Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Major Turf Preps at Arlington, Saratoga

Gio Ponti and Ramon Dominguez in the winner’s circle after the 2009 Arlington Million. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Saturday’s International Festival of Racing at Arlington International Racecourse takes center stage on the Road to the Breeders’ Cup, with two Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” races that historically have been key preps for the male and female turf divisions.

Arlington’s signature race is the Arlington Million Stakes, which became the first race to offer a $1 million purse when it was unveiled in 1981. It will anchor a stakes-packed Saturday card that also includes the Beverly D. Stakes for turf females. The winners of the Million and the Beverly D. receive berths to the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf and the Maker's Mark Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, respectively.

In addition to the top-flight racing at Arlington, another prestigious event will be run at Saratoga on Saturday that in recent years has been very influential on the Breeders’ Cup and therefore has been made a Challenge Series automatic qualifying race for 2019 – the one-mile Fourstardave Handicap. The Fourstardave offers its winner a fees-paid berth to the TVG Breeders' Cup Mile.

There is one other Breeders’ Cup qualifier is on tap for the weekend, held on Sunday, Aug. 11 overseas at Deauville Racecourse in France. The Group 1 Prix du Haras du Fresnay-Le-Buffard Jacques le Marois is also a "Win and You're In" race for the Mile.

This year’s Breeders’ Cup will be held for the 36th time, returning to Santa Anita Park in California on Nov. 1-2.  

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:

Arlington Million

The 1 ¼-mile Million has been a cornerstone of American racing since its inaugural running due to its record-breaking seven-figure purse and its first winner, future Hall of Famer John Henry (who also won the 1984 Million). John Henry did not race in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Turf in 1984, and the first Million winner to make an impact in the Breeders’ Cup was 1986 winner Estrapade, who finished third in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita Park. Manila, winner of the 1986 Turf and that year’s Eclipse Award winner as champion turf male, scored in the 1987 Arlington Million, which would prove to be his final race as he was retired days after the race after suffering an injury. The son of Lyphard won 10 out of his final 11 races, and Theatrical, the horse who ran second to him in the 1986 Turf and third in the ’87 Million, would go on to win the ’87 Turf and the Eclipse Award. Manila was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2008.

In 1989, Steinlen won the Arlington Million as part of a sensational campaign that netted him the Eclipse Award as champion turf male at year's end. He was actually shortened up two starts later for his Breeders' Cup appearance, and took the Mile by three-quarters of a length at Gulfstream Park.

With Approval, Canada’s Horse of the Year in 1989, finished second in both the 1990 Arlington Million and the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Two years later, a similar event occurred, as three-time Canadian champion Sky Classic took runner-up honors in the Million and Breeders’ Cup Turf, losing by a head and a nose, respectively. Nonetheless, Sam-Son Farm’s Sky Classic received the Eclipse Award as champion turf male in 1992. Champion Paradise Creek, winner of the 1994 Million, took third in that year’s Turf (and finished second in the 1992 Breeders’ Cup Mile).

There was little crossover between the Million and Breeders’ Cup Turf for the next several years, and the Arlington Million was not held in 1998 and 1999. In 2003, two horses from the Arlington Million – first-place finisher Storming Home and winner Sulamani – were sent off as the two post-time favorites in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at 2-1 and 3.10-1, respectively. They exited the Million having escaped disaster, when Storming Home ducked out sharply at the wire and unseated rider Gary Stevens in a horrific finish that resulted in Storming Home’s disqualification. Both Sulamani and Storming Home won their next races after the Million in Grade 1 stakes, but finished fifth and seventh at Santa Anita in arguably the most exciting race in Breeders’ Cup history: the dead-heat finish between High Chaparral and Johar.

In 2004, eventual champion turf male Kitten’s Joy finished runner-up to Better Talk Now in the Breeders’ Cup Turf as the 7-10 favorite, and the next summer Kitten’s Joy ran second to Powerscourt at 9-10 odds in the 2005 Million, which was his final race before going on to a successful stud career (Powerscourt had finished first in the 2004 Million but was disqualified).

Gio Ponti, a dead-cinch future Hall of Famer, was a regular presence both at Arlington Park and the World Championships during the turn of the 21st Century’s first decade. The three-time champion made his first start in the Million a winning one in 2009, scoring by 1 ¼ lengths. He would go on to finish second to superstar Zenyatta in the ’09 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita. In 2010, Gio Ponti returned to Arlington but could not withstand European invader Debussy’s late push and finished second by a half-length. That autumn, he would again settle for second behind a superstar, this time to Goldikova in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. In 2011, Gio Ponti returned to contest the same two races again. He finished second to Cape Blanco in the Arlington Million over a rain-saturated turf course, and then fourth in the Mile behind Court Vision, Turallure, and Goldikova in an absolute thriller.

