Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Major Turf Preps at Arlington

Gio Ponti and Ramon Dominguez in the winner’s circle after the 2009 Arlington Million. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Saturday’s International Festival of Racing at Arlington Park takes center stage on the Road to the Breeders’ Cup, with two Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” events that historically have been key prep races for the male and female turf divisions.

Arlington’s signature race is the Arlington Million, which became the first race to offer a $1 million purse when it was unveiled in 1981. It will anchor a stakes-packed Saturday card that also includes the Beverly D. Stakes for turf females. The winners of the Million and the Beverly D. receive berths to the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf and the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, respectively.

The Arlington Million and Beverly D. will be featured in an hour-long Aug. 11 broadcast by NBC Sports as part of the network’s “Win and You’re In” series of telecasts presented by America’s Best Racing. The broadcast will air on NBCSN from 6-7 p.m. ET.

One other Breeders’ Cup qualifier is on tap for the weekend, held on Sunday, Aug. 12 overseas at Deauville Racecourse in France. The Group 1 Prix du Haras du Fresnay-Le-Buffard Jacques le Marois is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders' Cup Mile.

This year’s Breeders’ Cup, which will be held for the 35th time, 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 on Nov. 2-3.

The 14 Breeders’ Cup races attract the best Thoroughbreds in the world to compete for over $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:

Arlington Million

The 1 ¼-mile Million has been a cornerstone of American racing since its inaugural running due to its record-breaking seven-figure purse and its first winner, future Hall of Famer John Henry (who also won the 1984 Million). John Henry did not race in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Turf in 1984, and the first Million winner to make an impact in the Breeders’ Cup was 1986 winner Estrapade, who finished third in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita Park. Manila, winner of the 1986 Turf and that year’s Eclipse Award winner as champion turf male, scored in the 1987 Arlington Million, which would prove to be his final race as he was retired days after the race after suffering an injury. The son of Lyphard won 10 out of his final 11 races, and Theatrical, the horse who ran second to him in the 1986 Turf and third in the ’87 Million, would go on to win the ’87 Turf and the Eclipse Award. Manila was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2008.


With Approval, Canada’s Horse of the Year in 1989, finished second in both the 1990 Arlington Million and the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Two years later, a similar event occurred, as three-time Canadian champion Sky Classic took runner-up honors in the Million and Breeders’ Cup Turf, losing by a head and a nose, respectively. Nonetheless, Sam-Son Farm’s Sky Classic received the Eclipse Award as champion turf male in 1992. 

There was little crossover between the Million and Breeders’ Cup Turf for the next several years, and the Arlington Million was not held in 1998 and 1999. In 2003, two horses from the Arlington Million – first-place finisher Storming Home and winner Sulamani – were sent off as the two post-time favorites in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at 2-1 and 3.10-1, respectively. They exited the Million having escaped disaster, when Storming Home ducked out sharply at the wire and unseated rider Gary Stevens in a horrific finish that resulted in Storming Home’s disqualification. Both Sulamani and Storming Home won their next races after the Million in Grade 1 stakes, but finished fifth and seventh at Santa Anita in arguably the most exciting race in Breeders’ Cup history: the dead-heat finish between High Chaparral and Johar.

In 2004, eventual champion turf male Kitten’s Joy finished runner-up to Better Talk Now in the Breeders’ Cup Turf as the 7-10 favorite, and the next summer Kitten’s Joy ran second to Powerscourt at 9-10 odds in the 2005 Million, which was his final race before going on to a successful stud career (Powerscourt had finished first in the 2004 Million but was disqualified).

Gio Ponti, a dead-cinch future Hall of Famer, was a regular presence both at Arlington Park and the World Championships during the turn of the 21st Century’s first decade. The three-time champion made his first start in the Million a winning one in 2009, scoring by 1 ¼ lengths. He would go on to finish second to the supreme Zenyatta in the ’09 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita. In 2010, Gio Ponti returned to Arlington but could not withstand European invader Debussy’s late push and finished second by a half-length. That autumn, he would again settle for second behind a superstar, this time to recent Hall of Fame inductee Goldikova in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. In 2011, Gio Ponti returned to contest the same two races again. He finished second to Cape Blanco in the Arlington Million over a rain-saturated turf course, and then fourth in the Mile behind Court Vision, Turallure, and Goldikova in an absolute thriller.

