After a two-week break, the Road to the Breeders’ Cup resumes in a big way this weekend, with automatic qualifiers for this fall’s World Championships on two continents.
This year’s Breeders’ Cup promises to be one of the most exciting in recent memory, as the two-day event returns to iconic Churchill Downs for the first time since 2011. The weekend’s marquee Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” prep takes place on the Jersey Shore, as thousands of fans will spin the turnstiles at Monmouth Park to watch some of the best 3-year-olds in training compete in the 51st running of the Betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes on July 29. The 1 1/8-mile Haskell is a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Del Mar will host two Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series preps this weekend – the Bing Crosby Stakes on July 28 and the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes on July 29. The winners of these two races receive automatic berths to the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint and the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff, respectively.
The final Challenge Series race of the weekend takes place on July 28 at Ascot Racecourse in England. The 1 ½-mile King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes sponsored by QIPCO bestows a berth in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf to the winner, and if the connections of said winner decide to ship the horse to Louisville in November it will very likely be one of the race favorites, given Europe’s traditionally strong showing in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.
The 14 Breeders’ Cup races attract the best Thoroughbreds in the world to compete for more than $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 the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series races on tap this weekend:
The six-furlong Bing Crosby Stakes, named after the Del Mar co-founder and Hollywood legend, was first run in 1946. During the 1980s, the race did not have much of an impact on the Breeders’ Cup Sprint as East Coast sprinters were dominant at the World Championships. That changed in 1992, when Thirty Slews won the Bing Crosby in August and, two races later, captured the Sprint at Gulfstream Park over the filly Meafara, in the process giving an up-and-coming trainer named Bob Baffert his first Breeders’ Cup win.
Four years later, Lit de Justice pulled off the Bing Crosby-Breeders’ Cup Sprint double as well, taking the latter race at Woodbine. With that win, Jenine Sahadi became the first female trainer to score a Breeders’ Cup victory – and she would pick up another Sprint trophy one year later with Elmhurst.
The great sprinter Kona Gold was omnipresent on the national scene for a six-year stretch spanning the turn of the century. Trained and co-owned by Bruce Headley, the gelding finished third in the ’98 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, second a year later, and then won the 2000 renewal at Churchill Downs. That year, he also won his first of two consecutive Bing Crosbys, and he was granted champion sprinter honors at the Eclipse Awards.
In 2004, Bing Crosby winner Kela finished second to champion Speightstown in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, and ’08 and ’10 Bing Crosby winners Street Boss and Smiling Tiger each finished third in their Breeders’ Cup tries. In 2011, Amazombie edged Force Freeze by a neck to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs, and the next year took the Bing Crosby, with Mike Smith aboard for both wins. Arguably the best Bing Crosby runner since Amazombie actually made his impact in a different Breeders’ Cup event, as Goldencents finished second in both the ’13 and ’14 Bing Crosbys but took bigger prizes each fall, winning the Las Vegas Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in back-to-back years.
Last year’s Bing Crosby was notable for a rough start to the race, when favored Drefong – the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner in 2016 - tossed jockey Mike Smith. Roy H, runner-up to Ransom the Moon in the Bing Crosby, came back to win a Grade 1 stakes at Santa Anita Park and then returned to Del Mar to take the TwinSpires.com Breeders’ Cup Sprint by a length over Imperial Hint (Ransom the Moon finished fifth, and Drefong sixth). Roy H received the Eclipse Award as champion male sprinter for 2017.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes sponsored by QIPCO
This mile-and-a-half turf test became a Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” qualifier in 2011, but several of its prior winners made their marks on the Breeders’ Cup in earlier years. Godolphin’s Swain finished third in the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Turf at Woodbine and then won the ’96 and ’97 runnings of the King George, and in 1999, Godolphin’s Daylami won both the King George and the Breeders’ Cup Turf with Frankie Dettori in the irons. 2005 King George winner Azamour finished third in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf at Belmont Park, and in ’06 and ’07, two highly regarded European invaders who won the King George – Hurricane Run and Dylan Thomas – both disappointed in their Breeders’ Cup Turf appearances when finishing sixth and fifth, respectively.
