Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Focus Shifts to Sprint Divisions

The Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series shifts to Gulfstream Park Saturday for the Princess Rooney Stakes. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

Two weekends ago, Pavel and Blue Prize each won major prep races in the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series as the domestic slate kicked into high gear. The Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” events earn the best horses in training qualifying berths for the 2018 World Championships.

Blue Prize scored an impressive win in the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill Downs, gaining an automatic berth in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff. One race later, Pavel romped in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap under the Twin Spires, securing a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

This weekend, focus shifts to two Breeders’ Cup sprint divisions. At Gulfstream Park on June 30, female dirt sprinters will compete in the Grade 2 Princess Rooney Stakes with a berth in the the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint on the line. Also on June 30, turf sprinters will face off on the Queen’s Plate undercard at Woodbine in the Grade 1 Highlander Stakes, which is a Challenge Series race for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint.

This year’s Breeders’ Cup returns to Churchill Downs for the first time since 2011, scheduled to be held on on Nov. 2-3 in Louisville.

The 13 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.

In addition to the two Challenge Series races, there are several other important stakes on June 30 that bear watching for Breeders’ Cup implications. They are the Grade 1 United Nations Stakes at Monmouth Park on June 30, a 1 3/8-mile event that often sends horses to the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf and occasionally to the Breeders’ Cup Mile; the Grade 2 Dance Smartly Stakes at Woodbine, a 1 ¼-mile turf race for older females; the Grade 3 Smile Sprint Handicap, a Challenge Series last year that often showcases top-class male sprinters; and the Grade 2 Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park, a 1 1/16-mile test for 3-year-old fillies that occasionally produces a major contender for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff (as happened in 2014 with champion Untapable).

Here’s some background on the two Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series races on tap in south Florida and Ontario as well as the other major stakes races that have made an impact on the World Championships:

Princess Rooney Stakes

The Princess Rooney Stakes dates back to 1985 and thus has a longer history than the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, which was first held in 2007. It is named after Paula Tucker’s 1984 champion older female Princess Rooney. That eventual Hall of Famer began her career with four consecutive wins at Calder in 1982 and ten wins in a row overall, and ended it by winning the inaugural 1984 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Hollywood Park by a widening seven lengths under Eddie Delahoussaye.

During its first two decades, the Princess Rooney was won by such top-class racemares as Chaposa Springs, Hurricane Bertie, Dream Supreme, and Gold Mover, who won the race in both 2002 and 2003. Miraculous Miss, who finished second in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint in 2007, was runner-up in the ’08 Princess Rooney, and the latter race has had an impact on the Breeders’ Cup ever since. In 2010, Dubai Majesty finished third in the Princess Rooney but then won three out of her remaining four starts, culminating in the Filly and Mare Sprint, to claim the Eclipse Award as champion female sprinter (that divisional honor also was first awarded in 2007). One year later, Calder mainstay Musical Romance was edged by Sassy Image in the Princess Rooney; the daughter of Concorde’s Tune, trained and co-owned by Bill Kaplan, went on to win the Filly and Mare Sprint and earn an Eclipse Award. Musical Romance won the Princess Rooney in 2012.

Highlander Stakes

The Grade 1 Highlander Stakes, a six-furlong turf sprint, was added as a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series qualifier last year. Green Mask, who won last year’s Highlander as the 3-5 favorite, did not run in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint as he was retired in September due to injury. The popular gelding he did compete in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint in both 2015 (finishing third) and 2016 (fifth). He now resides at Old Friends in Kentucky.

Other weekend stakes:

The United Nations Stakes was run at now-closed Atlantic City Race Course until 1997, and since then it’s been one of Monmouth Park’s signature races. It has had an impact on the Breeders’ Cup Turf through the decades, with three horses winning both races in the same calendar year – Hall of Famer Manila in 1986, English Channel in 2007, and Main Sequence in 2014. Several other prominent Breeders’ Cup horses have won the United Nations as well, such as Better Talk Now (who won the Turf in 2004 and the United Nations in 2005); Steinlen (who won the Breeders’ Cup Mile in 1988, was second in 1989, and then won the United Nations in 1990); and Lure (who won the Mile in both 1992 and 1993 and the United Nations in 1994).

More recently, Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s Big Blue Kitten won the United Nations in both 2013 and 2015 and finished third in the ’15 Turf. In 2016, World Approval won the United Nations for Live Oak Plantation and Mark Casse. The gelding really improved several months later when his connections decided to start him in mile races, however, taking the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Del Mar as part of a championship campaign.

Last year, Beach Patrol finished third in the United Nations, won his next two races in Grade 1 stakes, and then nearly took the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf, finishing a close second to Talismanic.

The six-furlong Smile Sprint Handicap was part of Calder Race Course’s marquee “Summit of Speed” racecard until 2014. After a one-year hiatus, the Smile Sprint, the Princess Rooney Handicap and the rest of the “Summit” races were moved to Gulfstream Park.

A significant Smile Sprint-Breeders’ Cup connection occurred in 2002, when D. Wayne Lukas’ Orientate won the Smile Sprint at Calder under Mike Smith and then took the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Arlington Park. The Breeders’ Cup win was Orientate’s fifth straight stakes score, and his career finale. He was honored as 2002 champion sprinter by Eclipse Award voters.

The second dual winner came in 2010, when Harold Queen’s homebred Big Drama took both the Smile Sprint and then the Breeders' Cup Sprint, which was held at Churchill Downs. Not surprisingly, the Florida-bred son of Montbrook received the Eclipse Award as 2010 champion sprinter. 

More recently, Trinniberg, 2012 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner and champion sprinter, finished second in the ’13 Smile Sprint, and in 2015, Favorite Tale won the first running of the Smile Sprint at Gulfstream Park and then finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint behind champion Runhappy.

Last year, Imperial Hint romped in the Smile Sprint by 4 ¾ lengths to earn a Breeders’ Cup berth, and he validated that performance with a sharp runner-up effort in the Twinspires Sprint, finishing a length behind Roy H.

The Dance Smartly Stakes at Woodbine occasionally sends female turf runners to the Breeders’ Cup, the most prominent being 2012 winner Marketing Mix, who finished second behind Zagora in that year’s Filly and Mare Turf. As mentioned above, Untapable won both the Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park and the Longines Distaff at Santa Anita Park in 2014 as part of a stellar, Eclipse-Award winning campaign. She was the second 3-year-old filly to win both events in the same year, following Ajina back in 1997.

Among other notables, the great Life’s Magic won the Mother Goose in 1984 and finished second to the aforementioned Princess Rooney in the inaugural Distaff, but then came back won the ’85 Distaff by 6 ¼ lengths. And in 2013, Close Hatches won the Mother Goose by an overpowering 7 ¼ lengths and subsequently took the Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes in early fall, but was second best to another member of her 3-year-old class, the awesome Beholder, in the Longines Distaff at Santa Anita.

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