Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Del Mar Takes the Spotlight with Two Key Preps

Roy H, runner-up in the 2017 and 2018 Bing Crosby Stakes but winner of back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Sprints, is the reigning two-time champion male sprinter. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Last Saturday, Maximum Security lived up to his name by locking in an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic with a comeback win in the Haskell Invitational Stakes at Monmouth Park. This weekend, the Breeders’ Cup focus shifts west to southern California and picturesque Del Mar, and another qualifier will be held overseas.

Del Mar hosts two Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series Presented by America’s Best Racing preps this weekend – the Bing Crosby Stakes on July 27 and the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes on July 28. The winners of these two races receive automatic berths to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint and the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff, respectively. The races will be televised on TVG; for more information, click here.

The other Challenge Series race of the weekend takes place on July 27 at Ascot Racecourse in England. The 1 ½-mile King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes sponsored by QIPCO bestows a berth in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf to the winner, and if the connections of said winner decide to ship the horse to Santa Anita Park in November it will very likely be one of the race favorites, given Europe’s traditionally strong showing in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

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

Bing Crosby Stakes

The six-furlong Bing Crosby Stakes, named after the Del Mar co-founder and Hollywood legend, was first run in 1946. During the 1980s, the race did not have much of an impact on the Breeders’ Cup Sprint as East Coast sprinters were dominant at the World Championships. That changed in 1992, when Thirty Slews won the Bing Crosby in August and, two races later, captured the Sprint at Gulfstream Park over the filly Meafara, in the process giving an up-and-coming trainer named Bob Baffert his first Breeders’ Cup win.

Four years later, Lit de Justice pulled off the Bing Crosby-Breeders’ Cup Sprint double as well, taking the latter race at Woodbine. With that win, Jenine Sahadi became the first female trainer to score a Breeders’ Cup victory – and she would pick up another Sprint trophy one year later with Elmhurst.

The great sprinter Kona Gold was omnipresent on the national scene for a six-year stretch spanning the turn of the century. Trained and co-owned by Bruce Headley, the gelding finished third in the ’98 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, second a year later, and then won the 2000 renewal at Churchill Downs. That year, he also won his first of two consecutive Bing Crosbys, and he was granted champion sprinter honors at the Eclipse Awards.

In 2004, Bing Crosby winner Kela finished second to champion Speightstown in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, and ’08 and ’10 Bing Crosby winners Street Boss and Smiling Tiger each finished third in their Breeders’ Cup tries. In 2011, Amazombie edged Force Freeze by a neck to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs, and the next year took the Bing Crosby, with Mike Smith aboard for both wins. Another top-flight Bing Crosby runner made his impact in a different Breeders’ Cup event, as Goldencents finished second in both the ’13 and ’14 Bing Crosbys but took bigger prizes each fall, winning the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in back-to-back years.

In 2017, the Bing Crosby was notable for a rough start to the race, when favored Drefong – the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner in 2016 – tossed jockey Mike Smith. Roy H, runner-up to Ransom the Moon in the Bing Crosby, came back to win a Grade 1 stakes at Santa Anita Park and then returned to Del Mar to take the Sprint by a length over Imperial Hint (Ransom the Moon finished fifth, and Drefong sixth). Roy H received the Eclipse Award as champion male sprinter for 2017.

Incredibly, last year’s Bing Crosby scenario played out exactly the same with regards to the top two finishers. Ransom the Moon defeated favored Roy H by 2 ¼ lengths at Del Mar, but Roy H took the bigger prize in the fall, repeating in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs (Ransom the Moon was retired in October). Roy H earned another Eclipse Award for his 2018 campaign, and came back in 2019 to win his first start in a stakes race at Santa Anita. The gelding was scratched from the Dubai Golden Shaheen due to a foot injury.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes sponsored by QIPCO

This mile-and-a-half turf test became a Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” qualifier in 2011, but several of its prior winners made their marks on the Breeders’ Cup in earlier years. Godolphin’s Swain finished third in the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Turf at Woodbine and then won the ’96 and ’97 runnings of the King George, and in 1999, Godolphin’s Daylami won both the King George and the Breeders’ Cup Turf with Frankie Dettori in the irons. 2005 King George winner Azamour finished third in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf at Belmont Park, and in ’06 and ’07, two highly regarded European invaders who won the King George – Hurricane Run and Dylan Thomas – both disappointed in their Breeders’ Cup Turf appearances when finishing sixth and fifth, respectively.

That trend was reversed in 2009, though. In fall 2008, the Sir Michael Stoute-trained Conduit scored a 1 ½-length victory in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita Park en route to winning the Eclipse Award as champion turf male. In 2009, he won the King George at Ascot and then returned to Santa Anita to capture his second consecutive Turf.

Several top-flight turf horses have won the King George since Conduit, but none made the trip to the Breeders’ Cup, even after the automatic berth was granted, until 2016. King George winner Highland Reel was somewhat overshadowed among the Longines Turf starters at Santa Anita by trainer Aidan O’Brien’s other entrant, the filly Found, who had won the 2015 Longines Turf at Keeneland. But Highland Reel dictated the pace under Seamus Heffernan to post a 1 ¾-length win and cement his status as one of the world’s best grass horses. He went on to win two Group 1 stakes in early 2017, finish fourth in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and then third in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf at Del Mar. Highland Reel closed out a phenomenal career with another Group 1 stakes win at Sha Tin Racecourse in Hong Kong in December 2017.

