Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Belmont Preps Have Historical Influence

Hall of Famer Curlin won the 2008 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, his second consecutive win in the race, near the end of his accomplished career. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The first of two consecutive weekends loaded with significant prep races for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Santa Anita Park in November arrives on Sept. 27-29. A total of seven 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.

Belmont Park on Long Island hosts two “Win and You’re In” preps: the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes (a "Win and You're In" prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic) and the Grade 1 Vosburgh Stakes (an automatic qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint).

The other five graded stakes are at Santa Anita Park to kick off its opening weekend: the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes (qualifier for Breeders’ Cup Classic); Grade 2 Zenyatta Stakes (Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff); Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes (TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile); Grade 1 Chandelier Stakes (Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies); and Grade 1 Rodeo Drive Stakes (Maker's Mark Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf).

The seven domestic Breeders' Cup prep races will be broadcast live via various telecasts, including a Saturday, Sept. 28 live show from Santa Anita Park on NBCSN that will feature the Awesome Again Stakes and Rodeo Drive Stakes. For a full TV schedule, click here.

In addition, there are three overseas automatic qualifiers and a few other graded stakes in North America that, while not “Win and You’re In” races, still have sent winners on to earn fame and a lot of money in the Breeders’ Cup.

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 Belmont Park, as well as a look at other domestic graded stakes this weekend and the foreign Challenge Series races: (a review of Santa Anita's Breeders' Cup qualifiers will be posted on Wednesday).

Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes

The Jockey Club Gold Cup is arguably one of the top ten most important races in the history the sport in North America. It was first run in 1919 and has been won by a group of horses that, taken in total, comprise a good chunk of real estate in the Racing Hall of Fame. Needless to say, the 1 ¼-mile test on Belmont’s oval (owing to the vast circumference of “Big Sandy,” the Jockey Club is still a race with just one full turn rather than two) has been an important Breeders’ Cup Classic prep since 1984.

In the very first running of the Classic, Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Slew o’ Gold was part of a three-horse charge to the wire in deep stretch and was bumped hard by Gate Dancer, forcing him into longshot winner Wild Again. Slew o’ Gold, the dominant part of a 3-5 favored entry in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, was placed second. He was voted champion older male of 1984 and entered the Hall of Fame in 1992.

In 1985 and 1986, Jockey Club Gold Cup runners-up Gate Dancer and Turkoman each finished second as well in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and 1989 dominant Jockey Club Gold Cup winner and future Hall of Famer Easy Goer did the same, losing to Sunday Silence in arguably the most exciting Breeders’ Cup Classic ever.

The 1992 Jockey Club Gold Cup was the pivotal race for that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. Pleasant Tap won the Gold Cup by a commanding 4 ½ lengths over 1991 Kentucky Derby winner Strike the Gold, with 1992 Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy another 2 ¼ lengths back in third after stumbling at the break. But in the ninth Breeders’ Cup Classic, held at Gulfstream Park, it was A.P. Indy who took command in the stretch to pull away and win by two lengths over Pleasant Tap. A.P. Indy would be voted Horse of the Year in 1992 and subsequently became one of the most influential sires in North American Thoroughbred breeding.

Tabasco Cat, fourth in the 1994 Jockey Club Gold Cup, lost by a neck to Concern in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. And then in 1995, a Jockey Club Gold Cup winner broke through to take the Breeders’ Cup Classic for the first time. That horse, of course, was the “unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar,” as racecaller Tom Durkin so memorably described in the ’95 Classic. Cigar merely went 10-for-10 that year, with his closest margin of victory a length in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. By the next fall, Cigar’s streak of perfection had ended in the Pacific Classic, and he finished second by a head to Skip Away in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and then third by a head to Alphabet Soup and Louis Quatorze in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. That would be Cigar’s final start, and due to infertility he would become one of the most popular residents of the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington until his death in 2014.

