Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Juvenile Stakes Loom Large

Songbird (right) defeats Rachel's Valentina in the 2015 14 Hands Winery Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The upcoming Labor Day weekend marks the traditional end of the elite summer race meets at Saratoga Race Course and Del Mar, and both tracks offer an abundance of graded stakes from Saturday through Labor Day that historically have had major significance in determining divisional leaders on the Road to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.

This is especially true for the pair of graded stakes offered at each track for 2-year-olds. None of the four races is a Challenge Series "Win and You're In" qualifier for the Breeders' Cup, as the powers-that-be at Breeders' Cup relegate their automatic bids to the winners of juvenile stakes held at a mile or longer. However, the $300,000, Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante on Saturday and the $350,000, Grade 1 Spinaway Stakes on Sunday, both for juvenile fillies, as well as the $350,000, Grade 1 Runhappy Hopeful Stakes and the $300,000, Grade 1 Runhappy Del Mar Futurity, both for 2-year-old males and on Labor Day, have sent many horses on to play major roles in both the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

In addition to the juvenile stakes, the $750,000, Grade 1 Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets on Saturday at the Spa has been a key race in pointing horses to the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic through the years, although it, too, isn’t a “Win and You’re In” qualifying race. Several other upcoming stakes races at Saratoga and Del Mar have on occasion sent entrants on to the sport’s biggest stage, which this year will be at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 1-2.

Saratoga stakes through Labor Day will be televised as part of “Saratoga Live,” NYRA's flagship show presented by Runhappy, Claiborne Farm, and America's Best Racing. “Saratoga Live” is available in 75 million households nationally through FS2 and several regional networks. Del Mar’s stakes races (as well as Saratoga's) will be televised by TVG. For a full television/radio schedule, 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 extended weekend's stakes races that have been significant on the Road to the Breeders’ Cup:

One of Saratoga’s many historic stakes, the Spinaway was first held in 1881. Now contested at seven furlongs, it is a key prep in unveiling 2-year-old fillies who show the potential to become more than sprinters, and has thus made an impact on the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies over the past 30-plus years. The first Spinaway winner to hit the board in the Juvenile Fillies was Tappiano, who won at Saratoga and finished runner-up to Brave Raj in the third Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita Park. 1989 Spinaway winner Stella Madrid finished third in that fall’s Juvenile Fillies at Gulfstream Park behind the great Go for Wand and Sweet Roberta. And in the next year, a filly broke through to win both races.

Meadow Star entered the 1990 Spinaway having won her first three career starts, including two in graded stakes. Carl Icahn’s Florida-bred daughter of Meadowlake took the Spinaway, then run at six furlongs, by two lengths before shipping to Belmont Park. There, she absolutely dominated both the Grade 1 Matron Stakes (by six lengths) and the Grade 1 Frizette Stakes (by 14 lengths), which made her a prohibitive favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, which was also held at Belmont. Under confident handling from Jose Santos, who’d been aboard for her three prior wins, 1-5 shot Meadow Star won going away by five lengths to cap a perfect season. She was a shoo-in recipient of the 1990 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old filly, and as a 3-year-old would participate in one of the most memorable races of the era when besting Lite Light in what sportswriters termed "the Mother of all Gooses" (Mother Goose Stakes) at Belmont.

In 1994, William T. Young’s Flanders echoed Meadow Star’s brilliance by winning both the Spinaway and the Juvenile Fillies en route to an Eclipse Award. After breaking her maiden at Saratoga, she won the Spinaway by 4 ¾ lengths and then finished first in the Matron at Belmont in similarly dominant fashion, only to be disqualified and placed last due to a medication violation. She came back to pulverize three opponents in the Frizette at Belmont by 21 lengths, and then, in a memorable race under Churchill Downs’ Twin Spires, was all out under Pat Day to hold off future Hall of Famer and fellow D. Wayne Lukas trainee Serena’s Song by a head in the Juvenile Fillies. Unfortunately, Flanders suffered two bone fractures in the Juvenile Fillies and was retired in 1995. She produced champion filly Surfside (second in the ’99 Spinaway and third in the Juvenile Fillies) as a broodmare.

