Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Crucial Preps at Woodbine, Churchill

Racing
Wise Dan, shown winning the 2012 Woodbine Mile, also won that race in 2013 along with the Breeders’ Cup Mile in both years. (Eclipse Sportswire)

After a weekend bereft of domestic “Win and You’re In” qualifying prep races for the November Breeders’ Cup World Championships, the calendar picks up considerable momentum again in the upcoming weekend, as Woodbine in Toronto and historic Churchill Downs will host a total of five Challenge Series races.

Saturday’s slate features the Grade 1 Ricoh Woodbine Mile Stakes, a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Mile, and at Churchill Downs, juveniles on the rise will square off in the Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes and Grade 3 Pocahontas Stakes. Those two stakes are qualifiers for the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and 14 Hands Winery Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, respectively. They are both held at 1 1/16 miles, which is a two-turn distance at Churchill Downs, making them extra important for fans and handicappers aiming to spot live contenders for both the Breeders’ Cup and, down the road, the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and the Longines Kentucky Oaks. The Iroquois and Pocahontas also kick off the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks points series.

On Sunday, Woodbine runs the Grade 1 Natalma Stakes and the Grade 2 TVG Summer Stakes. These are Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” races for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. In addition to the five Breeders’ Cup automatic qualifiers, there are several other stakes over the weekend that have had an impact on the World Championships through the years.

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 this weekend’s “Win and You’re In” qualifying races, and notes on the other stakes that have been significant on the Road to the Breeders’ Cup:

Ricoh Woodbine Mile Stakes

The Ricoh Woodbine Mile has a rich history since its first running in 1997, and the crossover between this signature race north of the border and the Breeders’ Cup Mile began immediately. Inaugural Woodbine Mile winner Geri shipped to Hollywood Park for the Breeders’ Cup Mile and finished second behind European invader Spinning World for owner Allen Paulson and trainer Bill Mott of Cigar fame. In 1998, Woodbine Mile winner Labeeb was third in the Breeders’ Cup Mile and, over the next several years, Woodbine Mile winners continued to make good showings in the Breeders’ Cup Mile on occasion, including Good Journey (third in 2002), Touch of the Blues (second to Six Perfections in 2003), and champion Leroidesanimaux (second to Artie Schiller in 2005). In addition to those horses, 1999 Woodbine Mile fifth-place finisher Silic won the Breeders' Cup Mile two starts later by a neck over Tuzla. The Woodbine Mile was run as the Atto Mile from 1999-2005.

In 2007, fan favorite and Oklahoma-bred Kip Deville was in the midst of a breakthrough season when he finished second by a length in the Woodbine Mile to Shakespeare. But he then unleashed a career-best performance in his next start, powering through the stretch of Monmouth Park’s rain-softened turf course to take the Breeders’ Cup Mile under Cornelio Velasquez. Kip Deville would continue his good form into 2008, and finish second behind Hall of Famer Goldikova in that autumn’s Breeders’ Cup Mile.

Juddmonte Farms' Ventura, trained by Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel, won the Woodbine Mile in 2009, a year after taking the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint over Santa Anita's synthetic main track. Durable Court Vision made three consecutive starts in the Breeders’ Cup Mile from 2009-2011, and also appeared in two editions of the Woodbine Mile. The son of Gulch won the Woodbine Mile in 2010 but finished seventh in 2011 to Turallure. He had finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in his prior Breeders’ Cup Mile efforts and was sent off at odds of 64.80-1 at Churchill Downs in 2011, coming out of that seventh-place showing at Woodbine and squaring off against heavy favorite Goldikova, who was aiming for her fourth consecutive Breeders’ Cup Mile win. What commenced was one of the most exciting races in Breeders’ Cup history and a monumental upset win for Court Vision, who edged Turallure by a nearly imperceptible nose, with Goldikova a vanquished third. Court Vision had changed owners and trainers through the years and was by fall 2011 owned by B. Wayne Hughes’ Spendthrift Farm and conditioned by Dale Romans. The Breeders’ Cup Mile was his final career start.