Skip Away repeated in the Jockey Club Gold Cup in 1997, setting the stakes record time of 1:58.89, and won the Breeders’ Cup Classic that year as well to join Cigar in the exclusive club. Carolyn Hine’s future Hall of Famer would then finish third in the 1998 Jockey Club Gold Cup and sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but win Horse of the Year for his overall campaign.

Moving on several years, 2005 Jockey Club Gold Cup fourth-place finisher Flower Alley came in second to Saint Liam in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. A year later, Bernardini easily prevailed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and then yielded to Invasor in the Classic. Both of those horses did so as 3-year-olds.

In 2007, another 3-year-old went one better and became the third Jockey Club Gold Cup-Breeders’ Cup Classic winner. Curlin had already run third in the Kentucky Derby, first in the Preakness, and second in the Belmont as he entered the autumn racing season and had a strong argument to make as champion 3-year-old among a very high-quality group. But then Curlin defeated older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup for the partnership of Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Stables, Padua Stables, George Bolton, and Midnight Cry Stables, winning by a neck over Lawyer Ron. He came back to defeat many of his 3-year-old rivals convincingly in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on a sloppy Monmouth Park main track. Curlin was named champion 3-year-old male and Horse of the Year by Eclipse Award voters, and would extend his dominance well into his 4-year-old campaign. He repeated in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and then ran fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Santa Anita’s then-artificial main track to conclude his career with another Horse of the Year award.

Claiborne Farm’s and Adele Dilschneider’s Blame finished second in the 2010 Jockey Club Gold Cup to New York mainstay Haynesfield, but he returned in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs to hand champion racemare and eventual Horse of the Year Zenyatta her only defeat. A year later, it was the Jockey Club Gold Cup runner-up once again who took the Classic at Churchill, as Drosselmeyer backed up his 2010 Belmont Stakes win with another long-distance triumph in the 2011 Classic. And in 2012, Jockey Club Gold Cup third-place finisher Fort Larned scored a career-defining win when shipped to Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, turning back Mucho Macho Man (who would win the Classic a year later) by a half-length at odds of 9.40-1.

Effinex, third to Tonalist in the 2015 Jockey Club Gold Cup, was a distant second to Grand Slam champ American Pharoah in the ’15  Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland. The 2016 Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Hoppertunity finished fourth in that year's Breeders’ Cup Classic. And in 2018, globe-trotting Thunder Snow lost the Jockey Club Gold Cup in the final strides to 45.50-1 longshot Discreet Lover, giving longtime owner-trainer Uriah St. Lewis a breakthrough victory. Thunder Snow then ran a good third behind Accelerate in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

Vosburgh Stakes

The historic Vosburgh Stakes was run at seven furlongs during the Breeders’ Cup era until 2004, when it was held at 6 ½ furlongs for one year before being shortened to its current six furlongs in 2005. Groovy, winner of the 1987 Vosburgh, became the first horse from the race to perform well in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint when he ran second, albeit by four lengths, to Very Subtle. The Texas-bred was a 4-5 favorite in the Breeders’ Cup, which was his first loss of the year after winning seven in a row. He was honored with an Eclipse Award as champion sprinter for his body of work.

One year later, the situation reversed as Vosburgh runner-up Gulch rallied late to take the Breeders’ Cup Sprint by three-quarters of a length under Angel Cordero Jr. The D. Wayne Lukas trainee won the Eclipse Award for his division and had some success at stud as well, siring 1995 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Thunder Gulch among others. In 1989, Ogden Phipps’ Dancing Spree finished fourth in the Vosburgh only to post a 16.60-1 upset win in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. That gave Angel Cordero Jr. back-to-back wins in the Sprint; the Hall of Famer had previously finished second in 1986 and 1987 (aboard Groovy).

Jump into the 1990s, and another Vosburgh also-ran, Cherokee Run, achieved peak form in the 1994 Breeders’ Cup en route to championship honors. That Florida-bred son of Runaway Groom could not hold his lead in the Vosburgh, surrendering late to finish third, but then turned it around one race later with Mike Smith in the irons, rallying to post a head win over Soviet Problem in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs.

