Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Whitney Stakes a Key Classic Prep

The Whitney

By Patrick Reed, courtesy America's Best Racing

The prep season for the 2017 Breeders’ Cup World Championships is in full swing, and this Saturday, Aug. 5, one of the most prestigious races for older dirt horses in North America, the Grade 1, $1.2 million Whitney Stakes at Saratoga Race Course, will bring together some of the leading contenders for the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.

This year’s Breeders’ Cup, which will be held for the 34th time, 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, Del Mar in Southern California, on Nov. 3-4.

The Whitney Stakes is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Nov. 4 Classic, with the Whitney winner earning an automatic spot in the starting gate. The Whitney will be featured in NBC Sports’ live broadcast on-site from Saratoga as part of its “Win and You’re In” series of telecasts presented by Lane’s End and America’s Best Racing. The broadcast will air on NBC from 5 - 6 p.m. ET.

The only other “Win and You’re In” qualifier scheduled for this week takes place Wednesday, Aug. 2, in England. The Qatar Sussex Stakes was added to the Challenge Series in 2015, offering an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Mile to the winner. The one-mile turf race is held at one of England’s most exquisite racecourses, Goodwood in West Sussex, as part of its annual summer “Glorious Goodwood” meet.

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:

Whitney Stakes

The Whitney was first held in 1928 and is one of Saratoga’s seemingly endless group of historic stakes races, won by greats such as Discovery (three times), War Admiral, Gallorette, Tom Fool, Kelso (twice), and Dr. Fager through the years. (It’s also made its contributions to Saratoga’s reputation as “the graveyard of champions,” with one notable example being Onion’s defeat of Secretariat in 1973). It’s no surprise, then, that the Whitney has been consistently a key prep race in Breeders’ Cup history ever since the World Championships began in 1984. That year, Whitney winner Slew o’ Gold finished third in the inaugural Classic at Hollywood Park but was elevated to second, when runner-up Gate Dancer was disqualified after lugging in and pushing Slew o’ Gold into winner Wild Again in a rough, but exciting finish. Slew o’ Gold was voted Horse of the Year in 1984 nevertheless and entered the Racing Hall of Fame in 1992.

In 1986, the filly Lady’s Secret put together a phenomenal campaign, winning 10 of 15 starts, including the Whitney in a 4 ½-length romp, and later the Breeder’s Cup Distaff. She was voted Horse of the Year in 1986 and joined Slew o’ Gold in the 1992 Hall of Fame class. Another legendary filly, Personal Ensign, took down the 1988 Whitney for the 10th of her 13 career wins without a defeat, a career capped by a win in that year’s Distaff.

In 1989, Easy Goer entered the Whitney off of an eight-length romp in the Belmont Stakes over Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Sunday Silence, and at Saratoga, he handled older horses with ease under Pat Day in a 4 ½-length win. The Ogden Phipps homebred would go on to win the Travers Stakes, Woodward Stakes, and Jockey Club Gold Cup before a much-anticipated rematch against Sunday Silence in a thrilling renewal of the BC Classic at Gulfstream Park, with Sunday Silence prevailing by a neck.

After a relatively quiet few years, in 1995 Whitney runner-up L’Carriere finished a non-threatening second to the “unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable” Cigar in that fall’s Classic at Belmont Park. A year later, the great Serena’s Song finished second in the Whitney by a neck to Mahogany Hall and would go on to finish second in that year’s Distaff as well. And in 1997, Skip Away finished a distant third in the Whitney but soon reached peak form and won the Breeders’ Cup Classic before fashioning a Horse of the Year campaign in 1998.

That year, Awesome Again completed the first Whitney-Breeders’ Cup Classic double, winning the 1998 Whitney by three lengths under Pat Day (one of Day’s five wins in the race) and then the Classic by three-quarters of a length in a wild finish where he split horses late and surged to victory. The 23-year-old has been a cornerstone stallion for Frank Stronach’s Adena Springs in Kentucky ever since.

Another great racehorse turned good sire, Medaglia d’Oro won the 2003 Whitney by turning the tables on Volponi, who had won the ’02 Classic by a stunning 6 ½ lengths at odds of 43.50-1. Medaglia d’Oro would run second again in the ’03 Classic, this time to Pleasantly Perfect. In 2004, Whitney winner Roses in May finished second to Ghostzapper in a Breeders’ Cup Classic that launched the latter into superstardom. 2005 Whitney runner-up Saint Liam would fare better in that fall’s World Championships, however, scoring by a length in the Classic and earning Horse of the Year honors. His vanquisher in the ’05 Whitney, the pure speed horse Commentator, defeated Saint Liam by a neck that year and won the Whitney again going gate-to-wire in 2008.