Finally, in 2012 a horse achieved the Arlington Million-Breeders’ Cup Turf double. Little Mike was a hard-knocking gelding who only knew one way to win – take the lead early and see how far he could go. He entered the Arlington Million in career-best form, having won the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic and finishing a good third in the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile. He made his first start at 1 ¼ miles in the Million and, under a skillful ride from Ramon Dominguez, managed to carry his speed farther than ever before to win by 1 ½ lengths. Little Mike then faded badly in his next start, the 1 ½-mile Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational, defeated by 28 ½ lengths. That made his subsequent presence in the 1 ½-mile Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita a curiosity to many bettors, but Little Mike, again with Dominguez aboard and coming from slightly off the pace for a change, rewarded his faithful fans at odds of 17.30-1 with a half-length win over Point of Entry.

Magician, winner of the 2013 Turf, finished second in an upset to Hardest Core in the 2014 Million, while The Pizza Man and Big Blue Kitten, first and second in the 2015 Million, finished fifth and third, respectively, in a tough Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf that fall at Keeneland. In 2017, Beach Patrol won the Arlington Million with an eye-catching rush through the stretch after tracking just off the early pace. The Chad Brown trainee then took the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont before contesting the Longines Turf, where he fashioned another pace-stalking trip and took the lead briefly in the lane, only to finish a half-length short of European invader Talismanic in a valiant effort.

Beverly D. Stakes

The Beverly D. was first run in 1987 and has been held at its current distance of 1 3/16 miles since 1988. Like the Arlington Million, the Beverly D. was not run in 1998 and 1999, and 1999 marked the first year the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf was held at Gulfstream Park. Several accomplished fillies and mares won the Beverly D. during the 1990s, but only one made a big impression on the Breeders’ Cup: world traveler Hatoof. That English One Thousand Guineas winner won the 1994 Beverly D., defeating Hall of Famer Flawlessly, and ran a good second to Tikkanen in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs, the final race in a career that saw her win graded/group stakes on four continents.  

Through the 2000s, many Beverly D. winners went on to run in the Filly and Mare Turf, with the best showing coming from Film Maker, who was second in both races in 2006. Marketing Mix repeated that runner-up double in 2012. And in 2013, a European invader broke through to take both events. Dank made her first domestic start in the Beverly D. and was sent off at 3.20-1 odds, which seemed like manna from the heavens to her backers after she romped home by 4 ¼ lengths. The Sir Michael Stoute-trained filly did not start again until the Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita, where she scored by a half-length as the 3-2 favorite. Dank only made two starts in the U.S. in 2013, but those two were good enough to earn her the Eclipse Award as champion turf female. She finished fourth in the 2014 Filly and Mare Turf.

In 2015, Watsdachances and Stephanie’s Kitten were elevated to first and second, respectively, in the Beverly D. after Secret Gesture was disqualified to third after drifting out late. Watsdachances went on to finish sixth in the Filly and Mare Turf, but Stephanie’s Kitten won the race at Keeneland to cap off a $4.2 million-earning career that may place her in the Hall of Fame in the years to come.

The 2017 Beverly D. winner, Dacita, ran a solid fourth in the Filly and Mare Turf at Del Mar and then sold for $1.85 million days later at the Fasig-Tipton auction in Kentucky as a broodmare prospect. And last year, the Beverly D. was part of a racehorse's championship season that may be in the process of repeating in 2019.

Sistercharlie, already a dual Grade 1 winner in the U.S. by last August, unleashed her patented late kick to win by a half-length at Arlington, and then was rested for two and half months by trainer Chad Brown before returning in the Maker’s Mark Filly and Mare Turf at Churchill Downs. The Irish-bred thrilled fans under the Twin Spires with another closing rally, this time nipping European invader Wild Illusion by a neck. Sistercharlie was an easy pick by Eclipse Award voters for 2018 champion turf female, and owner Peter Brant brought his mare back for her 5-year season last month. She picked up right where she left off with a repeat win in the Diana Stakes at Saratoga, and is slated to try for a second Beverly D. score Saturday at Arlington.

Fourstardave Handicap

The Fourstardave, a one-mile Grade 1 turf event at Saratoga, was added to the Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" Challenge Series Presented by America's Best Racing this year. First run in 1985 as the Daryl’s Joy Stakes, it was renamed in 1996 after its two-time winner (1990-91), known as "The Sultan of Saratoga." The Fourstardave is one of the perennial highlights of Saratoga's summer race meet, and it's also been a very influential race on the Breeders’ Cup starting back in 1985, the second year of the World Championships. Mourjane finished third in the Turf at Aqueduct and went on to win the Daryl's Joy in '86.

In 1989, the abovementioned Steinlen won the Daryl’s Joy Stakes two starts prior to his Arlington Million score; he tallied a win in the Mile that fall and won the Eclipse Award as champion turf male. And in 1993, the sensational Lure romped by three lengths in the Daryl’s Joy two starts before scoring a repeat win in the Mile. Posting two Breeders’ Cup wins and more than $2.5 million in earnings, the Shug McGaughey-trained Lure was voted into the  Racing Hall of Fame in 2013.