That trend was reversed in 2008, though. Sir Michael Stoute-trained Conduit scored a 1 ½-length victory in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita Park en route to winning the Eclipse Award as champion turf male. In 2009, he won the King George at Ascot and then returned to Santa Anita to capture his second consecutive Turf.
Several top-flight turf horses have won the King George since Conduit, but none made the trip to the Breeders’ Cup, even after the automatic berth was granted, until 2016. King George winner Highland Reel was somewhat overshadowed among the Longines Turf starters at Santa Anita by trainer Aidan O’Brien’s other entrant, the filly Found, who had won the 2015 Longines Turf at Keeneland. But Highland Reel dictated the pace under Seamus Heffernan to post a 1 ¾-length win and cement his status as one of the world’s best grass horses. He went on to win two Group 1 stakes in early 2017, finish fourth in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and then third in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf at Del Mar. Highland Reel then closed out a phenomenal career with another Group 1 stakes win at Sha Tin Racecourse in Hong Kong in December 2017.
As a race restricted to 3-year-olds, the Haskell Invitational has not had a year-in, year-out impact on the Breeders’ Cup Classic since the World Championships began in 1984, but in certain years – especially when a strong crop of sophomores emerges – the Haskell has been a key prep race. In 1988, Haskell winner Forty Niner finished fourth in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, but runner-up Seeking the Gold made a bigger splash, fighting valiantly in deep stretch before yielding to eventual Horse of the Year Alysheba in the final strides to finish second. Serena’s Song became the first filly to win the Haskell in 1995; she would run in the ’95 and ’96 Breeders’ Cup Distaffs, finishing second in the latter year. Another eventual Hall of Famer, Skip Away, won the 1996 Haskell en route to champion 3-year-old male honors, and then romped in the 1997 Breeders’ Cup Classic to win another championship, this time as champion older male. He then went on to earn Horse of the Year and champion older male honors in 1998.
In 1999, Haskell runner-up Cat Thief posted a 19.60-1 upset in the Breeders’ Cup Classic under Pat Day, but after that, there was little crossover of note between the two races until 2007. That year was a banner one for 3-year-olds racing on dirt, and the top three finishers in the Haskell Invitational all started in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which was held at the home of the Haskell, Monmouth Park. By that point, Curlin had emerged from his third-place effort in the Haskell to become the dominant racehorse in his class, and he validated that reputation with a 4 ½-length romp in the Classic. Haskell runner-up Hard Spun settled for second again in the Classic, while Haskell winner Any Given Saturday was sixth.
More recently, the Haskell’s profile has been elevated as a Breeders’ Cup Classic prep race (it became part of the Challenge Series in 2015). In 2014, Bayern, the seventh of Bob Baffert’s record eight Haskell winners, scored a front-running upset in the Classic at Santa Anita that survived a steward’s inquiry. And one year later, Baffert-trained Triple Crown winner American Pharoah easily won the Haskell, suffered a shocking upset in the Travers Stakes, and then returned to achieve Grand Slam glory by closing out his career with a blowout Breeders’ Cup Classic win at Keeneland.
Del Mar’s Clement L. Hirsch Handicap was conjoined with the Breeders’ Cup Distaff from the very start. Paula Tucker’s Princess Rooney, one of the dominant racemares of her era, won what was then named the Chula Vista Handicap by 2 ½ lengths as the second of five consecutive victories to close out her career. Her finale came in the inaugural World Championships at Hollywood Park, where she romped by seven lengths under Eddie Delahoussaye. Princess Rooney was voted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1991.
During the rest of the 1980s, several Chula Vista/Clement Hirsch winners performed respectably in the Distaff, and in 1990 another eventual Hall of Famer achieved the double. Bayakoa, who won the 1989 Distaff at Gulfstream Park, won the Chula Vista two races before taking her second Distaff in a row, this time at Belmont. She was honored as champion older female by Eclipse Award voters in both ’89 and ’90.
