Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Belmont Preps Have Historical Influence

Hall of Famer Curlin won the 2008 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, his second consecutive win in the race, near the end of his accomplished career. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The first of two consecutive weekends loaded with significant prep races for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Churchill Downs in November arrives on Sept. 29. A total of eight domestic stakes races are pegged as Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” qualifiers that offer automatic berths to Breeders’ Cup races to the winners.

Belmont Park on Long Island hosts three “Win and You’re In” preps: the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes (a "Win and You're In" prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic); Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Stakes (a qualifier for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf); and the Grade 1 Vosburgh Stakes (TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint).

The other five graded stakes are at Santa Anita Park: the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes (qualifier for Breeders’ Cup Classic); Grade 1 Zenyatta Stakes (Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff); Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes (Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile); Grade 1 Chandelier Stakes (Tito's Handmade Vodka Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies); and Grade 1 Rodeo Drive Stakes (Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf).

In addition, there are three overseas automatic qualifiers and a few other graded stakes in North America that, while not “Win and You’re In” races, still have sent winners on to earn fame and a lot of money in the Breeders’ Cup.

The 14 Breeders’ Cup races attract the best Thoroughbreds in the world to compete for $30 million in purse money and awards, and the selection of starters in each race 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 from Belmont Park, as well as a look at other domestic graded stakes this weekend (a review of Santa Anita and foreign Challenge Series races will be posted on Wednesday):

Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes

The Jockey Club Gold Cup is arguably one of the top ten most important races in the history the sport in North America. It was first run in 1919 and has been won by a group of horses that, taken in total, comprise a good chunk of real estate in the Racing Hall of Fame. Needless to say, the 1 ¼-mile test on Belmont’s oval (owing to the vast circumference of “Big Sandy,” the Jockey Club is still a one-turn race) has been an important Breeders’ Cup Classic prep since 1984.

In the very first running of the Classic, Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Slew o’ Gold was part of a three-horse charge to the wire in deep stretch and was bumped hard by Gate Dancer, forcing him into longshot winner Wild Again. Slew o’ Gold, the dominant part of a 3-5 favored entry in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, was placed second. He was voted champion older male of 1984 and entered the Hall of Fame in 1992.

In 1985 and 1986, Jockey Club Gold Cup runners-up Gate Dancer and Turkoman each finished second as well in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and 1989 dominant Jockey Club Gold Cup winner and future Hall of Famer Easy Goer did the same, losing to Sunday Silence in arguably the most exciting Breeders’ Cup Classic ever.

The 1992 Jockey Club Gold Cup was the pivotal race for that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. Pleasant Tap won the Gold Cup by a commanding 4 ½ lengths over 1991 Kentucky Derby winner Strike the Gold, with 1992 Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy another 2 ¼ lengths back in third after stumbling at the break. But in the ninth Breeders’ Cup Classic, held at Gulfstream Park, it was A.P. Indy who took command in the stretch to pull away and win by two lengths over Pleasant Tap. A.P. Indy would be voted Horse of the Year in 1992 and subsequently became one of the most influential sires in North American Thoroughbred breeding.

Tabasco Cat, fourth in the 1994 Jockey Club Gold Cup, lost by a neck to Concern in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. And then in 1995, a Jockey Club Gold Cup winner broke through to take the Breeders’ Cup Classic for the first time. That horse, of course, was the “unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar,” as racecaller Tom Durkin so memorably described in the ’95 Classic. Cigar merely went 10-for-10 that year, with his closest margin of victory a length in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. By the next fall, Cigar’s streak of perfection had ended in the Pacific Classic, and he finished second by a head to Skip Away in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and then third by a head to Alphabet Soup and Louis Quatorze in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. That would be Cigar’s final start, and due to infertility he would become one of the most popular residents of the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington until his death in 2014.

Skip Away repeated in the Jockey Club Gold Cup in 1997, setting the stakes record time of 1:58.89, and won the Breeders’ Cup Classic that year as well to join Cigar in the exclusive club. Carolyn Hine’s future Hall of Famer would then finish third in the 1998 Jockey Club Gold Cup and sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but win Horse of the Year for his overall campaign.

Moving on several years, 2005 Jockey Club Gold Cup fourth-place finisher Flower Alley came in second to Saint Liam in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. A year later, Bernardini easily prevailed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and then yielded to Invasor in the Classic. Both of those horses did so as 3-year-olds.

In 2007, another 3-year-old went one better and became the third Jockey Club Gold Cup-Breeders’ Cup Classic winner. Curlin had already run third in the Kentucky Derby, first in the Preakness, and second in the Belmont as he entered the autumn racing season and had a strong argument to make as champion 3-year-old among a very high-quality group. But then Curlin defeated older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup for the partnership of Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Stables, Padua Stables, George Bolton, and Midnight Cry Stables, winning by a neck over Lawyer Ron. He came back to defeat many of his 3-year-old rivals convincingly in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on a sloppy Monmouth Park main track. Curlin was named champion 3-year-old male and Horse of the Year by Eclipse Award voters, and would extend his dominance well into his 4-year-old campaign. He repeated in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and then ran fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Santa Anita’s artificial main track to conclude his career with another Horse of the Year award.

