Road to the Breeders’ Cup: A Stacked Saturday Prep Lineup at the Spa

Main Sequence (left) won the 2014 Sword Dancer Invitational Stakes at Saratoga en route to capturing the Breeders’ Cup Turf that fall. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Aug. 25 marks an important point on the Thoroughbred racing calendar as owners, trainers, and jockeys continue to hone in on the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Churchill Downs as November approaches. Year-in, year-out, the last weekend of August is one where several horses will emerge as leading contenders for various Breeders’ Cup races, many of them doing so at historic Saratoga Race Course.

The penultimate weekend at the Spa traditionally is highlighted by the track’s signature race for 3-year-olds, the $1.25 million Runhappy Travers Stakes, which, although not an official Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” qualifying race, often sends its best performers on to the World Championships. Four other races on the card are “Win and You’re In” preps – the $1 million Sword Dancer Stakes (Longines Turf), the $700,000 Personal Ensign Stakes (Longines Distaff), the $600,000 Forego Stakes (Las Vegas Dirt Mile), and the $500,000 Ketel One Ballerina Stakes (Filly and Mare Sprint).

Del Mar, which is also winding down its popular summer meet, will host one “Win and You’re In” qualifier on Saturday – the $200,000 Pat O’Brien Stakes, which is a prep for the Las Vegas Dirt Mile. Three foreign races this week are part of the Challenge Series as well, all held at the boutique Ebor festival meet at York Racecourse in England. The Group 1 Juddmonte International Stakes, held on Aug. 22 is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Longines Turf. The Darley Yorkshire Oaks, held one day later, is a qualifier for the Filly and Mare Turf. Lastly, the Coolmore Nunthorpe Stakes held on Aug. 24 at York offers an automatic berth in the Turf Sprint to the winner.

Saturday’s television coverage will be led by NBC Sports’ national broadcast on NBC from 4 p.m. – 6 p.m. ET as part of its its “Win and You’re In” Series Presented by America’s Best Racing. Additional Saratoga coverage on Aug. 25 will be offered via “Saratoga Live,” NYRA's flagship show presented by Claiborne Farm. That broadcast will air from 2 p.m. –  4 p.m. ET and will be available in 75 million households nationally through  Fox Sports 2 and regionally through MSG+Fox Sports Prime TicketFox Sports San DiegoFox Sports Ohio and the Altitude Sports Network.. The Pat O’Brien Stakes will be televised by TVG. For additional information, click here.

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 the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series races on tap this weekend:

Sword Dancer Stakes

The Sword Dancer, a 1 ½-mile prep for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf, was held at Belmont Park during the early years of the Breeders’ Cup era before moving to Saratoga in 1991. It has been won by some of the best U.S.-based grass horses from the past 30-plus years, starting with Theatrical in 1987. That Irish-bred son of Nureyev began his career in his native country and actually finished 11th in the 1985 Breeders’ Cup Turf in his third career start. By mid-1986, he was in the States to stay, and came just a neck short of capturing that autumn’s Turf, won by Hall of Famer Manila. In 1987, Theatrical won both the Sword Dancer and the Breeders’ Cup Turf, with Pat Day aboard for both victories. He was honored as champion turf male of 1987 by Eclipse Award voters, and went on to become a successful sire.

In 1988, Darby Dan Farm’s Sunshine Forever finished second in both the Sword Dancer and the Breeders’ Cup Turf, the latter by a half-length to Great Communicator. El Senor won back-to-back editions of the Sword Dancer in 1989 and 1990, and finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Turf in ’90. And in 1992, a second horse scored the Sword Dancer-Breeders’ Cup Turf double, as Madeleine Paulson’s Fraise won at Saratoga by four lengths, and, after two losses, rallied from last along the rail under Pat Valenzuela to edge champion Sky Classic in the Breeders’ Cup Turf by a nose.

Popular gelding John’s Call romped by 9 ¼ lengths in the 2000 Sword Dancer and went on to finish a close third in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs. Another fan favorite gelding, With Anticipation, won the Sword Dancer in both 2001 and 2002; he finished second to Ireland’s High Chaparral in the ’02 Turf. (Volponi, third in the ’02 Sword Dancer, would score a 43.50-1 upset win in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic).