The Woodbine Mile-Breeders’ Cup Mile symbiosis has continued to be strong in the current decade, thanks to champions Wise Dan and Tepin. Wise Dan received Horse of the Year honors in 2012 and 2013, and among the races he won during that timespan were consecutive runnings of the Woodbine Mile and the Breeders’ Cup Mile. In both 2012 and 2013, Charles LoPresti used the Woodbine Mile and the Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland as preps for Wise Dan heading into the Breeders’ Cup. The gelding’s only blemish among those six races came in the 2013 Shadwell Turf Mile when it was rained off of the turf and he finished second. All in all, it was an incredible extended streak of excellence by a horse that few will ever forget.

Trade Storm, winner of the 2014 Woodbine Mile, finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Mile as longshots took all top four positions. A year later, Mondialiste won the Ricoh Woodbine Mile in his first start in North America. He then put forth a valiant effort in his next start, the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Keeneland, that was still 2 ¼ lengths too late to catch dominant winner Tepin. Tepin’s Breeders’ Cup Mile win was the second of what would become nine consecutive victories stretching into fall 2016, ending with a gritty half-length score in the Ricoh Woodbine Mile. She finished second in her final two starts, the last to Tourist in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, before retiring as a two-time champion and a certain Hall of Fame inductee a few years from now.

Mondialiste is among several accomplished horses nominated to Saturday’s Ricoh Woodbine Mile. Others include Fourstardave Handicap winner World Approval, 2016 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf runner-up Lancaster Bomber, and Play the King Stakes winner Conquest Panthera.

Iroquois Stakes

Until 2013, both the Iroquois and Pocahontas Stakes were run during Churchill Downs’ November meet and after the Breeders’ Cup, as Turfway Park held the commonwealth’s September dates. In the four years since Churchill has moved both races to its abbreviated September meet, no Iroquois winner has gone on to win the Sentient Jet Juvenile, although Not This Time came oh so close last fall. The Dale Romans-trained colt, owned by Albaugh Family Stable, romped in the Iroquois by 8 ¾ lengths, and was sent off as the 2.80-1 favorite in the Juvenile. He dueled with fellow Kentucky-based colt Classic Empire through the Santa Anita stretch but came up a neck short. Unfortunately, Not This Time was retired soon afterward with an injury.

Saturday’s Iroquois has several promising 2-year-old colts nominated, including Hollywood Star, who finished second in the Saratoga Special, and Bashford Manor Stakes winner Ten City.

Of note: The winner of the 2007 Iroquois was none other than Court Vision, discussed above, who found his true calling on turf later in his career.

Pocahontas Stakes

Untapable won the 2013 Pocahontas Stakes, the first edition run in September, but endured a rough trip and was eased in the 14 Hands Winery Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. By the end of the next calendar year, the Winchell Thoroughbreds-owned filly was 3-year-old champion female and winner of the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

The 2014 Pocahontas was won by Cristina’s Journey, with 3-2 favorite Take Charge Brandi tiring late to finish fifth. Take Charge Brandi then performed even worse in the Darley Alcibiades Stakes at Keeneland, finishing eighth – but in her next start, she scored a 61.70-1 front-running upset in the Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita. That improbable win, followed by two more stakes wins to close out 2014, was good enough to earn her the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old filly. 

In 2015, Pocahontas winner Dothraki Queen finished third behind the sensational Songbird in the Juvenile Fillies, and last year, Pocahontas winner Daddys Lil Darling checked in fourth behind longshot Juvenile Fillies victress Champagne Room.

Fillies nominated to Saturday’s Pocahontas include John Oxley’s Snowfire, fourth in the Schuylerville Stakes, Ellis Park Debutante Stakes winner Kelly’s Humor, and a few sharp maiden winners, including Sultry and Harbor Lights.