A year later, Spinaway winner Golden Attraction finished third in the Juvenile Fillies, and in 1997 Countess Diana became the third filly to complete the Spinaway-Juvenile Fillies-Eclipse Award championship trifecta. Co-owned and bred by Richard Kaster and trained during her 2-year-old season by Patrick Byrne, the Deerhound filly only lost once in 1997 – by a half-length in the Debutante Stakes at Churchill Downs – but otherwise dominated the opposition, culminating with an 8 ½-length romp in the Juvenile Fillies at Hollywood Park. In 2003, Ashado won the Spinaway by 1 ¼ lengths and finished second to Halfbridled in the Juvenile Fillies; she would go on to earn more than $3.9 million and win two Eclipse Awards before entering the Hall of Fame in 2014.

Folklore, champion juvenile filly in 2005, ran second to Adieu in the Spinaway but turned the tables on that foe and had her way with the rest of the Juvenile Fillies field at her home track of Belmont Park when winning by 1 ¼ lengths. Four years later, Beautician was runner-up in both the 2009 Spinaway (to Hot Dixie Chick) and Juvenile Fillies (to She Be Wild). And in 2010 and 2011, Spinaway winners R Heat Lightning and Grace Hall each finished second to eventual Eclipse Award winners Awesome Feather and My Miss Aurelia in the Juvenile Fillies.

More recently, in 2015 Spinaway winner Rachel’s Valentina, the daughter of Hall of Famer Rachel Alexandra, finished second behind champion Songbird in the Juvenile Fillies. Last year, Spinaway runner-up Restless Rider finished second in the Juvenile Fillies, scoring in the Grade 1 Darley Alcibiades Stakes at Keeneland between those starts.

Saratoga’s Runhappy Hopeful Stakes dates back to 1903 and has had just as much crossover with the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as the Spinaway has had with the Juvenile Fillies. In fact, the connection started in 1984, the inaugural year of the Breeders’ Cup, when Chief’s Crown won the Hopeful by 3 ¼ lengths and then, four races later, took the Juvenile at Hollywood Park by three-quarters of a length over Tank’s Prospect. He received the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male that year and went on to place in all three Triple Crown races in 1985, win the Travers Stakes and then later become a successful sire.

Over the next 25 years, several horses stood out in both the Hopeful and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile during their freshman campaigns: Success Express (third in the 1987 Hopeful, first in the Juvenile); Hennessy (won the 1995 Hopeful, second by a neck to Unbridled’s Song in the Juvenile); High Yield (won the 1999 Hopeful, third in the Juvenile); Macho Uno (third in the 2000 Hopeful, won the Juvenile); the great Afleet Alex (won the 2004 Hopeful, second in the Juvenile); First Samurai (won the 2005 Hopeful, third in the Juvenile); Circular Quay (won the 2006 Hopeful, second in the Juvenile); and Boys At Tosconova (won the 2010 Hopeful, second in the Juvenile). The best 2-year-old from this era was most likely Joseph LaCombe’s Favorite Trick, who won his first five races in 1997 before taking the Hopeful by 1 ½ lengths. He then won the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland before capping off an unbeaten juvenile season with a 5 ½-length romp in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Hollywood Park. That string of dominance was good enough to earn the Patrick Byrne trainee Horse of the Year honors at the 1997 Eclipse Awards in addition to recognition as champion 2-year-old male.

In 2012, Shanghai Bobby became the first horse since Favorite Trick to win both the Hopeful and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, taking the latter race by a head over He’s Had Enough. Logically, he was honored as 2012 champion 2-year-old male. Since then, Strong Mandate (2013) and Practical Joke (2016) buttressed wins in the Hopeful with third-place finishes in the Juvenile weeks later. Mind Control won the Hopeful last year but finished a non-threatening seventh in the Juvenile at Churchill Downs. After being shortened up by trainer Greg Sacco this spring, he’s emerged as a top one-turn horse among the 3-year-old division, winning the H. Allen Jerkens Memorial Stakes Presented by Runhappy at Saratoga last weekend.

The 1 1/8-mile Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets has figured prominently in Breeders’ Cup history as a prep, largely for the Classic, and that started in 1984 when back-to-back Woodward winner Slew o’ Gold finished third in a wild inaugural Breeders’ Cup Classic and was placed second after runner-up Gate Dancer was disqualified for interference in deep stretch. Slew o’ Gold still received the Eclipse Award for champion older male that year.