Yet another beloved gelding, Better Talk Now, would become the third horse to win both the Sword Dancer and Breeders’ Cup Turf in 2004. Owned by Bushwood Stables and trained by Graham Motion, the son of Talkin Man earned his first top-level win in the Sword Dancer with a last-to-first charge under jockey Ramon Dominguez. Two starts later, he posted a driving, 27.90-1 upset win over champion Kitten’s Joy in the Breeders' Cup Turf at Lone Star Park. Better Talk Now would be a constant presence in Grade 1 turf stakes over the next five years, finishing second in the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Turf and runner-up in both the 2008 and 2009 editions of Sword Dancer (the latter his final start) as part of a splendid nine-season career that saw him earn more than $4.3 million.

Grand Couturier, an English-bred horse who started his career racing in Europe, finished third in the 2006 Sword Dancer but won the next two runnings, defeating English Channel in 2007 and Better Talk Now in 2008. English Channel, arguably one of the two or three best U.S.-bred turf horses of the 2000s, rebounded to win the ’07 Breeders’ Cup Turf by seven lengths on a rain-softened grass course at Monmouth Park. Horses who won or ran well in the Sword Dancer have continued on to the Breeders’ Cup more often than not over the subsequent 10 years, with notable showings coming from Point of Entry (won the Sword Dancer in 2012, second to Little Mike in the Breeders’ Cup Turf) and Flintshire (won the 2015 and 2016 Sword Dancers, and second in both the 2014 and 2016 Breeders' Cup Turfs).

In 2014, another Graham Motion-trained horse won both the Sword Dancer and the Breeders’ Cup Turf, as Flaxman Holdings’ Main Sequence scored a hard-fought victory by a head at Saratoga and then defeated Flintshire by a half-length in the Turf in the latter’s first start in the U.S. He received Eclipse Awards for both champion turf male and champion older male that year.  

Last year’s Sword Dancer winner, Sadler’s Joy, finished a good fourth in the Longines Turf at Del Mar and is a probable starter in this year’s renewal.

Personal Ensign Stakes

The Personal Ensign was named after Ogden Phipps’ champion filly and 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff winner in 1998 and prior to that was run as the John Morris Handicap (from 1986 to 1997) and as the Firenze Handicap (from its beginning in 1948 to 1985). The race was held at 1 1/8 miles during the early years of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff before being extended to its current 1 ¼ miles in 1995. There was not a lot of crossover between the two races through the early 1990s, although Versailles Treaty did finish second in both in 1992, and Heavenly Prize won the John Morris and finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in 1995. But in 1999, that all changed in a very big way. Beautiful Pleasure, owned by John Oxley and trained by John Ward, took the Personal Ensign by 2 ¼ lengths over odds-on favorite Banshee Breeze, and then defeated that foe again in a swiftly-run ’99 Distaff at Gulfstream Park. Not surprisingly, Beautiful Pleasure would receive the champion older female Eclipse Award for ’99, and she would go on to win the 2000 Personal Ensign and finish second in the 2001 edition as well.

In 2004, Storm Flag Flying, the champion juvenile filly of 2002, won the Personal Ensign, defeating ’02 Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner and Horse of the Year Azeri. Storm Flag Flying would go on to finish second to another champion and Hall of Famer, Ashado, in the ’04 Distaff. Ginger Punch, winner of the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Distaff and that year’s champion older female, returned in 2008 to take the Personal Ensign. And in 2012, the great Royal Delta finished second to Love and Pride in the Personal Ensign before winning the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic, as it was then named, at Santa Anita Park. The Bill Mott trainee returned in 2013 to win the Personal Ensign, which turned out to be her final career victory.

Two years ago, Stopchargingmaria finished fourth in the Personal Ensign but summoned a peak performance to win the Breeders’ Cup Distaff months later at Keeneland (Personal Ensign winner Sheer Drama finished fourth in the Distaff). In 2016, Forever Unbridled finished third in both races during a campaign that placed her just behind superstars Beholder and Songbird. The Dallas Stewart-trained daughter of Unbridled’s Song had improved substantially by the time the 2017 Personal Ensign rolled around, however, and proved her class by defeating Songbird (runner-up in the 2016 Longines Distaff) by a neck in a game effort. Forever Unbridled subsequently trained up to the 2017 Longines Distaff and capped off an Eclipse Award-winning season by winning that race against a quality field. She was retired after finishing fifth in this year’s Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline.

