A strong field of nine 3-year-old fillies is assembled for the $500,000, Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes Presented by Dixiana Saturday at Keeneland Race Course. This race is an “invitation only” event and so the cream of the crop is assembled, with seven of the nine fillies having finished first or second in graded stakes or equivalent in their most recent races.
Leading the field is a pair of recent winners at the top level. Magic Attitude won the Grade 1 Belmont Oaks Invitational handily by 2 ½ lengths last month, while Red Lark swooped in and drew away late to score by a length in the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks a few weeks earlier. Antoinette (second in the Belmont Oaks) and California Kook (second in the Del Mar Oaks) will both attempt to turn the tables on their foes. Micheline just won the Exacta Systems Dueling Grounds Oaks, which isn’t yet a graded stakes, but its $453,000 purse makes it the equivalent of a Grade 1 race. Harvey’s Lil Goil missed by a neck in the Dueling Grounds Oaks and won the Grade 3 Regret Stakes in June. Sweet Melania adds depth the field. She won the Grade 2 JPMorganChase Jessamine Stakes last fall at Keeneland and most recently was a nose shy of winning the Grade 3 Lake George Stakes. Hendy Woods and Lucky Betty finished second and third, respectively, in the Grade 2 Edgewood Stakes Presented by Forcht Bank last month and fit with these as well.
Although it is difficult to separate Red Lark and Magic Attitude in terms of win probability, I’m leaning towards Red Lark in this year’s Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes. Like Magic Attitude, Red Lark started her career overseas. Winless in five races in Ireland while trained by John Murtagh, Red Lark then shipped to the U.S. and trainer Patrick Gallagher and won her second start and first domestic race on turf in February. No worse than fifth in four races after that, three of those stakes, Red Lark put it all together to post a 19.10-1 upset in the Del Mar Oaks in August with a sharp turn of foot which helped her go from sixth on the backstretch, to third on the turn and into the stretch, to pulling away late. She earned a career-best 117 Equibase Speed Figure for that effort, and with jockey Drayden Van Dyke coming in from California to ride her once again, I think Red Lark has what it takes to win her second Grade 1 stakes in a row.
Magic Attitude was making her first start in the U.S. last month when victorious in the Belmont Oaks Invitational. She had run exceptionally well in Europe before importing, taking two of five races and finishing first, second and third in three stakes races including a runner-up effort in the Group 1 Prix Saint Alary in June. Then, in the Group 1 Prix de Diane Longines (French Oaks), Magic Attitude finished fifth of 11, beaten just three lengths by top turf star Fancy Blue. Her speed figures for her last three races in Europe were 105, 116 and 114, the last two comparable to the 117 figure Red Lark earned in the Del Mar Oaks. Then in her first U.S. start, Magic Attitude rallied from last of five to win the Belmont Oaks easily by nearly three lengths with a 104 figure. Since she’s likely to run even better in her second start in the U.S., Magic Attitude could also be poised to win her second Grade 1 stakes in succession.
California Kook isn’t without a chance to post the upset in this race based on her effort in the Del Mar Oaks. In that race, California Kook was last of 10 for the first six furlongs of the race then commenced a furious rally which fell one length short of winning at 27.20-1 odds. She next started against males in the Del Mar Derby and was well backed at 3.10-1 odds. California Kook had a much different trip in the Del Mar Derby, as she was inside and found herself in traffic at a critical stage of the race before ending up fourth of 11. With an outside post today and with hot rider Tyler Gaffalione in the saddle, California Kook may well be last turning for home in this race, but if she can get to the middle of the track and lengthen her stride like she did in the Del Mar Oaks, she can post the upset win in this year’s Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures, is Antoinette (108), Harvey’s Lil Goil (104), Hendy Woods (101), Lucky Betty (97), Micheline (104) and Sweet Melania (102).