 odds.

This year’s renewal of the Forego is expected to draw a superb field, headed by reigning TwinSpires Sprint winner champion sprinter Drefong, who burst upon the scene one year ago this weekend as a 3-year-old, and Mind Your Biscuits, who was placed second to Drefong in the TwinSpires Sprint last year and has won his most recent two starts in dominating style.

Ketel One Ballerina Stakes

The Ballerina Stakes, a seven-furlong sprint, has been won by such notables as Lady’s Secret (1985, runner-up in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff and winner of the 1986 Distaff), champion Queena (1991), and millionaires Dream Supreme (2000) and Lady Tak (2004). In the first year the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint was held – 2007 – a Ballerina winner took top honors. Maryfield scored by 1 ½ lengths under Elvis Trujillo in the midst of a Monmouth Park monsoon and would receive the first-ever champion female sprinter Eclipse Award for her efforts.

Informed Decision, third in the 2009 Ballerina, won the Filly and Mare Sprint and the Eclipse Award for owner Augustin Stable. And Better Lucky, fourth in the 2014 Ballerina, nearly won that year’s Filly and Mare Sprint, coming up a head short of champion Judy the Beauty.

By the Moon, second in the 2016 Ballerina and fifth in the Filly and Mare Sprint, headlines a competitive field set for Saturday’s Ballerina that is also expected to draw Paulassilverlining, who finished fifth in last year’s Ballerina and third in the Filly and Mare Sprint, and who has won four consecutive stakes races since.

Pat O’Brien Stakes

The Pat O’Brien was first held in 1986 and is named after the Del Mar co-founder. The first horse to exit the race and make waves at the World Championships was Cardmania, who finished third in the 1993 Pat O’Brien but then won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint by a neck at Santa Anita Park (the gelding also finished fourth in the 1994 Sprint). Lit de Justice, winner of the 1995 Pat O’Brien, finished third in that year’s Sprint and then checked in third in the 1996 Pat O’Brien before winning the Sprint in a driving finish. The horse that defeated Lit de Justice in the ’96 Pat O’Brien, Alphabet Soup, won that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic in a 19.85-1 upset over Louis Quatorze and the legendary Cigar.

In 2004, Pat O’Brien winner Kela finished second to Speightstown in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Lone Star Park. A year later, Taste of Paradise took third in the Pat O’Brien and then came a head short of winning the Sprint at Belmont Park. 2009 Pat O’Brien winner Zensational was fifth as the 9-5 favorite in a thrilling Breeders’ Cup Sprint that saw the top four finishers separated by less than half a length. And in 2013 and 2014, Goldencents made his mark in the Pat O’Brien and in the Breeders’ Cup, albeit not in the Sprint. The talented runner finished second in the Pat O’Brien in ’13 to Fed Biz and turned the tables on that foe in 2014 – and he also won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in both years. Goldencents is the only Pat O'Brien horse to date that's made an impact on the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (Fed Biz ran in three consecutive editions from 2012-14 and was unplaced in all of them).

Last year’s Pat O’Brien winner, Masochistic, ran second to Drefong in the TwinSpires Sprint at Santa Anita but was later disqualified due to a medication violation. Several horses who ran in last month’s Bing Crosby Stakes at Del Mar are nominated to Saturday’s renewal of the Pat O’Brien, including Moe Candy (third), Solid Wager (fifth), and Denman’s Call (sixth).

Travers Stakes

The 1 ¼-mile Travers Stakes may not be a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup, but that certainly does not mean that it lacks significance as a prep race. On the contrary, many 3-year-olds who have excelled in Saratoga’s crown jewel race have gone on to excel in November. Twenty-nine years ago, Forty Niner, second to the filly Winning Colors in the 1988 Kentucky Derby, won a thrilling Travers by a nose over Seeking the Gold. The pair would contest a star-studded Breeders’ Cup Classic that November at Churchill Downs, where Forty Niner would finish fourth and Seeking the Gold second to the great Hall of Famer Alysheba.

One year later, Belmont Stakes winner and Kentucky Derby and Preakness runner-up Easy Goer won the Travers by a comfortable three lengths. That was the third in what would become a five-race winning streak for Easy Goer as he entered the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Ogden Phipps homebred had absolutely dominated his opponents for nearly three months and was sent off as the 1-2 favorite in the Classic, but in one of the greatest races in history, he settled for second-best to his Kentucky Derby and Preakness vanquisher Sunday Silence, beaten by a neck.

Five years later, the two horses turned back by Hall of Famer Holy Bull in his incredible 1994 Travers Stakes win – Concern and Tabasco Cat – finished first and second, respectively, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, separated by a neck. (Holy Bull skipped the Breeders’ Cup but was still voted Horse of the Year as a 3-year-old.) The 1996 Travers also produced two horses that would shine in the months ahead. Runner-up Louis Quatorze finished a nose behind the aforementioned Alphabet Soup in that fall’s Classic, and third-place finisher Skip Away would dominate the 1997 Classic by six lengths (and be voted Horse of the Year in 1998).

In 2002, Travers winner Medaglia d’Oro ran a distant second to longshot Volponi (mentioned above) in an unpredictable Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Bobby Frankel-trained horse would also finish second in the 2003 Classic and is one of North America’s leading sires today. 2005 Travers winner Flower Alley finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to Saint Liam, and one year later, Bernardini likewise won the Travers and ran second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to Invasor.

More recently, the Travers served as the breakthrough race for D. Wayne Lukas-trained Will Take Charge, who rallied in the last jump to nip Moreno by a nose at Saratoga. Unfortunately for his connections and fans, that nose margin would turn out to be his measure of defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic later that fall at Santa Anita, as Will Take Charge lived up to his name with a powerful closing kick, only to fall just short of victorious Mucho Macho Man in one of the most exciting races in recent years.

In 2014, 2.45-1 Travers favorite Bayern finished last of 10 in a thoroughly disappointing performance, but then won the Pennsylvania Derby before posting a controversial front-running win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic that survived a steward’s inquiry. Keen Ice’s win in the 2015 Travers Stakes will go down in lore as the only blemish on American Pharoah’s incredible 3-year-old Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic-winning campaign; the Donegal Racing (now co-owned by Calumet Farm) runner finished fourth to Pharoah in the ’15 Classic, third last year, and is a likely starter in the 2016 renewal this fall.

For all of that history, there had never been a Travers winner that went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner in the same year … until last year. Arrogate’s record-setting Travers score propelled him to superstardom. His elite status was confirmed by his win over California Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and then amplified by his incredible races earlier this year. Arrogate’s last two starts and Gun Runner’s excellence this summer complicate the Breeders’ Cup Classic picture for this fall, and leave an opening for one of several talented 3-year-olds of 2017 to join the leaderboard. A field of 12 is set for Saturday’s Travers, led by the winners of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Always Dreaming), the Preakness Stakes (Cloud Computing) and the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRABets (Tapwrit), joined by such other graded stakes winners as Girvin, Irap, McCraken, Good Samaritan, and West Coast.