Forego Stakes

The Forego is a qualifying race for the Las Vegas Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, but has had more of an impact on the Breeders' Cup Sprint through the years, as the Dirt Mile was not held until 2007. The Forego was first held in 1980, named after the mid-1970s superstar, and made its first impression on the Breeders’ Cup Sprint during 1986-87, when Groovy won the Forego in both years and ran second as the odds-on favorite to Very Subtle in the ’87 Sprint at Hollywood Park. Two years later, Ogden Phipps homebred Dancing Spree was runner-up to Quick Call in the Forego but won the 1989 Breeders’ Cup Sprint by a neck over the eventual Hall of Fame filly Safely Kept, who would be voted champion sprinter that year at the Eclipse Awards and win the Sprint in 1990. Rubiano, winner of the 1992 Forego, finished third as the favorite in that fall’s Sprint, but over the next 10 years no Forego winners went on to distinguish themselves at the Breeders’ Cup, although many ran.

Orientate had established a reputation as a solid, if inconsistent, stakes winner during 2001 and into 2002, but when shortened up for good by D. Wayne Lukas that summer he proceeded to win five consecutive stakes races to close out his career, his last two being the Forego and the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. That was more than good enough to earn an Eclipse Award as champion sprinter.

Five years later, another dominant sprinter won both the Forego and Breeders’ Cup Sprint in the Bob Baffert-trained Midnight Lute. He won those races back-to-back en route to champion male sprinter honors in 2007, and the injury-plagued horse then came back to win the Sprint in 2008 in somewhat of a surprise before starting a promising stud career.

In 2010, Big Drama finished second to Here Comes Ben in the Forego and then won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs. Private Zone, arguably one of the best sprinters in recent years, finished third in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, won the 2015 Forego Stakes, and then finished second in the ’15 TwinSpires Sprint. And the 2016 Forego winner A.P. Indian ran fourth in the TwinSpires Sprint but was elevated to third via runner-up Masochistic’s disqualification.

Meanwhile, there had been very little crossover between the Forego and the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, until 2016. That’s when Tamarkuz, who had finished sixth in the 2015 Forego, returned to the Spa to try again and came in second behind A.P. Indian. The Shadwell Stable-owned son of Speightstown then finished second in the Kelso Handicap at Belmont Park before contesting a tough renewal of the Las Vegas Dirt Mile, where he defeated the likes of Gun Runner and Accelerate by 3 ½ lengths at 11.90-1 odds.

Last year’s renewal of the Forego was won by 2016 TwinSpires Sprint winner Drefong, but that champion disappointed in his final career start when sixth in the 2017 TwinSpires Sprint at Del Mar. Mind Your Biscuits, who turned in a rare subpar performance in the 2017 Forego when sixth, rebounded to finish third in the TwinSpires Sprint and remains one of the best North American horses in training this year. And Awesome Slew, runner-up in the 2017 Forego and third in the Las Vegas Dirt Mile, also has returned for another racing campaign and is a probable for Saturday’s renewal of the Forego.

Ketel One Ballerina Stakes

The Ballerina Stakes, a seven-furlong sprint, has been won by such notables as Lady’s Secret (1985, runner-up in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff and winner of the 1986 Distaff), champion Queena (1991), and millionaires Dream Supreme (2000) and Lady Tak (2004). In the first year the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint was held – 2007 – a Ballerina winner took top honors. Maryfield scored by 1 ½ lengths under Elvis Trujillo in the midst of a Monmouth Park monsoon and would receive the first-ever champion female sprinter Eclipse Award for her efforts.

Informed Decision, third in the 2009 Ballerina, won the Filly and Mare Sprint and the Eclipse Award for owner Augustin Stable. And Better Lucky, fourth in the 2014 Ballerina, nearly won that year’s Filly and Mare Sprint, coming up a head short of champion Judy the Beauty. 

By the Moon, second in the 2016 Ballerina and fifth in the Filly and Mare Sprint, won the 2017 Ballerina in a mild upset as 2.45-1 favorite Paulassilverlining finished fifth. Both of those racemares were also-rans in a wild Filly and Mare Sprint at Del Mar that produced a $1,030 exacta (Carina Mia finished third in both the Ballerina and the Filly and Mare Sprint).