Claiborne Farm’s and Adele Dilschneider’s Blame finished second in the 2010 Jockey Club Gold Cup to New York mainstay Haynesfield, but he returned in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs to hand champion racemare and eventual Horse of the Year Zenyatta her only defeat. A year later, it was the Jockey Club Gold Cup runner-up once again who took the Classic at Churchill, as Drosselmeyer backed up his 2010 Belmont Stakes win with another long-distance triumph in the 2011 Classic. And in 2012, Jockey Club Gold Cup third-place finisher Fort Larned scored a career-defining win when shipped to Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, turning back Mucho Macho Man (who would win the Classic a year later) by a half-length at odds of 9.40-1.

Effinex, third to Tonalist in the 2015 Jockey Club Gold Cup, was a distant second to Grand Slam champ American Pharoah in the ’15  Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland. The 2016 Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Hoppertunity finished fourth in that year's Breeders’ Cup Classic. Last year, the Jockey Club Gold Cup served as the stage for a breakthrough, gate-to-wire win by Diversify. The Rick Violette-trained gelding skipped the Breeders’ Cup but has come back this summer to win the Suburban Stakes and the Whitney Stakes and is slated to try for a repeat win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Saturday.

Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Stakes

The 1 ½-mile Joe Hirsch, named after the legendary New York turf writer, has been arguably the most important domestic prep race for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf since the World Championships began in 1984. Strawberry Road II, third in the 1985 renewal, ran second by a neck to Pebbles six weeks later in the second Breeders’ Cup Turf, but that was only the beginning. The next year, powerhouse Manila, a 2008 inductee into the Racing Hall of Fame, posted consecutive wins in the Joe Hirsch (then named just the Turf Classic) and the Breeders’ Cup Turf, edging Theatrical by a neck in the latter event. Theatrical, another one of the sport’s 1980s-era turf stars, won both races in 1987, with a victory in the Man o’ War Stakes sandwiched in between. And another year on, Darby Dan Farm’s Sunshine Forever almost made it a three-peat for sweeping both races, dominating in the Turf Classic and coming a half-length shy of longshot Great Communicator in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs.

1990 Turf Classic third-place finisher With Approval, voted Horse of the Year in his native Canada one year prior, ran second to In the Wings in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Turf. And in 1992, the order of finish at Belmont in the Turf Classic, won by Sky Classic over Fraise, was reversed in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Gulfstream Park, with Fraise prevailing by a nose. Two years later, Tikkanen, owned and bred by George Strawbridge, made his first start in the U.S. in the 1994 Turf Invitational and won in an upset over Vaudeville. He then pulled off another long-odds win in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill, defeating the filly Hatoof by 1 ½ lengths at 16.60-1. 

After a decade of dominance, the Turf Classic did not have much of an influence on the Breeders’ Cup Turf for a few years, until 1998, when Buck’s Boy became the fourth horse two win both races in the same year. Bred in Illinois and racing primarily in that state and in Florida early in his career, Buck’s Boy gradually rose to the top of his class, finishing fourth in the 1997 Breeders’ Cup Turf and third in 1999 in addition to his wire-to-wire win in 1998. He received the Eclipse Award for champion turf male in 1998.

As the 1990s ended and a new century began, several Turf Classic Invitational winners continued to perform well in the Breeders’ Cup, most notably 2004’s Kitten’s Joy, who took the Turf Classic Invitational with ease before losing to Better Talk Now in an upset in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Lone Star Park. Kitten’s Joy would be crowned champion turf male at the Eclipse Awards; today’s he’s one of North America’s leading sires.

The next three years were dominated by English Channel, who finished second in the newly-named Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational in 2005 and then won the next two renewals by a combined 6 ¾ lengths. The Smart Strike horse, a star for owner James Scatuorchio and trainer Todd Pletcher, ran fifth in the ’05 Breeders’ Cup Turf, third in 2006, and then romped by seven lengths in the 2007 Turf on a soft turf course at Monmouth Park. He’s since become another good North American sire.

European shippers won the next four Breeders’ Cup Turfs until 2012, when Little Mike upset Joe Hirsch winner Point of Entry at Santa Anita Park. Little Mike would come back to win the 2013 Joe Hirsch, but the gelding finished seventh in his bid for a Breeders’ Cup repeat.

In 2014, Main Sequence became the sixth horse to win the Joe Hirsch and Breeders’ Cup Turf in the same year. His Joe Hirsch win was actually closer, as the Flaxman Holdings-owned gelding edged Twilight Eclipse by a neck. One start later, he posted a mild 6.20-1 upset at the Longines Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, defeating Flintshire by 1 ½ lengths. Main Sequence was voted both champion turf male and champion older male for his exploits.

Big Blue Kitten won the 2015 Joe Hirsch and then ran a good third behind elite Euro imports Found and Golden Horn in the Longines Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland. And in 2016, Flintshire was runner-up in both the Joe Hirsch (to Ectot) and the Longines Turf (to Highland Reel) but was voted champion turf male at the Eclipse Awards anyway. Last year’s Joe Hirsch winner, the Chad Brown-trained Beach Patrol, led in the stretch of the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf at Del Mar before succumbing to European invader Talismanic and losing by a half-length.