One of the decade’s best tallied the second Whitney-Breeders’ Cup Classic double in 2006, as Invasor held off Sun King by a neck at the Spa and then defeated Bernardini in the Classic at Churchill Downs for Shadwell Stable and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. The Argentine-bred never lost in the U.S. through five starts, and also won the 2007 Dubai World Cup. He was named 2006 Horse of the Year, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013.

Four years later, another horse won the Whitney and the Breeders’ Cup Classic – and for racing fans, it’s the latter win that will forever be permanently etched into Thoroughbred racing lore. Blame had already established himself as one of the best older horses in training with a score in the Stephen Foster Handicap, and his close win over top-class Quality Road in the Whitney further enhanced his reputation. After coming in second to Haynesfield in the 2010 Jockey Club Gold Cup, Blame entered the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs as many people’s exacta filler behind defending Classic champ Zenyatta. Instead, Blame and Garrett Gomez took the lead in the stretch and somehow held off Zenyatta’s closing rush to win the Classic by a head and end the beloved racemare’s streak of 19 wins without a loss.

In 2012, Fort Larned took the same summer and fall route as Blame to the Breeders’ Cup – winning the Whitney, starting in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (finishing third), and then winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic. A year later, Mucho Macho Man finished third in the Whitney to Cross Traffic but won the Classic. And in 2015, Honor Code defeated eventual Las Vegas Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Liam’s Map by a neck in a thrilling Whitney before running third behind Horse of the Year American Pharoah in the BC Classic at Keeneland.

Saturday’s Whitney Stakes is expected to draw a competitive field headlined by Stephen Foster Handicap winner Gun Runner, who, given Arrogate’s recent stumble, can make a legitimate, albeit not entirely convincing, case as the best horse currently in training.

Qatar Sussex Stakes

Since becoming a Challenge Series race in 2015, the Qatar Sussex Stakes has not sent a winner to the Breeders’ Cup, but several winners from earlier years have made an impact on the World Championships. They include Barathea, second in the 1994 Sussex, who won that year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill Downs, and 2000 Sussex winner Giant’s Causeway, aka “the Iron Horse,” who finished a valiant second to Tiznow in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic before becoming one of the most influential North American sires so far this century.

In 2008, Sussex 1-2 finishers Henrythenavigator and Raven’s Pass reversed those positions in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Santa Anita Park’s synthetic main track. That race may, over time, serve as a hallmark reminder of a brief, now almost forgotten, era in North American racing when artificial-surface main tracks seemed to be the wave of the future.

Other weekend races:

There are several other graded stakes on tap for this upcoming weekend that are not “Win and You’re In” qualifiers but whose winners have occasionally gone on to shine in the Breeders’ Cup. They include the Yellow Ribbon Handicap at Del Mar, a turf race for fillies and mares. The superbly-bred Intercontinental won the Yellow Ribbon in 2005 (then known as the Palomar Handicap) for Bobby Frankel before defeating Quija Board and several other top-class females in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Belmont Park.

The Test Stakes, a seven-furlong race for 3-year-old fillies at Saratoga, has had a significant crossover with the Breeders’ Cup as winners include the aforementioned Lady ‘s Secret (’85 Test, ’86 Distaff), Hall of Famer Go For Wand (’89 Juvenile Fillies, won the ’00 Test before tragically breaking down in the BC Distaff), and champion Indian Blessing (BC Juvenile Fillies in ’07, Test in ’08).

Future book odds for the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Distaff

This spring, the race and sports book at Wynn Las Vegas unveiled its future bets for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Patterned after its popular Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands future book, the Breeders’ Cup sheets lists the leading contenders for the Nov. 3 Longines Distaff and Nov. 4 Classic at Del Mar. Wynn’s book will take future wagers on individual horses up until Breeders’ Cup week, with odds shifting according to horses’ performances and support during the Challenge Series season.

Here are Wynn’s top choices for the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Distaff as of July 31:

Classic

1. Arrogate (3-2)
2. Gun Runner (5-1)
3. Shaman Ghost (8-1)
4. Always Dreaming (15-1)
4. Keen Ice (15-1)
5. Collected (16-1)

Distaff

1. Songbird (7-5)
2. Stellar Wind (3-1)
3. Abel Tasman (6-1)
4. Forever Unbridled (7-1)
5. Paradise Woods (8-1)