In 1986, the superb filly Lady’s Secret finished second in the Woodward against males and won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff en route to Horse of the Year and champion older female honors. She entered the Racing Hall of Fame in 1992. And in 1988, another legend, Alysheba, edged Forty Niner by a neck in the Woodward before winning the Meadowlands Cup by the same margin and then outlasting Slew City Slew by a half-length in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the gloaming at Churchill Downs. That win made amends for his heartbreaking runner-up finish in the ’87 Classic to Ferdinand and sealed Horse of the Year honors for Alysheba in 1988.

Another great in an era full of them, Ogden Phipps’ Easy Goer won the Woodward as a 3-year-old in 1989 and finished a neck behind Sunday Silence in a Breeders’ Cup Classic for the ages. Four years later, 1993 Woodward victor Bertrando came in second behind 133.60-1 Arcangues in a shocking Breeders’ Cup Classic, and then the sensational Cigar took center stage in 1995 and 1996, easily winning the Woodward both years and capturing the ’95 Classic. Cigar’s win in the 1996 Woodward came one start after his 16-race winning streak came to an end in the Pacific Classic, and the Woodward was his last win as he would run second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and then a close third in the ’96 Classic to finish his career as the decade's most popular racehorse.

Skip Away finished second in the 1997 Woodward but romped by six lengths in his next start, the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Hollywood Park. That was the first of eight consecutive wins that stretched into summer 1998 and ended with a 1 ¾-length score in the Woodward. Despite losing his next – and final – two starts, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Skip Away was voted Horse of the Year in 1998.

Over the next 20 years, horses who’ve coupled good performances in the Woodward and the Breeders’ Cup include: Tiznow (third in the 2001 Woodward, won the Classic for the second year in a row); Premium Tap (won the 2006 Woodward in its first running after moving from Belmont Park to Saratoga, third in the Classic); Hall of Famer Curlin (won the 2008 Woodward, finished fourth in his bid for a repeat Breeders’ Cup Classic); the filly Havre de Grace (became the second female after Rachel Alexandra to win the Woodward in 2011 and finished fourth in the Classic en route to Horse of the Year honors); Mucho Macho Man (second in both the 2012 Woodward and Classic, and won the 2013 Classic); and Liam’s Map (won the 2015 Woodward, romped in that fall’s Las Vegas Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile).

Arguably the best horse from this time period, Ghostzapper (Curlin defenders have an argument), defeated another champion, Saint Liam, by a neck in a thrilling 2004 renewal of the Woodward Stakes after dueling through wicked fractions and then being carried out by that foe in the stretch. Ghostzapper went on to dominate in the ’04 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Lone Star Park en route to Horse of the Year honors and retired after winning the 2005 Metropolitan Handicap as the best speed-figure horse of his era. As for Saint Liam, he would return to win the 2005 Woodward and Breeders’ Cup Classic in consecutive starts to close out his own Horse of the Year campaign and $4.4 million-earning career.

In 2017, Gun Runner became the first horse since Saint Liam to win the Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the same year. His Woodward win came after he won the Whitney Stakes earlier in the Saratoga meet (both in dominating fashion) and he would train on to romp in both the Breeders’ Cup Classic and 2018 Pegasus World Cup Invitational before retiring as the reigning Horse of the Year.

Del Mar’s two races for juveniles, the Runhappy Del Mar Futurity and Del Mar Debutante, have also had major impacts on the juvenile championship races at the Breeders’ Cup through the years. Tasso won both the Del Mar Futurity and the Juvenile in 1985, the second year of the Breeders' Cup at Aqueduct. Bertrando won the Del Mar Futurity and finished runner-up to champion Arazi in the 1991 Juvenile. Kafwain finished second in both races in 2002, and Minister Eric did the same in 2003. And the second half of the 2000s would be a very productive era for juvenile males coming out of Del Mar, as Stevie Wonderboy (2005) and Midshipman (2008) won both the Del Mar Futurity and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Lookin At Lucky nearly completed the double, losing the Juvenile to Vale of York by a head in 2009. All three colts won Eclipse Awards for their division.

More recently, American Pharoah won the Del Mar Futurity in 2014 but skipped the Juvenile only to regroup and race into the history books in 2015. During "Pharoah's" amazing Grand Slam season, Nyquist scored easily in the Del Mar Futurity by 3 ¾ lengths, the third of eight consecutive wins to begin his career that included a Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile win and ended with his driving win in the 2016 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. The 2017 Del Mar Futurity winner, Bolt d’Oro, finished third in the Sentient Jet Juvenile, held at Del Mar for the first time, as the 7-10 favorite.