Sid Craig’s Paseana won the ’92 Distaff, finished second in ’93, and then won the ’94 Chula Vista. Del Mar’s race was renamed after Clement L. Hirsch, one of the track’s original directors, in 1999, and in 2002-03, Azeri emerged to take back-to-back runnings of the race during the midst of an incredible four-year run that saw her win 17 of 24 races and receive four Eclipse Awards, including 2002 Horse of the Year. She won the ’02 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Arlington Park by five lengths.
As dominant as Azeri was during her early 2000s heyday, the magnificent Zenyatta was a cut above from 2008-2010. She won three consecutive editions of the Clement Hirsch from 2008 to 2010 over what was, at the time, a synthetic main track at Del Mar, and also captured the ’08 Distaff (then named the Ladies’ Classic) and ’09 Classic at Santa Anita, which also featured an artificial-surface main track. As all contemporary racing fans know, Zenyatta’s quest for a perfect 20-win career record came to a heartbreaking end in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs when she lost to Blame, but her legion of fans, a sizeable number of them based in Southern California, will never forget her brilliance.
Since Zenyatta’s reign, the Clement L. Hirsch has remained a key Distaff prep, with winners such as Include Me Out (third in the ’12 Distaff) and Iotapa (third in the ’14 Distaff) performing respectably in the World Championships. Beholder, arguably the best racemare in North America since Zenyatta and already winner of the ’13 Distaff, won the 2015 Clement Hirsch prior to her amazing romp in the TVG Pacific Classic. Those races, and a win in the Zenyatta Stakes, set B. Wayne Hughes’ superstar up for a showdown with American Pharoah in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland. Unfortunately, Beholder had to miss the race due to illness, which disheartened racing fans across America but in retrospect set the stage for an incredible 2016.
In 2016, Beholder hooked up with Stellar Wind, who finished a close second in the 2015 Longines Distaff, in the Clement L. Hirsch for one of the summer’s most exciting races. Stellar Wind gamely outdueled Beholder to win by a half-length, and, as it turned out, the Clement Hirsch served as a prelude to a Longines Distaff for the ages when the two met again at Santa Anita, joined by unbeaten 3-year-old filly Songbird.
Beholder closed out her career with a thrilling nose win over Songbird, and while Stellar Wind was not at her best that day, the John Sadler-trained mare came back strong in 2017 to to win a three consecutive Grade 1 stakes, including the Clement Hirsch by a neck over Vale Dori. Stellar Wind failed to fire in the Longines Distaff last November at Del Mar, finishing eighth, and days later sold for $6 million to Coolmore at the Keeneland November breeding stock auction. She raced once more in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational, finishing sixth, and has since commenced her breeding career in Ireland.
Other weekend stakes:
There are several other graded stakes this weekend that are not “Win and You’re In” qualifiers but still have had an impact on the Breeders’ Cup in past years. Saratoga’s Jim Dandy Stakes for 3-year-olds is the traditional prep for the Travers Stakes, but on occasion, its winners have gone on to Breeders’ Cup success (’96 winner Louis Quatorze was a nose behind Alphabet Soup in that year’s Classic; ’97 winner Awesome Again won the ’98 Classic; and ’02, ’05, and ’06 winners Medaglia d’Oro, Flower Alley, and Bernardini all finished second in the Classic later in their respective years). In 2013, late-blooming 3-year-old Will Take Charge finished second in the Jim Dandy before winning the Travers Stakes and Pennsylvania Derby and then coming up a nose short to Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Other stakes this weekend with recent influence on the Breeders’ Cup include the Amsterdam Stakes for 3-year-olds at Saratoga, won in 2011 by eventual Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile victor Caleb’s Posse; the Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap at Saratoga, whose past winners include ’02 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Orientate and ’04 Sprint winner Speightstown; the Bowling Green Stakes at the Spa, won in 2016 by champion and two-time Longines Turf runner-up Flintshire; the Molly Pitcher Stakes at Monmouth, won back-to-back in ’07 and ’08 by Hystericalady, who just missed winning the ’07 Distaff at the same track; the Shuvee Handicap at Saratoga, which was won in 2015 by Stopchargingmaria prior to her victory over Stellar Wind in the Longines Distaff; and the Monmouth Cup Stakes, won last year by Sharp Azteca, the eventual runner-up in the Las Vegas Breeders’ Cup Mile.