A strong field of 10 three-year-old fillies was entered for the Grade 1, $500,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes Presented by Dixiana. This race is an “invitation only” event at Keeneland and drew eight horses that have been running in North America plus two coming in from Europe off good efforts in stakes.
In terms of achievements, Shantisara could be considered first based on purse earnings as she’s just $12,000 short of a half-million dollars, the majority of that earned winning the nongraded, but very classy $671,000 Jockey Club Oaks Invitational last month at Belmont Park. Then there’s Empress Josephine, who along with Nicest has faced the toughest competition of any horse in the field. Empress Josephine won the Group 1 Irish One Thousand Guineas in May and comes back on six days rest after finishing third last week in the Grade 1 First Lady Stakes Presented by UK Healthcare at Keeneland. Nicest finished third in the Juddmonte Irish Oaks when last seen in mid-July and the horse that won the race is top European filly Snowfall, who recently finished sixth against some of the toughest males in the world in the Group 1 Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Technical Analysis enters this race off a victory in the Grade 2 Lake Placid Stakes, while Flippant just won the Woodford Reserve Virginia Oaks at the distance of the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup. Closing Remarks is another who has been competitive in top company as she finished second in the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks in her most recent race. Burning Ambition is yet another recent stakes winner, having captured the Indiana Grand Stakes last month. Cloudy Dawn makes her North American debut and, when last seen in August, she was victorious in the Group 3 Prix de Lieurey so she is another not to be taken lightly. Queen Goddess and Lady Speightspeare both enter this race off allowance wins, and for Lady Speightspeare it was her first start following nearly a year away from the races. Just prior to the layoff she won the Grade 1 Natalma Stakes.
Empress Josephine has the best credentials in the field and one of the best Equibase Speed Figures earned by any filly in this group, a 113 when third last week in the First Lady Stakes at a shorter distance on the Keeneland turf. In that race, Empress Josephine raced midpack in sixth of 12 in the early stages and steadily made up ground to finish third, just a half-length from the runner-up, with the winner another half-length in front. She had just run four weeks earlier in Ireland when fourth of 13, beaten a head for third, in the very important Group 1 Matron Stakes. That effort earned a 115 figure and she had earned a 114 figure in May when winning the Irish One Thousand Guineas. No other horse in the field, except Nicest, has broken through the 110 figure threshold, so considering Empress Josephine has done it three times this season, she appears to be the one to beat. As a daughter of amazing sire Galileo, Empress Josephine should appreciate the extra eighth of a mile and she adds blinkers as well, probably suggested by top jockey John Velazquez, who returns to ride after being aboard last weekend. There’s also no concern about the filly returning so quickly because her trainer is one of the best in the world in Aiden O’Brien, who according to a Stats Race Lens query has only run two horses back on a week’s rest in the past five years. One of those was Athena, who won the 2018 Belmont Oaks easily off a similarly short respite. Even more significant is the fact that Together, who was a daughter of Galileo and who was trained by O’Brien, finished second in the 2011 First Lady Stakes then went on to win the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup one week later.
Flippant may be a live longshot candidate even though she has won three races in a row, two of those stakes races. Flippant won the Kentucky Downs TVG Preview Dueling Grounds Oaks in August with a 98 Equibase Speed Figure then improved to 100 at the end of August when victorious in the Virginia Oaks at the same 1 1/8-mile trip of the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup. In the Virginia Oaks, Flippant put in a furious rally from 11th with a quarter-mile to go and was never really asked as she lengthened her stride to win going away. The 100 speed figure earned is a far cry from any of the three best figures Empress Josephine has earned, but Flippant has the pattern to improve and the breeding to run very well. The Stats Race Lens report on her dam, Frivolous, shows that mare won the Grade 1 Fleur de Lis Stakes at this distance on dirt as well as won on turf, and the report on her sire, Tapit, shows me his daughter Time and Motion won the 2016 edition of the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, so there is a lot of potential for this filly to run well.
Cloudy Dawn and Nicest are both nice fillies who have faced some tough competition in Europe and who could both have a say in the outcome of this race. Cloudy Dawn just won a Group 3 stakes in Europe, roughly the equivalent of a Grade 2 stakes in North America, and she was flattered when the runner-up came back to win her next race. Trainer William Haggas hasn’t started many horses in North America in the past few years but one of them was Call to Mind, owned by Her Majesty the Queen, who shipped in to win the 2018 Belmont Gold Cup. Nicest has been facing top company, just like Empress Josephine, and that alone warrants consideration as a contender. She finished third of 13 in the Ribblesdale Stakes in June at Royal Ascot and followed that up with a third-place finish behind top European 3-year-old Snowfall in the Irish Oaks in mid-July. That last effort earned a 116 Equibase Speed Figure and, if she can repeat or improve off that effort nearly three months later, she could certainly be in the thick of the action at the finish line in this race.
The rest of the field (with best Equibase Speed Figure): Burning Ambition (83), Closing Remarks (101), Lady Speightspeare (98), Queen Goddess (91), Shantisara (101) and Technical Analysis (100).
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You can get Ellis Starr's full card detailed analysis and betting recommendations for all the races at Keeneland at Equibase.com, TrackMaster.com and most online wagering sites.