Pat O’Brien Stakes

The Pat O’Brien was first held in 1986 and is named after the Del Mar co-founder. The first horse to exit the race and make waves at the World Championships was Cardmania, who finished third in the 1993 Pat O’Brien but then won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint by a neck at Santa Anita Park (the gelding also finished fourth in the 1994 Sprint). Lit de Justice, winner of the 1995 Pat O’Brien, finished third in that year’s Sprint and then checked in third in the 1996 Pat O’Brien before winning the Sprint in a driving finish. The horse that defeated Lit de Justice in the ’96 Pat O’Brien, Alphabet Soup, won that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic in a 19.85-1 upset over Louis Quatorze and the legendary Cigar.


In 2004, Pat O’Brien winner Kela finished second to Speightstown in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Lone Star Park. A year later, Taste of Paradise took third in the Pat O’Brien and then came a head short of winning the Sprint at Belmont Park. 2009 Pat O’Brien winner Zensational was fifth as the 9-5 favorite in a thrilling Breeders’ Cup Sprint that saw the top four finishers separated by less than half a length. And in 2013 and 2014, Goldencents made his mark in the Pat O’Brien and in the Breeders’ Cup, albeit not in the Sprint. The talented runner finished second in the Pat O’Brien in ’13 to Fed Biz and turned the tables on that foe in 2014 – and he also won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in both years. Goldencents is the only Pat O'Brien horse to date that's made an impact on the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (Fed Biz ran in three consecutive editions from 2012-14 and was unplaced in all of them). The 2016 Pat O’Brien winner, Masochistic, ran second to Drefong in the TwinSpires Sprint at Santa Anita but was later disqualified due to a medication violation.

Travers Stakes

The 1 ¼-mile Travers Stakes may not be a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup, but that certainly does not mean that it lacks significance as a prep race. On the contrary, many 3-year-olds who have excelled in Saratoga’s crown jewel race have gone on to excel in November. Twenty-nine years ago, Forty Niner, second to the filly Winning Colors in the 1988 Kentucky Derby, won a thrilling Travers by a nose over Seeking the Gold. The pair would contest a star-studded Breeders’ Cup Classic that November at Churchill Downs, where Forty Niner would finish fourth and Seeking the Gold second to the great Hall of Famer Alysheba.

One year later, Belmont Stakes winner and Kentucky Derby and Preakness runner-up Easy Goer won the Travers by a comfortable three lengths. That was the third in what would become a five-race winning streak for Easy Goer as he entered the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Ogden Phipps homebred had absolutely dominated his opponents for nearly three months and was sent off as the 1-2 favorite in the Classic, but in one of the greatest races in history, he settled for second-best to his Kentucky Derby and Preakness vanquisher Sunday Silence, beaten by a neck.

Five years later, the two horses turned back by Hall of Famer Holy Bull in his incredible 1994 Travers Stakes win – Concern and Tabasco Cat – finished first and second, respectively, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, separated by a neck. (Holy Bull skipped the Breeders’ Cup but was still voted Horse of the Year as a 3-year-old.) The 1996 Travers also produced two horses that would shine in the months ahead. Runner-up Louis Quatorze finished a nose behind the aforementioned Alphabet Soup in that fall’s Classic, and third-place finisher Skip Away would dominate the 1997 Classic by six lengths (and be voted Horse of the Year in 1998).

In 2002, Travers winner Medaglia d’Oro ran a distant second to longshot Volponi (mentioned above) in an unpredictable Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Bobby Frankel-trained horse would also finish second in the 2003 Classic and is one of North America’s leading sires today. 2005 Travers winner Flower Alley finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to Saint Liam, and one year later, Bernardini likewise won the Travers and ran second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to Invasor.

More recently, the Travers served as the breakthrough race for D. Wayne Lukas-trained Will Take Charge, who rallied in the last jump to nip Moreno by a nose at Saratoga. Unfortunately for his connections and fans, that nose margin would turn out to be his measure of defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic later that fall at Santa Anita, as Will Take Charge lived up to his name with a powerful closing kick, only to fall just short of victorious Mucho Macho Man in one of the most exciting races in recent years.

In 2014, 2.45-1 Travers favorite Bayern finished last of 10 in a thoroughly disappointing performance, but then won the Pennsylvania Derby before posting a controversial front-running win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic that survived a steward’s inquiry. Keen Ice’s win in the 2015 Travers Stakes will go down in lore as the only blemish on American Pharoah’s incredible 3-year-old Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic-winning campaign; he went on to finish fourth behind Pharoah in the ’15 Classic and third in the 2016 Classic.