Natalma Stakes

Since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf was first held in 2008, the one-mile Natalma Stakes has sent several elite fillies on to the World Championships; however, in the first few years when both races were run, it was the also-rans who had more of an impact. In 2010, More Than Real brought famed chef Bobby Flay to the Breeders’ Cup winner’s circle after scoring a 13.60-1 upset in the Juvenile Fillies Turf at Churchill Downs; the More Than Ready filly had finished second in the Natalma one race before.

The next year, Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s Stephanie’s Kitten finished third in the Natalma, but then won the Grade 1 Darley Alcibiades Stakes at Keeneland on the synthetic main track and followed that with a driving three-quarter-length win in the Juvenile Fillies’ Turf, again at Churchill Downs. Stephanie’s Kitten would go on to finish second in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf and then win that same race in her final start a year later. She earned nearly $4.3 million in a likely Hall of Fame career. (Incidentally, 2011 Natalma runner-up Dayatthespa would become an elite turf filly in her own right, just on a slower timetable. She bested Stephanie’s Kitten in the 2014 Filly and Mare Turf and won the Eclipse Award in her division that year.)

More recently, Catch a Glimpse became the first filly to win both the Natalma and the Juvenile Fillies Turf when she did so in 2015. Her three-quarter-length win in the latter race at Keeneland was one of two victories for Mark Casse during the two-day Breeders’ Cup, the other coming with the aforementioned Tepin in the Mile.

TVG Summer Stakes

The one-mile Summer Stakes on Woodbine’s turf made an impact on the Breeders’ Cup the year before the Juvenile Turf was inaugurated, which was in 2007 at Monmouth Park. In 2006, the Wayne Catalano-trained filly Dreaming of Anna raced against males and won the Summer Stakes by an easy 3 ¼ lengths one race prior to scoring a similarly impressive 1 ¼-length win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies on dirt at Churchill Downs. 

Two years after the Juvenile Turf began, 2009 Summer Stakes winner Bridgetown set the pace in the Breeders’ Cup event at Santa Anita and held on strong to finish a very good second to European shipper Pounced. And one year later, Pluck became the first horse to win both races, scoring by a length in the Summer Stakes and then rallying from last under Garrett Gomez to win the Juvenile Turf by the same margin at Churchill Downs for Team Valor International.

In 2011, Excaper finished second in both the Summer Stakes and Juvenile Turf, and in 2014 and 2015, Summer Stakes winners Conquest Typhoon and Conquest Daddyo – both owned by Conquest Stables and trained by Mark Casse – each finished fourth in subsequent editions of the Juvenile Turf. Last year, Good Samaritan won the Summer Stakes by 1 ½ lengths, and then ran a good third behind Oscar Performance and Lancaster Bomber in the Juvenile Turf at Santa Anita. He’s gone on to be a solid turf performer as a 3-year-old but now may be reaching his true potential after being switched to dirt and winning the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets.

Other weekend races:

Belmont Park’s Sands Point Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile turf race for 3-year-old fillies, was held during that track’s spring meet until 2014. Earlier this decade, 2011 Sands Point winner Winter Memories had finished second in the prior year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf to aforementioned More Than Real, and 2012 Sands Point winner Better Lucky would make an impression on the 2014 World Championships when coming up a neck short to Judy the Beauty in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint on Santa Anita’s main dirt track. Since being moved to fall, the Sands Point has had minimal impact on the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf; the best showing coming in 2015, when Sands Point winner Sentiero Italia finished fourth to Stephanie’s Kitten at Keeneland.