Artax, the first horse to win both the Vosburgh and the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in the same year, did so in 1999 when he defeated Kona Gold (subsequent winner of the 2000 Sprint) by a half-length. His wins bookended a score in the Forest Hills Handicap and were enough to garner an Eclipse Award.

Crossover success between the Vosburgh and Breeders’ Cup Sprint continued into the 2000s, as Bobby Frankel-trained Squirtle Squirt, second to Left Bank in the 2001 Vosburgh, returned to Belmont Park in the Sprint and defeated Xtra Heat by a half-length under a well-timed ride by Jerry Bailey. The Vosburgh winner in 2003 was another Bobby Frankel trainee, who took the only renewal of the race at 6 ½ furlongs to pick up his first career stakes win. That horse did not go on to the ’03 Breeders’ Cup. Instead, he came back to dominate in 2004 and score an overpowering win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The name: Ghostzapper.

Speightstown, third in the 2004 Vosburgh, impressively won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Lone Star Park shortly before Ghostzapper’s win in the Classic. A year later, Vosburgh winner Taste of Paradise came up just a head short to Silver Train in the Sprint. And more recently, horses such as Force Freeze (second in the 2011 Vosburgh and Breeders’ Cup Sprint); The Lumber Guy (won the 2012 Vosburgh, second in the Sprint); and Private Zone (won the 2013 and 2014 Vosburghs, third in the 2014 Sprint and second in the 2015 Sprint) have put up good showings in both events.

Last year, 2017 Breeders’ Cup Sprint runner-up Imperial Hint won the Vosburgh by 1 ½ lengths as the 1-5 favorite and then finished third in the 2018 Sprint at Churchill Downs as Roy H notched a repeat win. The “little rocket,” as so named by trainer Luis Carvajal Jr., returned to elite form this summer at Saratoga after two third-place efforts to begin 2019, romping in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap. He is a probable for Saturday’s Vosburgh according to NYRA’s press notes.

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 and last year's Rockfel winner, Just Wonderful, finished 7 ¾ lengths behind Newspaperofrecord in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.

Other domestic graded stakes

The Grade 1, 1 1/8-mile Beldame Stakes at Belmont on Saturday is not a Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff, but its history is deeply intertwined with the top World Championships dirt race for females, starting back in 1984 when Beldame winner Life’s Magic finished second in the inaugural Distaff. Life’s Magic would win the 1985 Distaff over 3-year-old Lady’s Secret, who had taken the Beldame by an easy two lengths and entered the Breeders’ Cup on an eight-race winning streak. It was no contest in the Distaff at Aqueduct, as Angel Cordero Jr. piloted Life’s Magic to a 6 ¼-length win. A year later, Lady’s Secret would win both the Beldame and Breeders’ Cup Distaff to secure Horse of the Year honors. The “Iron Lady” would enter the Hall of Fame in 1992.

Another Reagan-era superstar, Personal Ensign, won the Beldame and the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in 1988, the latter by a hard-earned nose over Winning Colors. Heavenly Prize won the 1994 Beldame and finished second in the Distaff, and a year later ran second in both events. Serena’s Song won the 1995 Beldame over Heavenly Prize and would finish runner-up to Jewel Princess in the 1996 Distaff en route to Hall of Fame induction in 2002. Ajina was second best in the 1997 Beldame but won the Distaff by two lengths for Allen Paulson and Bill Mott. And in 1999, John Oxley’s Beautiful Pleasure became the fourth filly to win both events in the same calendar year, defeating Silverbulletday in the Beldame and Banshee Breeze in the Distaff.

Nearly every year it seems, the Beldame has continued to be a significant prep for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. 2001 Beldame third-place finisher Spain nearly won the Distaff three weeks later at Belmont Park, yielding to Unbridled Elaine at the finish line. Ginger Punch, third in the 2007 Beldame, rebounded to post a game neck win in the Distaff for Frank Stronach and Bobby Frankel; she would later finish second in the 2008 Beldame. Three years on, Beldame runner-up Unrivaled Belle won the Distaff (then called the Ladies’ Classic) at odds of 7.50-1 in a race that will always be remembered for the actions of Beldame winner Life At Ten, who refused to compete.