Last year, Game Winner became the fifth 2-year-old to win both the Del Mar Futurity and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in the same year, scoring a mild upset over stablemate Roadster at Del Mar and taking the Juvenile by 2 ¼ lengths at Churchill Downs. He was an easy choice as champion 2-year-old male among Eclipse Award voters and remains in training for Bob Baffert who is considering the colt for major stakes races this fall.

As for the West Coast fillies, in 1986 Brave Raj won both the Del Mar Debutante and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, and 1991 Del Mar Debutante victress La Spia finished a head shy of Pleasant Stage in that fall’s Juvenile Fillies. The 1993 Del Mar Debutante proved to be the key race for 2-year-old fillies, as Sardula easily defeated Phone Chatter at Del Mar only to lose by a head to that foe in the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita. Excellent Meeting, the 1998 Del Mar Debutante winner, finished second to Hall of Famer Silverbulletday in the Juvenile Fillies, and a year later, Chilukki would suffer the only loss of her champion 2-year-old campaign in the Juvenile Fillies when second to Cash Run (she won the Del Mar Debutante by a length over Spain).

In the 2000s, Tempera finished third in the 2001 Del Mar Debutante but won the Juvenile Fillies to kick off a string of major crossover between the two events. Halfbridled (2003) and Sweet Catomine (2004) won both the Del Mar Debutante and the Juvenile Fillies, and 2005 Debutante winner Wild Fit finished second to the aforementioned Folklore in the Juvenile Fillies. Tempera, Halfbridled, and Sweet Catomine all received Eclipse Awards for those campaigns.

Over the past 10 years, elite fillies have continued to ship out of Del Mar and onto the center stage of the sport. Stardom Bound won the Eclipse Award in 2008 after scoring the Del Mar Debutante-Juvenile Fillies double. Blind Luck would run second in the Del Mar Debutante the following year and third in the Juvenile Fillies but won an Eclipse Award at age 3. In 2012, Executiveprivilege defeated Beholder by a nose at 4-5 odds in the Del Mar Debutante (Beholder was 8.10-1, believe it or not). Weeks later, B. Wayne Hughes’ Beholder turned the tables by a length in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and claimed the first of her four Eclipse Awards. 

She’s a Tiger won the Del Mar Debutante a year later and then was disqualified from first in the Juvenile Fillies after drifting out and bumping Ria Antonia in the final yards. She was voted champion 2-year-old filly anyway. In 2015, Rick Porter’s Songbird won both the Del Mar Debutante and the Juvenile Fillies in the early stages of a future Hall of Fame career. And in 2016, Peter Eurton-trained Champagne Room checked in third behind Union Strike and American Cleopatra at Del Mar before scoring a 33.60-1 upset in the 14 Hands Winery Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita.

The other graded stakes this holiday weekend include the Del Mar Derby for 3-year-olds on turf, which has been won by future Breeders’ Cup victors Da Hoss and Val Royal. The John C. Mabee Stakes at Del Mar for older turf females has featured greats such as Escena (won the Mabee in 1997, ran second in that year’s Distaff and won the Distaff in 1998) and Intercontinental (ran third in the 2005 Mabee and won that fall’s Filly and Mare Turf). Avenge won the Mabee in 2016 and ran a good third in the Filly and Mare Turf, and Cambodia repeated that exact same feat in 2017.

The Bernard Baruch Handicap at the Spa has been won by Breeders’ Cup Mile winners such as Steinlen and Lure – and in 2014, two-time Breeders' Cup Mile winner and Horse of the Year Wise Dan held on to win the Baruch in the second-to-last start of his incredible career. Breeders’ Cup stars such as Indian Blessing, Safely Kept, and Xtra Heat have won the Prioress Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Saratoga. Past winners of the Glens Falls Stakes at Saratoga have on occasion gone on to run well in the Filly and Mare Turf, including Honey Ryder and Keertana. At Parx Racing, the Turf Monster Stakes has sent a few good grass sprinters to the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint, including Chamberlain Bridge, who won the 2009 and 2010 Turf Monster and the 2010 Turf Sprint later that fall. 

Finally, the winner of the 2017 With Anticipation Stakes for 2-year-olds on Saratoga’s turf finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. That racehorse, Catholic Boy, went on to win the Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets at age 3 and this year remains among the top older horses in the handicap division despite some delays in training as the calendar turns to fall and the 36th Breeders' Cup approaches.

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