Finally, in 2012, a horse achieved the Arlington Million-Breeders’ Cup Turf double. Little Mike was a hard-knocking gelding who only knew one way to win – take the lead early and see how far he could go. He entered the Arlington Million in career-best form, having won the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic and finishing a good third in the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile. He made his first start at 1 ¼ miles in the Million and, under a skillful ride from Ramon Dominguez, managed to carry his speed farther than ever before to win by 1 ½ lengths. Little Mike then faded badly in his next start, the 1 ½-mile Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational, defeated by 28 ½ lengths. That made his subsequent presence in the 1 ½-mile Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita a curiosity to many bettors, but Little Mike, again with Dominguez aboard and coming from slightly off the pace for a change, rewarded his faithful fans at odds of 17.30-1 with a half-length win over Point of Entry.

Magician, winner of the 2013 Turf, finished second in an upset to Hardest Core in the 2014 Million, while The Pizza Man and Big Blue Kitten, first and second in the 2015 Million, finished fifth and third, respectively, in a tough Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf that fall at Keeneland. Last year, Beach Patrol won the Arlington Million with an eye-catching rush through the stretch after tracking just off the early pace. The Chad Brown trainee then took the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont before contesting the Longines Turf, where he fashioned another pace-stalking trip and took the lead briefly in the lane, only to finish a half-length short of European invader Talismanic in a valiant effort.

Beverly D. Stakes

The Beverly D. was first run in 1987 and has been held at its current distance of 1 3/16 miles since 1988. Like the Arlington Million, the Beverly D. was not run in 1998 and 1999, and 1999 marked the first year the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf was held at Gulfstream Park. Several accomplished fillies and mares won the Beverly D. during the 1990s, but only one made a big impression on the Breeders’ Cup: world traveler Hatoof. That English One Thousand Guineas winner won the 1994 Beverly D., defeating Hall of Famer Flawlessly, and ran a good second to Tikkanen in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs, the final race in a career that saw her win graded/group stakes on four continents.  

Through the 2000s, many Beverly D. winners went on to run in the Filly and Mare Turf, with the best showing coming from Film Maker, who was second in both races in 2006. Marketing Mix repeated that runner-up double in 2012. And in 2013, a European invader broke through to take both events. Dank made her first domestic start in the Beverly D. and was sent off at 3.20-1 odds, which seemed like manna from the heavens to her backers after she romped home by 4 ¼ lengths. The Sir Michael Stoute-trained filly did not start again until the Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita, where she scored by a half-length as the 3-2 favorite. Dank only made two starts in the U.S. in 2013, but those two were good enough to earn her the Eclipse Award as champion turf female. She finished fourth in the 2014 Filly and Mare Turf.

In 2015, Watsdachances and Stephanie’s Kitten were elevated to first and second, respectively, in the Beverly D. after Secret Gesture was disqualified to third after drifting out late. Watsdachances went on to finish sixth in the Filly and Mare Turf, but Stephanie’s Kitten won the race at Keeneland to cap off a $4.2 million-earning career that may place her in the Hall of Fame in the years to come.

Last year’s Beverly D. winner, Dacita, ran a solid fourth in the Filly and Mare Turf at Del Mar and then sold for $1.85 million days later at the Fasig-Tipton auction in Kentucky as a broodmare prospect.

Prix du Haras du Fresnay-Le-Buffard Jacques le Marois

The Jacques le Marois, held at 1,600 meters (about one mile) on turf, was added to the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series in 2010. The race has a rich history however, and has been intertwined with the World Championships from the very beginning, as 1984 Jacques le Marois winner Lear Fan – later an influential sire – shipped to California and finished seventh in the inaugural Breeder’s Cup Mile at Hollywood Park.