Royal Delta, runner-up to Havre de Grace in the 2011 Beldame, won the Ladies’ Classic as a 3-year-old. A year later, the Besilu Stables star won both races – romping in the Beldame by 9 ½ lengths – and secured her second consecutive Eclipse Award. She would finish second to Princess of Sylmar in the 2013 Beldame and then fourth in the Distaff, but receive another championship trophy anyway.  

Stopchargingmaria finished a well-beaten second in the 2014 Beldame but a year later won the Longines Distaff at Keeneland. And in 2016, Forever Unbridled won the Beldame impressively before running a solid third behind superstars Beholder and Songbird in the Longines Distaff. The Dallas Stewart-trained racemare returned in 2017 to win the Longines Distaff (Beldame winner Elate was fourth) and earn champion older dirt female honors at the Eclipse Awards.

Last year, Chilean import Wow Cat won the Beldame in her third start in North America. That was her first win in this hemisphere after going undefeated through nine starts in her native country. She ran a very good second behind champion Monomoy Girl in her next start, the Distaff at Churchill Downs, and is slated to start in Saturday’s Beldame as she bids for a repeat win.

Among the other graded stakes this weekend, Santa Anita’s Grade 2 John Henry Turf Championship Stakes at 1 ¼ miles on Sunday, Sept. 30 has produced such long-winded grass stayers and Longines Breeders' Cup Turf participants as Kotashaan (won both races in 1993), Northern Spur (won both in 1995), Johar (second in the 2003 John Henry, won the Turf in a dead-heat thriller with High Chaparral), and Champ Pegasus (won the 2010 John Henry, second in the Turf).

The Grade 3 Miss Grillo Stakes, held at Belmont Park on Sunday, has produced Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winners Maram (won both races in 2008), Tapitsfly (second in the Miss Grillo, first in the Juvenile Fillies Turf in ’09), Lady Eli (won both races in 2013), New Money Honey (won both in 2016), and the above-mentioned Newspaperofrecord (won both in 2018), as well as a few runners-up in the Juvenile Fillies Turf. Its companion race for juvenile turf males, Saturday’s Grade 3 Pilgrim Stakes, had its first dual winner in 2016 as Oscar Performance won both the Pilgrim and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf by open lengths. Among the other notables, Bobby’s Kitten won the 2013 Pilgrim, ran third in that fall’s Juvenile Turf, and then won the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint in 2014.

In Kentucky, the Grade 3 Ack Ack Stakes, held going a one-turn mile at Churchill Downs on Saturday, was won by Awesome Slew in 2017 one start prior to his third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, and last year Seeking the Soul took the Ack Ack one start before returning to his home track and running second in the Dirt Mile. And the Grade 3 Lukas Classic Stakes at Churchill, named for the Hall of Fame trainer and first run as a listed stakes race in 2013, was won by 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic champ Fort Larned in its inaugural running prior to that horse’s fourth-place finish in the ’13 Classic, his final start. Mind Your Biscuits, second in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Sprint and third in the 2017 Sprint, won last year’s Lukas Classic before running 11th in the Classic under the twin spires.

Lastly, the Grade 2 Eddie D Stakes, held on Santa Anita Park’s opening day Sept. 27 card, has been a useful West Coast prep for turf sprinters on occasion. It was won three times in four years by the popular California Flag, in 2008, 2009, and 2011. California Flag won the ’09 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint as well. 

A year ago, Stormy Liberal finalized his prep campaign for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, which he had won in 2017 for owners Rockingham Ranch and David Bernsen and trainer Peter Miller, with a hard-fought victory by a head in the Eddie D Stakes, his third consecutive win. He then shipped east to Churchill Downs and showed his competitive grit once again, outfinishing favored World of Trouble by a head to tally his second consecutive win in the Turf Sprint.

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