Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Santa Anita in the Spotlight

Racing
Nyquist won the 2015 FrontRunner Stakes at Santa Anita before scoring in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and eventually winning the 2016 Kentucky Derby. (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.

Five of those graded stakes are set for Saturday, Sept. 29, at picturesque Santa Anita Park, which opens its fall meet this weekend: the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes (qualifier for the 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).

Belmont Park on Long Island hosts the other three “Win and You’re In” preps: the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes (a "Win and You're In" race for the Breeders' Cup Classic); the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Stakes (qualifier for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf); and the Grade 1 Vosburgh Stakes (TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint). In addition to the eight domestic preps, there are a total of three foreign “Win and You’re In” races scheduled from Sept. 28-30 – two held in England and one in Japan.

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 Santa Anita, as well as a look back at the foreign qualifiers through the years (to learn about the historical influence of Belmont's qualifying preps, click here):

Awesome Again Stakes

The 1 1/8-mile Awesome Again Stakes was formerly the Goodwood Stakes prior to 2012 before being renamed to honor Frank Stronach’s 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner. It’s been the most important final West Coast prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic since the World Championships began in 1984, and in 1987, Ferdinand captured both events during his Horse of the Year campaign. The 1986 Kentucky Derby winner took the Goodwood by a length with regular jockey Bill Shoemaker aboard, and then one start later prevailed by a hard-fought nose over ’87 Derby winner Alysheba in a great renewal of the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Hollywood Park. That marked the only Breeders’ Cup win for the legendary “Shoe,” who retired in 1990.

Over the next few years, the Goodwood sent several winners on to respectable finishes in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and in 1996, Alphabet Soup finished first in both races back-to-back – but was disqualified from the earlier win in the Goodwood and placed third in a four-horse field due to early interference, a controversial decision to say the least. Popular 1998 near-Triple Crown winner Silver Charm won the Goodwood and finished second to the race’s eventual namesake Awesome Again in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. One year later, Budroyale accomplished the same feat, taking the Goodwood and then running second best in the Classic to Cat Thief.

In 2000, stretch-fighting Tiznow became the second horse to win both races in the same year, scoring in the Goodwood by a half-length over Captain Steve and then outfinishing Europe’s “Iron Horse” Giant’s Causeway by a neck in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. Tiznow, voted Horse of the Year in 2000, went on to finish third in the 2001 Goodwood before memorably winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic for the second consecutive year at Belmont Park over another European star, Sakhee.

In 2002 and 2003, Pleasantly Perfect became the first horse to win consecutive runnings of the Goodwood, and in the latter year he also took the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which was held at Santa Anita. His Classic win was one of four Breeders’ Cup tallies on the day for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella.

Game On Dude became the second back-to-back winner of the Goodwood/Awesome Again, scoring in 2011 and 2012. The Bob Baffert-trained speed demon held on well in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Classic before yielding to Drosselmeyer, and then finished seventh as the favorite in 2012. Mucho Macho Man, runner-up in the ’12 Classic to Fort Larned, achieved peak form the following fall when he became the fourth horse to win both the Awesome Again and Breeders’ Cup Classic in the same year, with Gary Stevens aboard for both victories.

In 2016, the Awesome Again Stakes served as what ultimately became the final graded stakes win of California Chrome’s career, as the fan favorite subsequently finished a valiant second to Arrogate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, won a minor stakes at Los Alamitos, and then checked in a puzzling ninth in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational to conclude his great career. 

Zenyatta Stakes

Formerly named the Lady’s Secret Stakes in honor of the 1986 Horse of the Year, this 1 1/16-mile qualifier for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff was renamed to honor another Hall of Famer, Zenyatta, in 2012. It was first held in 1993, and, along with the other graded stakes this weekend, was a perennial highlight of Santa Anita’s fall race meet during the years the meet was administered by the Oak Tree Racing Association. In fact, the very first year saw a filly score in both races, as Irving and Marjorie Cowan’s Hollywood Wildcat easily took the Lady’s Secret before holding on to edge 1992 Distaff winner Paseana by a nose in a thrilling 1993 Distaff despite jockey Eddie Delahoussaye losing his whip. Hollywood Wildcat would repeat in the Lady’s Secret in 1994 and finish sixth in the Distaff.