In 1987 and 1988, the Hall of Famer Miesque, one of the best turf horses of any era, won the Jacques le Marois and the Breeders’ Cup Mile for trainer Freddy Head and owners the Niarchos Family. Her Breeders’ Cup wins came at Hollywood Park (1987) and Churchill Downs (1988) by a combined 7 ¼ lengths, and she received the Eclipse Award as champion turf female both years.

Spinning World also scored the Jacques le Marois-Breeders’ Cup Mile double in 1997 (winning the French race in 1996 as well), and Six Perfections did the same in 2003. The regally bred Banks Hill is another notable past winner; she captured the Jacques le Marois in her 4-year-old season of 2002, a year after winning the third edition of the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf the year before.

Another Hall of Famer, Goldikova, won the 2009 Jacques le Marois during the second season of her amazing three-year run of Breeders’ Cup Mile wins. Also trained by Freddy Head, she came up just short in her bid for a fourth straight Mile win in 2011, finishing third at Churchill Downs in the all-time thriller mentioned earlier.

Since Goldikova’s final Breeders’ Cup appearance, the best finish by a Jacques le Marois winner in the Mile came in 2012, when Excelebration finished fourth.

Other weekend races:

Wise Dan in the 2012 Fourstardave. (Eclipse Sportswire)

There are several other graded stakes on tap for a very active upcoming weekend that are not “Win and You’re In” qualifiers but whose winners have gone on to shine in Breeders’ Cup races. They include Arlington's Secretariat Stakes for 3-year-olds on turf, won by such horses as Kitten’s Joy in 2004 (discussed above), Highland Reel (won in 2015 and won the Longines Turf in 2016), and Oscar Performance (won the Juvenile Turf in 2016 and the Secretariat last year).

The Fourstardave Handicap, a Grade 1 turf event at Saratoga, has several greats among its past winners. Da Hoss won the 1996 Fourstardave and Breeders’ Cup Mile, and then won the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Mile. Champion and eventual Kentucky Derby-winning sire Leroidesanimaux won the Fourstardave in 2005, and finished second to Artie Schiller in that year’s Mile. The legendary Wise Dan scored back-to-back wins in the Fourstardave and in the Breeders’ Cup Mile in both 2012 and 2013 – his two Horse of the Year campaigns. And in the past two years, a pair of top-class turf milers have taken both races. In 2016, Tourist achieved the Fourstardave-Mile double for trainer Bill Mott, while last year World Approval captured both events en route to receiving champion turf male honors at the Eclipse Awards.

The Best Pal Stakes for 2-year-olds at Del Mar served as the coming-out party for eventual 2009 champion juvenile male Lookin At Lucky, second in that fall’s Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and in 2015 another future juvenile champion took the Best Pal road to the Breeders' Cup, when Nyquist took the Grade 2 stakes as the second of eight consecutive wins to begin his career, including the Sentient Jet Juvenile and the 2016 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. The Adirondack Stakes at Saratoga for 2-year-old fillies likewise served as the springboard for 2011 champion 2-year-old female My Miss Aurelia, who won the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Fillies at Churchill Downs. Several winners of this Sunday's Saratoga Special Stakes Presented by Coors Light for 2-year-olds have gone on to run well in recent editions of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, including Union Rags, who was second to Hansen in 2011. (Favorite Trick won both races in 1997 and was voted Horse of the Year as a juvenile.)

And finally, two other races this weekend have had a major impact on the filly and mare sprint division over the past six years. In 2011, Groupie Doll won the Gardenia Stakes at Ellis Park, and a year later won the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint to secure her first Eclipse Award. She returned to racing in 2013 and finished a shocking third in the Gardenia at 1-5 odds, but rebounded three races later to win her second Filly and Mare Sprint and her second championship. The Gardenia has since been renamed the Groupie Doll Stakes. Judy the Beauty, second to Groupie Doll in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup, won the 2014 Rancho Bernardo Handicap at Del Mar one race before taking the DraftKings Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at Santa Anita en route to earning her own Eclipse Award as champion female sprinter.

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