Vosburgh Stakes

The historic Vosburgh Stakes was run at seven furlongs during the Breeders’ Cup era until 2004, when it was held at 6 ½ furlongs for one year before being shortened to its current six furlongs in 2005. Groovy, winner of the 1987 Vosburgh, became the first horse from the race to perform well in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint when he ran second, albeit by four lengths, to Very Subtle. The Texas-bred was a 4-5 favorite in the Breeders’ Cup, which was his first loss of the year after winning seven in a row. He was honored with an Eclipse Award as champion sprinter for his body of work.

One year later, the situation reversed as Vosburgh runner-up Gulch rallied late to take the Breeders’ Cup Sprint by three-quarters of a length under Angel Cordero Jr. The D. Wayne Lukas trainee won the Eclipse Award for his division and had some success at stud as well, siring 1995 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Thunder Gulch among others. In 1989, Ogden Phipps’ Dancing Spree finished fourth in the Vosburgh only to post a 16.60-1 upset win in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. That gave Angel Cordero Jr. back-to-back wins in the Sprint; the Hall of Famer had previously finished second in 1987 and 1988 (aboard Groovy).

Jump into the 1990s, and another Vosburgh also-ran, Cherokee Run, achieved peak form in the 1994 Breeders’ Cup en route to championship honors. That Florida-bred son of Runaway Groom could not hold his lead in the Vosburgh, surrendering late to finish third, but then turned it around one race later with Mike Smith in the irons, rallying to post a head win over Soviet Problem in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs.

Artax, the first horse to win both the Vosburgh and the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in the same year, did so in 1999 when he defeated Kona Gold (winner of the 2000 Sprint) by a half-length. His wins bookended a score in the Forest Hills Handicap and were enough to garner an Eclipse Award.

Crossover success between the Vosburgh and Breeders’ Cup Sprint continued into the 2000s, as Bobby Frankel-trained Squirtle Squirt, second to Left Bank in the 2001 Vosburgh, returned to Belmont Park in the Sprint and defeated Xtra Heat by a half-length under a well-timed ride by Jerry Bailey. The Vosburgh winner in 2003 was another Bobby Frankel trainee, who took the only renewal of the race at 6 ½ furlongs to pick up his first career stakes win. That horse did not go on to the ’03 Breeders’ Cup. Instead, he came back to dominate in 2004 and score an overpowering win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The name: Ghostzapper.

Speightstown, third in the 2004 Vosburgh, impressively won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Lone Star Park shortly before Ghostzapper’s win in the Classic. A year later, Vosburgh winner Taste of Paradise came up just a head short to Silver Train in the Sprint. And more recently, horses such as Force Freeze (second in the 2011 Vosburgh and Breeders’ Cup Sprint); The Lumber Guy (won the 2012 Vosburgh, second in the Sprint); and Private Zone (won the 2013 and 2014 Vosburghs, third in the 2014 Sprint and second in the 2015 Sprint) have put up good showings in both events.

Other domestic graded stakes

Among the other graded stakes this weekend, Santa Anita’s Grade 2 John Henry Turf Championship Stakes at 1 ¼ miles on Sunday, Sept. 30 has produced such long-winded grass stayers and Longines Breeders' Cup Turf participants as Kotashaan (won both races in 1993), Northern Spur (won both in 1995), Johar (second in the 2003 John Henry, won the Turf in a dead-heat thriller with High Chaparral), and Champ Pegasus (won the 2010 John Henry, second in the Turf).

The Grade 3 Miss Grillo Stakes, held at Belmont Park on Sunday, has produced Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winners Maram (won both races in 2008), Tapitsfly (second in the Miss Grillo, first in the Juvenile Fillies Turf in ’09), Lady Eli (won both races in 2013), and New Money Honey (won both in 2016), as well as a few runners-up in the Juvenile Fillies Turf. Its companion race for juvenile turf males, Saturday’s Grade 3 Pilgrim Stakes, had its first dual winner in 2016 as Oscar Performance won both the Pilgrim and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf by open lengths (he's now a leading contender for this fall's Breeders' Cup Mile). Among the other notables, Bobby’s Kitten won the 2013 Pilgrim, ran third in that fall’s Juvenile Turf, and then won the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint in 2014.

In Kentucky, the Grade 3 Ack Ack Stakes, held going a one-turn mile at Churchill Downs on Saturday, was won by Awesome Slew last year one start prior to his third-place finish in the Las Vegas Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. And the Grade 3 Lukas Classic at Churchill, named for the Hall of Fame trainer and first run as a listed stakes race in 2013, was won by 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic champ Fort Larned in its inaugural running prior to that horse’s fourth-place finish in the ’13 Classic, his final start.

Lastly, the Grade 3 Eddie D Stakes, held on Santa Anita Park’s opening day Sept. 28 card, has been a useful West Coast prep for turf sprinters on occasion. It was won three times in four years by the popular California Flag, in 2008, 2009, and 2011. California Flag won the ’09 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint as well.

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