Two years later, Lady’s Secret runner-up Jewel Princess won the 1996 Distaff at Woodbine under Corey Nakatani. The next year saw Sharp Cat win the Lady’s Secret but then run second to Ajina in the Distaff. There was a quiet span for several years, and then in 2002 Hall of Famer Azeri captured both races in dominant fashion during her Horse of the Year campaign. The superstar would contest the 2003 Lady’s Secret as well, and was elevated from third to second via runner-up Elloluv’s disqualification.

In 2007, Jerry Hollendorfer-trained Hystericalady finished second in both the Lady’s Secret and the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, the latter by a neck to champion Ginger Punch. Hystericalady finished second once again in the Lady’s Secret a year later, this time to an even more accomplished rival ... who would become the race’s namesake six years later. Jerry and Ann Moss’s Zenyatta won three consecutive runnings of the Lady’s Secret from 2008 to 2010, and was center stage in the Breeders’ Cup all three years as well. She took the 2008 Distaff (then named the Ladies’ Classic), dominated males in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic, and then suffered her only career defeat in her final start when finishing a head behind Blame in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic. From her three wins in the Lady’s Secret, her last one – in 2010, held at Hollywood Park that year, one race prior to the Breeders’ Cup Classic – was the closest, as she rallied late to defeat Switch by a half-length to capture her 19th consecutive victory.

Arguably the best racemare to grace North American tracks since Zenyatta, Beholder put together another dominant three-race winning streak in the newly renamed event. B. Wayne Hughes’ champion won the Zenyatta Stakes from 2013 to 2015, and she won the 2013 Longines Distaff as well. Beholder missed the Breeders’ Cup in both 2014 and 2015, but returned for her 6-year-old campaign in 2016. She entered the 2016 Zenyatta Stakes having finished second in her two prior starts, and posted a runner-up finish at Santa Anita to Stellar Wind in her attempt at a four-peat, leading some to wonder if the champion had lost a step. Beholder promptly rebounded to edge Songbird in the Longines Distaff by a nose in one of the most exciting races of this decade – a fitting end to an incredible career.

American Pharoah Stakes

Formerly the Norfolk Stakes, this important West Coast prep for juveniles eyeing the Breeders' Cup and Triple Crown races down the line was rebranded as the FrontRunner Stakes in 2012 and this year gets a new name to honor racing's 12th Triple Crown winner and 2015 Horse of the Year (see below). The race was first held in 1970, and the first horse to win both the Norfolk and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile came in the World Championships’ inaugural year of 1984. Star Crown Stable’s Chief’s Crown, trained by Roger Laurin and ridden by Don MacBeth, took the Norfolk and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in succession during the fall, part of a six-race win streak that extended into his 3-year-old season and ended when he finished third in the Kentucky Derby. The champion juvenile of 1984 would go on to also place in both the Preakness and Belmont, win the Travers, defeat older horses in the Marlboro Cup, and retire after the 1985 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Two years later, Capote also claimed both the Norfolk and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and earned champion juvenile honors. The son of Seattle Slew won three out of four starts at two but did not carry his form forward and never won again. Grand Canyon won the 1989 Norfolk and finished second to Rhythm in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and Allan Paulson’s Bertrando achieved the same feat in 1991, losing the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to Arazi. After that, there was a drought of major crossover between the two races until 1999, when Anees finished a well-beaten third in the Norfolk but then pulled a 30.30-1 upset under Gary Stevens in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Gulfstream Park.

