Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Focus Shifts to Sprint Divisions

The Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series shifts to Gulfstream Park Saturday for the Princess Rooney Stakes. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

Two weekends ago, Seeking the Soul and Elate each won major prep races in the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series as the domestic slate kicked into high gear. The Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” events earn the best horses in training qualifying berths for the 2019 World Championships.

This weekend, focus shifts to the Breeders’ Cup sprint divisions, with one "Win and You're In" Challenge Series scheduled and two other sprint races on tap that have sent runners to the World Championships in years past. At Gulfstream Park on June 29, female dirt sprinters will compete in the Grade 2 Princess Rooney Stakes with a berth in the the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint on Nov. 2 at Santa Anita Park on the line. 

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.

In addition to the Princess Rooney, there are several other important stakes on June 29 that bear watching for Breeders’ Cup implications. They are the Grade 1 Highlander Stakes at Woodbine, a former “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint; the Grade 3 Smile Sprint Handicap, another former Challenge Series race that often showcases top-class male sprinters targeting the TwinSpires Breeders' Cup Sprint; the Grade 2 Dance Smartly Stakes at Woodbine, a 1 ¼-mile turf race for older females; and the Grade 2 Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park, a 1 1/16-mile test for 3-year-old fillies that occasionally produces a major contender for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff, with 2014 champion Untapable being a recent example.

Here’s some background on the lone Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series this upcoming weekend as well as the other major stakes races that have made an impact on the World Championships:

Princess Rooney Stakes

The Princess Rooney Stakes dates back to 1985 and thus has a longer history than the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, which was first held in 2007. It is named after Paula Tucker’s 1984 champion older female Princess Rooney. That eventual Hall of Famer began her career with four consecutive wins at South Florida's Calder Race Course in 1982 and 10 wins in a row overall, and ended it by winning the inaugural 1984 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Hollywood Park by a widening seven lengths under Eddie Delahoussaye.

During its first two decades, the Princess Rooney was won by such top-class racemares as Chaposa Springs, Hurricane Bertie, Dream Supreme, and Gold Mover, who won the race in both 2002 and 2003. Miraculous Miss, who finished second in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint in 2007, was runner-up in the ’08 Princess Rooney, and the latter race has had an impact on the Breeders’ Cup ever since. In 2010, Dubai Majesty finished third in the Princess Rooney but then won three out of her remaining four starts, culminating in the Filly and Mare Sprint, to claim the Eclipse Award as champion female sprinter (that divisional honor also was first awarded in 2007).

One year later, Calder mainstay Musical Romance was edged by Sassy Image in the Princess Rooney; the daughter of Concorde’s Tune, trained and co-owned by Bill Kaplan, went on to win the Filly and Mare Sprint and earn an Eclipse Award. Musical Romance then won the Princess Rooney in 2012.

Other weekend stakes:

The Grade 1 Highlander Stakes, a six-furlong turf sprint, was a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series qualifier in 2017 and 2018. Green Mask, who won the 2017 Highlander as the 3-5 favorite, did not run in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint as he was retired in September due to injury. The popular gelding did compete in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint in both 2015 (finishing third) and 2016 (fifth). 

The six-furlong Smile Sprint Handicap was part of Calder Race Course’s marquee “Summit of Speed” racecard until 2014. After a one-year hiatus, the Smile Sprint, the Princess Rooney Handicap and the rest of the “Summit” races were moved to Gulfstream Park.

A significant Smile Sprint-Breeders’ Cup connection occurred in 2002, when D. Wayne Lukas’ Orientate won the Smile Sprint at Calder under Mike Smith and then took the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Arlington International Racecourse. The Breeders’ Cup win was Orientate’s fifth straight stakes score, and his career finale. He was honored as 2002 champion sprinter by Eclipse Award voters.

The second dual winner came in 2010, when Harold Queen’s homebred Big Drama took both the Smile Sprint and then the Breeders' Cup Sprint, which was held at Churchill Downs. Not surprisingly, the Florida-bred son of Montbrook received the Eclipse Award as 2010 champion sprinter. 

More recently, Trinniberg, 2012 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner and champion sprinter, finished second in the ’13 Smile Sprint, and in 2015, Favorite Tale won the first running of the Smile Sprint at Gulfstream Park and then finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint behind champion Runhappy.

In 2017, Imperial Hint romped in the Smile Sprint by 4 ¾ lengths to earn a Breeders’ Cup berth, and he validated that performance with a sharp runner-up effort in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, finishing a length behind Roy HX Y Jet won the Smile Sprint last year at 3-5 odds but did not run in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint due to a minor injury. He won the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen Sponsored by Gulf News earlier this year.

The Dance Smartly Stakes at Woodbine occasionally sends female turf runners to the Maker's Mark Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, the most prominent being 2012 winner Marketing Mix, who finished second behind Zagora in that year’s Filly and Mare Turf. As mentioned above, Untapable won both the Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park and the Longines Distaff at Santa Anita Park in 2014 as part of a stellar, Eclipse-Award winning campaign. She was the second 3-year-old filly to win both events in the same year, following Ajina back in 1997.

Among other notables, the great Life’s Magic won the Mother Goose in 1984 and finished second to the aforementioned Princess Rooney in the inaugural Distaff, but then came back won the ’85 Distaff by 6 ¼ lengths. And in 2013, Close Hatches won the Mother Goose by an overpowering 7 ¼ lengths, but was second best to another member of her 3-year-old class, the awesome Beholder, in the Longines Distaff at Santa Anita.

Echoing Close Hatches' campaign, last year Midnight Bisou romped in the Mother Goose by six lengths. She trained on to finish third behind another 3-year-old filly, champion Monomoy Girl, in the 2018 Longines Distaff at Churchill Downs. Midnight Bisou currently sits atop the older female dirt division after reeling off four consecutive graded stakes wins without a defeat to start off 2019.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!