For all of that history, there had never been a Travers winner that went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner in the same year … until 2016, when Arrogate’s record-setting Travers score propelled him to superstardom. His elite status was confirmed by his win over California Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and then amplified by his incredible races during early 2017 before he lost his best form over the summer. By the time the last fall's Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar rolled around, it was another Bob Baffert-trained horse, Travers winner West Coast, who was on the upswing, and he ran gamely when third in the mile-and-a-quarter Classic while being no match for Gun Runner. The colt has since finished second in the world’s two most richest races this year – the Pegasus World Cup Invitational and the Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline – and remains a potential starter in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Classic as of mid-August.

Other weekend stakes:

This weekend’s stakes slate also features a few other races that have made an impact on the Breeders’ Cup in recent years. The $400,000 Woodford Reserve Ballston Spa Stakes at Saratoga, a 1 1/16-mile race for fillies and mares, has sent several horses on to perform well in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, including Zagora, who won both races in 2012. Champion Lady Eli, winner of the 2014 Juvenile Fillies Turf and runner-up by a nose in the 2016 Filly and Mare Turf, won the Ballston Spa last year and then finished seventh in the Filly and Mare Turf at Del Mar, her career finale. The $500,000 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial Stakes – previously the King’s Bishop Stakes until last year when it was renamed to honor the Hall of Fame trainer – is arguably the most prestigious race of the year for 3-year-olds that is shorter than one mile. The seven-furlong test has often served as a launching pad for speedy sophomore runners to test their elders in the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint, and three horses have managed to win both in the same year: Squirtle Squirt in 2001, Runhappy in 2015, and Drefong in 2016. Additionally, 2011 King’s Bishop winner Caleb’s Posse won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

Sunday’s one-mile Torrey Pines Stakes at Del Mar has been a key West Coast prep for fillies and mares in recent years. Switch, who placed in three consecutive editions of Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, won the Torrey Pines in 2010, while future Hall of Famer Beholder won it in 2013, two starts before winning the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Stellar Wind won the Torrey Pines in 2015, one race prior to finishing a close second to Stopchargingmaria in the Longines Distaff at Keeneland. Also on Sunday, the $125,000 Seaway Stakes at Woodbine turned out to be a key Breeders’ Cup prep last year, as winner Ami’s Mesa came a nose short of capturing the Filly and Mare Sprint at Del Mar in November as part of the aforementioned four-figure exacta with winner Bar of Gold.

European Breeders’ Cup preps:

The Juddmonte International Stakes has been won by some of the best turf horses in the world throughout its history, but four of its winners left a mark on the Breeders’ Cup Classic rather than the Longines Turf, the first two in back-to-back years. Giant’s Causeway and Sakhee lost by a neck and a nose in the 2000 and 2001 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, respectively, to the same horse: Tiznow. In 2009, Juddmonte International winner Twice Over finished third in the 2009 Classic over Santa Anita's then-synthetic main track to Zenyatta. And in 2013, Declaration of War shipped to Santa Anita after winning the Juddmonte and finished a very game third behind Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge in the Classic (see above).

As for the Breeders' Cup Turf, 2003 Juddmonte winner Falbrav and 2004 winner Sulamani both participated in the '03 Turf at Santa Anita, which resulted in a dead-heat win between High Chaparral and Johar. Falbrav finished third, a head behind the top pair, and Sulamani fifth. Last year's Juddmonte International was won by Ulysses, who finished fourth in the 2016 Longines Turf but did not ship to the U.S. for another try in 2017.

The Darley Yorkshire Oaks has been represented by several of its winners to the Breeders’ Filly and Mare Turf in recent years, highlighted by Midday (2010 Filly and Mare Turf winner), The Fugue (2012 third-place finisher in the Filly and Mare Turf, also second in the 2013 Longines Turf weeks after she won the Yorkshire Oaks), and Seventh Heaven (fourth in the 2016 Filly and Mare Turf).   

Up until last year, recent winners of the Coolmore Nunthorpe Stakes had not traveled over for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. Way back in 1990, however, Nunthorpe winner Dayjur did come to the U.S. to contest the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, where he finished a neck shy of the aforementioned Safely Kept at Belmont Park.

Marsha, winner of last year's Nunthorpe, did ship to Del Mar for the Turf Sprint but did not threaten in a sixth-place finish. The filly she upset by a nose in the Nunthorpe, popular U.S.-based Lady Aurelia, did not fire in the Turf Sprint as well, finishing 10th as the 9-10 favorite. She was retired from racing last month.

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