Kafwain won the Norfolk in 2002 and finished second in his next start to Vindication in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but for the next six years no horse exited the Norfolk to great renown at the World Championships. In 2008, though, during the height of the artificial-surface movement in North American racing, Darley Stable’s Midshipman moved forward after his runner-up finish to Street Hero in the Norfolk to score by 1 ¼ lengths in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile over Santa Anita’s synthetic main track and earn champion juvenile male honors.

A year later, Lookin At Lucky won the Norfolk and ran a game second to European shipper Vale of York in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which was held at Santa Anita again. Jump ahead to 2014, and the now-named FrontRunner was not only the key race for that fall’s Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but, as it turned out, a vital cog in shaping the 2015 Triple Crown season and determining the Breeders’ Cup Classic as well.

Ahmed Zayat’s American Pharoah entered the FrontRunner off of a maiden win in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity. Facing a competitive field but nevertheless sent off at odds of 1-2, the Pioneerof the Nile colt romped by 3 ¼ lengths. Sidelined by a minor injury, American Pharoah missed the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita weeks later – but the horse that finished third to him in the Norfolk, Texas Red, turned around and obliterated another deep field in the Sentient Jet Juvenile by 6 ½ lengths. American Pharoah would, of course, go on to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 and add a Breeders’ Cup Classic win in 2015 to boot.

Nyquist became the third horse to win both races in fall 2015, and the J. Paul Reddam-owned colt extended his career undefeated streak to eight through the 2016 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. Highly-regarded Bolt d’Oro romped in last year’s FrontRunner by 7 ¾ lengths, earning 7-10 favoritism in the Sentient Jet Juvenile at Del Mar, but he disappointed when finishing third after racing wide through the backstretch. Solomini, no match for ‘Bolt’ in the FrontRunner, came in second best again in the Juvenile behind recently-retired Good Magic.

Chandelier Stakes

The Chandelier Stakes is Santa Anita’s fall prep for the Tito's Handmade Vodka Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. Formerly named the Oak Leaf Stakes until 2012, the 1 1/16-mile race did not send any winners on to Breeders’ Cup glory until 1991, when Pleasant Stage and La Spia, first and third in the Oak Leaf, finished 1-2 in a thrilling Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs. Pleasant Stage, a Buckland Farm-owned daughter of 1981 Kentucky Derby winner Pleasant Colony, defeated La Spia by a head and was crowned champion 2-year-old filly at the Eclipse Awards.

The 1993 Oak Leaf was also a memorable race, as winner Phone Chatter and runner-up Sardula returned to Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup as the two favorites (Sardula as part of an entry) and with only a half-length separating them in the Oak Leaf. The Juvenile Fillies was even closer, as Laffit Pincay Jr. rallied Phone Chatter to the finish line just in time to edge Sardula by a head. Phone Chatter would get the Eclipse Award, and Sardula would continue on to win the 1994 Kentucky Oaks.

Hall of Famer Serena’s Song won the 1994 Oak Leaf but finished a head shy of Flanders in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. In 1998, Golden Eagle Farm’s Excellent Meeting accomplished the same feat, winning the Oak Leaf but finishing a half-length behind champion Silverbulletday in the Juvenile Fillies. And in 1999, another top-class filly kept the near-miss double streak going, as Chilukki won the Oak Leaf to enter the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies undefeated in six starts, only to finish second to Cash Run at Gulfstream Park.

Imperial Gesture in 2001 (second in both races) and Composure in 2002 (won Oak Leaf, second in Juvenile Fillies) kept up the momentum, and then in 2003 and 2004 two consecutive champions won both races back-to-back. The first, Halfbridled, was basically unchallenged in the Oak Leaf and Juvenile Fillies, winning them by a combined margin of seven lengths for trainer Richard Mandella and jockey Julie Krone. Sweet Catomine, a Martin and Pam Wygod homebred, was arguably even more impressive, scoring by four lengths in the Oak Leaf and then by a push-button 3 ¾ lengths in the Juvenile Fillies at Lone Star Park.

