Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Sprint Qualifier Headlines Stars & Stripes Card

Mind Your Biscuits won the 2017 Belmont Sprint Championship, the first year the race served as a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup. (Eclipse Sportswire)

After a pre-holiday weekend which saw two horses earn qualifying berths to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, the upcoming weekend’s slate of stakes races officially only features one Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” race but still could have major implications in determining the top contenders for several Breeders’ Cup races.

Last weekend, Stormy Embrace and Long On Value each earned a spot in the World Championships, winning qualifying races for the Filly and Mare Sprint and the Turf Sprint, respectively.

On Saturday, July 7, Belmont Park hosts its fifth annual Stars & Stripes Racing Festival, a racecard that signals the winding down of its spring-summer meet, which ends on July 15. Saturday's Stars & Stripes card will be featured on NBC with live coverage scheduled for 4:30-6 p.m. ET. 

This year’s Stars & Stripes features five graded stakes, and one of them, the Grade 2 Belmont Sprint Championship, is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” qualifying race for the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint. The card’s two marquee events in terms of purse money are the Grade 1, $1.2 million Belmont Derby Invitational and Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Oaks Invitational, both of which were renamed and moved to anchor the Stars & Stripes Festival beginning in 2014. Another stakes race on the card – the Grade 2 Suburban Handicap for older horses – has commingled with the Breeders’ Cup Classic through the years.

This year’s Breeders’ Cup promises to be one of the most exciting in recent memory, as the two-day event will return to Churchill Downs for the first time since 2011, held on Nov. 2-3.

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 an automatic 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 Belmont Sprint Championship as well as a look back at how three other stakes on Belmont’s Stars & Stripes card have factored into the Breeders’ Cup results in years past:

Belmont Sprint Championship

The Belmont Sprint Championship took the place of the James Marvin Stakes, which was run at Saratoga Race Course from 2008-2013, on NYRA’s stakes calendar. First run at Belmont Park under its new name in 2014, the race becomes a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” qualifier last year.

The best horse to run during the race’s era as the James Marvin probably was 2011 winner Jackson Bend. That Florida-bred millionaire ran third in the Preakness in 2010, won the James Marvin on Saratoga’s opening day in 2011, and would thrive over the next several months in one-turn races, running third in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint.  

In 2014, Clearly Now won the Belmont Sprint Championship on the inaugural Stars & Stripes card, and runner-up Palace and third place-finisher Salutos Amigos would go on to run sixth and seventh in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Private Zone, third in the ’14 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, became one of the best sprinters in the country over the next year, winning four graded stakes, including two Grade 1s, and romping in the 2015 Belmont Sprint Championship by 3 ¼ lengths over Clearly Now. He went on to finish three-quarters of a length behind champion Runhappy in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Keeneland.

Private Zone finished fourth in the 2016 Belmont Sprint Championship behind another top-class sprinter, A. P. Indian, and he was retired to Old Friends in 2017. A.P. Indian in turn checked in fourth in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Sprint but was elevated to third when runner-up Masochistic was disqualified for a medication violation weeks later.

In its first year as a Challenge Series "Win and You're In" race, the 2017 Belmont Sprint Championship drew a high-class, competitive field, and 7-5 favorite Mind Your Biscuits proved much the best, defeating Awesome Slew by 3 ½ lengths in his first start after winning the Dubai Golden Shaheen Sponsored by Gulf News. Mind Your Biscuits would train on to finish third in the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Del Mar and remains one of the best sprinters in North America, winning the Dubai Golden Shaheen again this year and recently finishing a close second in the Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap, also known as the Met Mile, at Belmont.

Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes

The Jamaica Handicap, a turf race for 3-year-olds held during Belmont Park’s fall meet through 2013, was renamed and given a substantial purse boost to become the featured race of the Stars & Stripes card. Two horses that won the Jamaica at age 3 would eventually become Breeders’ Cup winners: Artie Schiller (2004 Jamaica, 2005 NetJets Breeders’ Cup Mile) and Court Vision (2008 Jamaica, when he defeated the great champion Gio Ponti, and 2011 TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile in a 64.80-1 upset).