The Locust Grove Stakes at Churchill Downs was held on turf until 2012. Since 2013, it’s been carded at 1 1/16 miles on dirt, with 2014 winner Don’t Tell Sophia going on to finish second behind Untapable in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Woodbine also holds three graded stakes on Saturday bolstering its Ricoh Woodbine Mile card – the 1 1/8-mile Canadian Stakes for fillies and mares, the Northern Dancer Turf Stakes at 1 ½ miles, and the Bold Venture Stakes at 6 ½ furlongs. The best turf female to hit the board in the Canadian Stakes and then make a mark on the Breeders’ Cup was undoubtedly 2008 champion Forever Together. The Augustin Stable-owned gray finished third and second in the ’08 and 2009 runnings of the Canadian, and in three consecutive editions of the Filly and Mare Turf she finished first in ’08, third in ’09, and sixth in a dead heat in 2010, her final start.

The Northern Dancer Turf was first held in 1994, and, as Woodbine’s traditional prep for the Pattison Canadian International Stakes in October, rarely sends its top finishers onto the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf held two to three weeks later. In 1998 Chief Bearhart, winner of the prior year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf, won the Northern Dancer Turf when it was a listed stakes. The five-time Sovereign Award winner (and Eclipse Award winner in 1997) would finish fourth in the ’98 Breeders’ Cup Turf, his second-to-last career start. Better Talk Now, the beloved gelding and winner of the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Turf, finished third in the ’03 Northern Dancer Turf just as he was getting his lengthy career into high gear. As for the Bold Venture Stakes, held on Woodbine’s synthetic main track, the best Breeders’ Cup horse to win that race was Fatal Bullet, who took back-to-back runnings at Woodbine in 2008 and 2009 and finished second to Midnight Lute in the ’08 Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Mongolian Saturday did finish tenth in the 2014 Bold Venture and won the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint a year later in an upset; he recently was runner-up in the Turf Monster Stakes at Parx Racing.

At Laurel Park, the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash Stakes has sent several top-class winners on to Breeders’ Cup success since its first running in 1990, despite being moved around on the racing calendar several times and not being held in 2008 and 2010. The 1991 second edition featured future Hall of Famer Housebuster winning the race before disappointing in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, and 1990 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Safely Kept finishing third. Three years later, Cherokee Run won both the De Francis Dash and the Breeders’ Cup Sprint en route to capturing the 1994 Eclipse Award as champion sprinter.

Xtra Heat, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015, finished second in the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Sprint as a 3-year-old and then third in the De Francis Dash, her next start. That loss in the De Francis Dash was her only defeat at Laurel Park among nine total starts. In 2006, Doug O’Neill-trained Thor’s Echo became the second horse to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint and De Francis Dash in the same year, scoring by a dominant four lengths in the Breeders’ Cup and then edging Diabolical by three-quarters of a length in the De Francis Dash one start later in what turned out to be his last win of his career. He was honored as champion sprinter in 2006.

From 2014-2016, the De Francis Dash was run during November, but is back to September for this year’s renewal.

A final note: Outside of the Woodbine Mile, Monday’s Grade 2 Presque Isle Masters Stakes over Presque Isle Downs' synthetic Tapeta Footings surface has had more crossover with the Breeders’ Cup than any other race of the weekend. Since it was first held in 2007, three winners of the 6 ½-furlong sprint have won the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. Informed Decision won the Presque Isle Masters in 2009 and 2010, and the Filly and Mare Sprint in 2009. Musical Romance won both races in 2011. And the great Groupie Doll won both races each in 2012 and 2013. All three racemares received Eclipse Awards in the years they doubled up.

Future book odds for the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Longines Distaff

This spring, the race and sports book at Wynn Las Vegas unveiled its future bets for the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff. 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 Sept. 6:

Classic:

1) Gun Runner (13-10)

2) Arrogate (11-5)

3) Collected (3-1)

4) West Coast (9-1)

5) Keen Ice (10-1)

Longines Distaff:

1) Stellar Wind (8-5)

2) Forever Unbridled (9-5)

3) Abel Tasman (3-1)

4) Elate (6-1)

5) Vale Dori (7-1)

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