Three years later, another horse scored the Fourstardave-Breeders’ Cup Mile double – the hard-knocking Da Hoss. That Michael Dickinson-trained gelding defined courage after his ’96 Mile win as he was sidelined for nearly two years before coming back and improbably winning another Breeders’ Cup Mile in 1998.

Jump ahead to the mid-2000s and champion and eventual Kentucky Derby-winning sire Leroidesanimaux won the Fourstardave in 2005 and finished second to Artie Schiller in that year’s Mile. And earlier this decade, the Fourstardave was an integral part of two Horse of the Year campaigns for the ever-popular Wise Dan. Mort Fink’s gelding scored back-to-back wins in the Fourstardave and in the Breeders’ Cup Mile in both 2012 and 2013. During a span from October 2011 until his retirement in 2015, Wise Dan won 17 of 19 starts and was second twice by margins of a head and 1 ¼ lengths, and he was undefeated on turf – truly one of the most impressive peak-form runs by a racehorse this century.

The Fourstardave-Mile linkage has remained strong during the second half of the 2010s. In 2016 and 2017, a pair of top-class turf milers won both races: Tourist and World Approval, respectively. Live Oak Plantation’s World Approval was honored at the Eclipse Awards as 2017 champion turf male for his campaign.

Prix du Haras du Fresnay-Le-Buffard Jacques Le Marois

The Jacques Le Marois, held at 1,600 meters (about one mile) on turf, was added to the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series in 2010. The race has a rich history however, and has been intertwined with the World Championships from the very beginning, as 1984 Jacques Le Marois winner Lear Fan – later an influential sire – shipped to California and finished seventh in the inaugural Breeder’s Cup Mile at Hollywood Park.

In 1987 and 1988, the Hall of Famer Miesque, one of the best turf horses of any era, won the Jacques Le Marois and the Breeders’ Cup Mile for jockey Freddie Head and owners the Niarchos Family. Her Breeders’ Cup wins came at Hollywood Park (1987) and Churchill Downs (1988) by a combined 7 ¼ lengths, and she received the Eclipse Award as champion turf female both years.

Spinning World also scored the Jacques Le Marois-Breeders’ Cup Mile double in 1997 (winning the French race in 1996 as well), and Six Perfections did the same in 2003. The regally bred Banks Hill is another notable past winner; she captured the Jacques Le Marois in her 4-year-old season of 2002, a year after winning the third edition of the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf the year before.

Another Hall of Famer, Goldikova, won the 2009 Jacques Le Marois during the second season of her amazing three-year run of Breeders’ Cup Mile wins. She was trained by the aforementioned Breeder’s Cup Mile-winning jockey Freddie Head. Goldikova came up just short in her bid for a fourth straight Mile win in 2011, finishing third at Churchill Downs in the all-time thriller mentioned earlier.

Since Goldikova’s final Breeders’ Cup appearance, the best finish by a Jacques Le Marois winner in the Mile came in 2012, when Excelebration finished fourth.

Other weekend races:

There are several other graded stakes on tap for a very active upcoming weekend that are not “Win and You’re In” qualifiers but whose winners have gone on to shine in Breeders’ Cup races. They include Arlington's Secretariat Stakes for 3-year-olds on turf, won by such horses as Kitten’s Joy in 2004 (discussed above), Highland Reel (won in 2015 and won the Longines Turf in 2016), and Oscar Performance (won the Juvenile Turf in 2016 and the Secretariat in 2017). Last year, William Lawrence’s Analyze It competed in both the Secretariat Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Mile and distinguished himself in both events, finishing second by a neck to Carrick at Arlington and third by three-quarters of a length in the Mile at Churchill Downs.

The Best Pal Stakes for 2-year-olds at Del Mar served as the coming-out party for eventual 2009 champion juvenile male Lookin At Lucky, second in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and in 2015 another future juvenile champion took the Best Pal road to the Breeders' Cup, when Nyquist took the Grade 2 stakes as the second of eight consecutive wins to begin his career, including the Juvenile and the 2016 Kentucky Derby. Several winners of this Saturday's Saratoga Special Stakes for 2-year-olds have gone on to run well in recent editions of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, including Union Rags, who was second to Hansen in 2011. (Favorite Trick won both races in 1997 and was voted Horse of the Year as a juvenile.)

Lastly, the Rancho Bernardo Handicap, set for this Sunday at Del Mar, has been significant in the filly and mare sprint division in recent years. Judy the Beauty, second to champion Groupie Doll in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, won the 2014 Rancho Bernardo one race before taking the Filly and Mare Sprint at Santa Anita en route to earning her own Eclipse Award as champion female sprinter.

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