Stardom Bound became the fifth filly to pair up wins in the Oak Leaf and the Juvenile Fillies in 2008, taking both on Santa Anita’s synthetic main track. Blind Luck, a clear winner of the 2009 Oak Leaf, finished third in the Juvenile Fillies but won the champion 3-year-old filly Eclipse Award a year later. Weemissfrankie won the Oak Leaf in 2011 and finished third to My Miss Aurelia in the Juvenile Fillies, and Executiveprivilege won the 2012 Chandelier before finishing a length behind budding superstar Beholder in the Juvenile Fillies. In 2013, She’s a Tiger finished second to Secret Compass in the Oak Leaf and then crossed the finish line first in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, only to be disqualified and placed second for interference very late in the stretch.

Songbird, a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame as soon as she is eligible, announced her presence on the national stage with a front-running, 4 ½-length romp in the 2015 Chandelier, which was followed by an even more impressive 5 ¾-length score in the 14 Hands Winery Juvenile Fillies at Keeneland. And in 2016, Champagne Room finished fourth in the Chandelier before posting a 33.60-1 upset at the World Championships.

Last year, Baoma Corporation’s Alluring Star finished second in both the FrontRunner (to Moonshine Memories) and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (to Caledonia Road).

Rodeo Drive Stakes

Run as the Yellow Ribbon Stakes until 2012, the Rodeo Drive was first run in 1977 and sent 1985 winner Estrapade on to a good third-place finish in the following year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf in the years before the Filly and Mare Turf was launched in 1999. The first few Yellow Ribbon winners grabbed minor awards in the Filly and Mare Turf, with the best overall showing in the early 2000s coming from 2002 third-place Yellow Ribbon finisher Banks Hill. That elite-pedigreed Juddmonte Farms homebred won the Filly and Mare Turf the year before in her first start in the U.S., and then finished second to Starine in the 2002 Filly and Mare Turf.

Wait a While (Yellow Ribbon winner in 2006 and 2008) and Nashoba’s Key (Yellow Ribbon winner in 2007) both ran respectably in the corresponding Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turfs, although Wait a While was eventually disqualified from third to last in 2008 due to a medication violation. In the years since, generally speaking, Rodeo Drive/Yellow Ribbon winners have been also-rans in the Filly and Mare Turf, usually at the mercy of European or East Coast-based horses, although 2012 Rodeo Drive winner and 2013 runner-up Marketing Mix did finish a solid second behind Zagora in the ’12 Filly and Mare Turf.

The 2016 Rodeo Drive winner, Avenge, finished a good third to Queen’s Trust and Lady Eli in the Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita. That Richard Mandella-trained mare came back to win the Rodeo Drive again last year, then but faded to finish last in the Filly and Mare Turf at Del Mar, her final career start.

Foreign Challenge Series races

The following races will be held overseas during the weekend, with each offering a “Win and You’re In” berth to a Breeders’ Cup race. At Newmarket Racecourse in England, Saturday’s Juddmonte Royal Lodge Stakes and Friday’s Shadwell Rockfel Stakes offer automatic berths to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, respectively. And on Sunday at Nakayama Racecourse in Japan, the Sprinters Stakes became a Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint in 2017.

Of these three races, the two turf races for juveniles at Newmarket have had no significant impact on their respective Breeders’ Cup events in recent years, although 2012 Rockfel winner Just the Judge did go on to finish third in the 2014 Filly and Mare Turf at age four.

Last year’s Rockfel winner, Juliet Capulet, finished 11th of 14 in the Juveniles Fillies Turf at Del Mar.

As for the Juddmonte Royal Lodge Stakes, international horse racing fans are keeping a keen eye on 2017 victor Roaring Lion, who did not ship to Del Mar for the Juvenile Turf last fall but has become one of the best turf horses in training this year for John Gosden and, as discussed in Mike Curry’s recent blog for America's Best Racing, may ship over to Churchill Downs in November to contest either the Longines Turf or the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

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