Mr Speaker took a thrilling first edition of the Belmont Derby Invitational in 2014 by a neck, but the two key participants in the race who would make major noise in that fall’s World Championships finished sixth (Toast of New York) and eighth (Bobby’s Kitten). Shortened up in distance, Bobby’s Kitten flew by the field on Santa Anita’s downhill turf course to capture the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, while Toast of New York just missed winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic when finishing a game second behind Bayern, with California Chrome third.

Last year’s Belmont Derby winner Oscar Performance ran a disappointing ninth in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf after setting the pace through a mile and a quarter but recently returned for his 4-year-old season with a course record-setting win in the Poker Stakes and figures to be a leading domestic contender for either the 2018 Longines Turf or Breeders’ Cup Mile.

Belmont Oaks Invitational Stakes

Similar to the Belmont Derby, the Belmont Oaks Invitational started as a stakes race for 3-year-old fillies during Belmont’s fall meet before being moved to the Stars & Stripes card in 2014. Named the Garden City from 1998-2013, its first winner to make an impact on the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf made a big impact indeed. Frank Stronach’s Perfect Sting won the 1999 Garden City as a 3-year-old, finished sixth in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, and then fashioned an Eclipse Award-winning 4-year-old season in 2000 that culminated with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Churchill Downs.

In the subsequent years, several Garden City winners performed well in the Breeders’ Cup, such as Wonder Again (third in the ’04 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf) and Alterite (third in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf). Since moving to July and being renamed, the Belmont Oaks Invitational has featured a host of talented 3-year-old fillies, but two stand out. Catch a Glimpse, winner of the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, won the 2016 Belmont Oaks by outlasting Time and Motion on the front end.

A year earlier, 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Filies Turf winner Lady Eli took the 2015 Belmont Oaks with ease before she was sidelined for more than a year with life-threatening laminitis. She returned in 2016 to win the Grade 1 Flower Bowl Stakes and just miss in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf. Lady Eli won three more graded stakes in 2017 – two of them Grade 1s – and was retired after finishing seventh in the Filly and Mare Turf.

New Money Honey, winner of the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, won the 2017 Belmont Oaks over Sistercharlie by a neck in a thriller. Neither of those two ran in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, but both have returned in 2018 with auspicious performances – New Money Honey taking a Belmont allowance two weeks ago and Sistercharlie posting an impressive win in the Coolmore Jenny Wiley Stakes and a runner-up finish in the New York Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets.

Suburban Handicap

The 1 1/8-mile Suburban Handicap has a rich history dating back to 1884, and in the Breeders’ Cup era several of its winners have excelled on the World Championships stage, including Hall of Famers Easy Goer (second to Sunday Silence in a 1989 Breeders’ Cup Classic worthy of its name, first in the ’90 Suburban), Skip Away (first in the ’97 Suburban and Breeders’ Cup Classic), and Invasor (first in the ’06 Suburban and Breeders’ Cup Classic).

More recently, Mucho Macho Man won the 2012 Suburban, finished second behind Fort Larned in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, and a year later won the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic in a heart-pounder over Will Take Charge. Effinex, winner of the 2015 and 2016 editions of the Suburban, was runner-up in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic to American Pharoah and seventh behind Arrogate in the 2016 Classic.

Keen Ice, whose claim to fame will always be upsetting American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers Stakes, won last year's Suburban in another upset, this time over Shaman Ghost. The son of Curlin, who had finished fourth in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic and third in the 2016 Classic, was forced to miss the 2017 Classic due to injury and was retired to Calumet Farm shortly before the World Championships.

Future-Book Odds on the Breeders’ Cup Classic: Wynn Las Vegas is offering future-book odds on horses pointing to the Nov. 3 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. Here are sports book manager Johnny Avello’s lines for the top contenders as of July 2:

1) Justify (5-2)

2) West Coast (8-1)

3) Good Magic (12-1)

4) Accelerate (14-1)

4) Collected (14-1)

4) Thunder Snow (14-1)

7) Tapwrit (22-1)

8) Gronkowski (25-1)

9) Dr. Dorr (30-1)

9) Hofburg (30-1)

9) McKinzie (30-1)

9) Mendelssohn (30-1)

9) Vino Rosso (30-1)

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