During Highland Reel’s 2017 finale, a star filly emerged in Europe who would make history a year later. Juddmonte FarmsEnable won the English and Irish Oaks in spring 2017 before taking the King George over Ulysses (with Highland Reel finishing fourth, as noted above). She captured another Group 1 in August and then won Europe’s most prestigious turf race, the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, before taking an extended break from racing into late summer. She returned in 2018 better than ever, winning a listed stakes and then annexing another Arc at Longchamp. Trainer John Gosden shipped Enable to Louisville's Churchill Downs for the Longines Turf, and the world conqueror became the first Arc winner to win the Turf in the same calendar year, besting Coolmore’s Magical in a thrilling stretch duel. Enable recently returned to win yet another Group 1 at age 5, and is targeting Saturday’s King George at Ascot for her second start of 2019.

Clement L. Hirsch Stakes

Del Mar’s Clement L. Hirsch Handicap was conjoined with the Breeders’ Cup Distaff from the very start. Paula Tucker’s Princess Rooney, one of the dominant racemares of her era, won what was then named the Chula Vista Handicap by 2 ½ lengths as the second of five consecutive victories to close out her career. Her finale came in the inaugural World Championships at Hollywood Park, where she romped by seven lengths under Eddie Delahoussaye. Princess Rooney was voted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1991.

During the rest of the 1980s, several Chula Vista/Clement Hirsch winners performed respectably in the Distaff, and in 1990 another eventual Hall of Famer achieved the double. Bayakoa, who won the 1989 Distaff at Gulfstream Park, won the Chula Vista two races before taking her second Distaff in a row, this time at Belmont. She was honored as champion older female by Eclipse Award voters in both ’89 and ’90.

Sid Craig’s Paseana won the ’92 Distaff, finished second in ’93, and then won the ’94 Chula Vista. Del Mar’s race was renamed after Clement L. Hirsch, one of the track’s original directors, in 1999, and in 2002-03, Azeri emerged to take back-to-back runnings of the race during the midst of an incredible four-year run that saw her win 17 of 24 races and receive four Eclipse Awards, including 2002 Horse of the Year. She won the ’02 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Arlington Park by five lengths.

As dominant as Azeri was during her early 2000s heyday, the magnificent Zenyatta was a cut above from 2008-2010. She won three consecutive editions of the Clement Hirsch from 2008 to 2010 over what was, at the time, a synthetic main track at Del Mar, and also captured the ’08 Distaff (then named the Ladies’ Classic) and ’09 Classic at Santa Anita, which also featured an artificial-surface main track. As all contemporary racing fans know, Zenyatta’s quest for a perfect 20-win career record came to a heartbreaking end in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs when she lost to Blame, but her legion of fans, a sizeable number of them based in Southern California, will never forget her brilliance.

Since Zenyatta’s reign, the Clement L. Hirsch has remained a key Distaff prep, with winners such as Include Me Out (third in the ’12 Distaff) and Iotapa (third in the ’14 Distaff) performing respectably in the World Championships. Beholder, arguably the best racemare in North America since Zenyatta and already winner of the ’13 Distaff, won the 2015 Clement Hirsch prior to her amazing romp in the TVG Pacific Classic. Those races, and a win in the Zenyatta Stakes, set B. Wayne Hughes’ superstar up for a showdown with American Pharoah in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland. Unfortunately, Beholder had to miss the race due to illness, which disheartened racing fans across America but in retrospect set the stage for an incredible 2016.

In 2016, Beholder hooked up with Stellar Wind, who finished a close second in the 2015 Longines Distaff, in the Clement L. Hirsch for one of the summer’s most exciting races. Stellar Wind gamely outdueled Beholder to win by a half-length, and, as it turned out, the Clement Hirsch served as a prelude to a Longines Distaff for the ages when the two met again at Santa Anita, joined by unbeaten 3-year-old filly Songbird.

Beholder closed out her career with a thrilling nose win over Songbird, and while Stellar Wind was not at her best that day, the John Sadler-trained mare came back strong in 2017 to win a three consecutive Grade 1 stakes, including the Clement Hirsch by a neck over Vale Dori. Stellar Wind failed to fire in the Longines Distaff that November at Del Mar, finishing eighth, and days later sold for $6 million to Coolmore at the Keeneland November breeding stock auction. She raced once more in the 2018 Pegasus World Cup Invitational, finishing sixth, and has since commenced her breeding career in Ireland.

Other weekend stakes:

Saratoga’s Jim Dandy Stakes for 3-year-olds is the traditional prep for the Runhappy Travers Stakes, but on occasion its winners have gone on to Breeders’ Cup success (1996 winner Louis Quatorze was a nose behind Alphabet Soup in that year’s Classic; ’97 winner Awesome Again won the ’98 Classic; and ’02, ’05, and ’06 winners Medaglia d’Oro, Flower Alley, and Bernardini, respectively, all finished second in the Classic later in their sophomore seasons). In 2013, late-blooming 3-year-old Will Take Charge finished second in the Jim Dandy before winning the Travers Stakes and Pennsylvania Derby and then coming up a nose short to Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Other stakes this weekend with recent influence on the Breeders’ Cup include the Amsterdam Stakes for 3-year-olds at Saratoga, won in 2011 by eventual Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile victor Caleb’s Posse; the Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap at Saratoga, whose past winners include ’02 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Orientate and ’04 Sprint winner Speightstown; and the Bowling Green Stakes at the Spa, won in 1987 (when it was held at Belmont Park) by eventual ’87 Turf winner and champion Theatrical and in 2016 by champion and two-time Longines Turf runner-up Flintshire.

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