Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Sprint Qualifier Headlines Stars & Stripes Card

Mind Your Biscuits won the 2017 Belmont Sprint Championship, the first year the race served as a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup. The race is now named the John A. Nerud Stakes. (Eclipse Sportswire)

After a pre-holiday weekend which saw Stormy Embrace earn a qualifying berth to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in the Princess Rooney Stakes, the upcoming weekend’s loaded slate of stakes races officially only features one Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” race but still could have major implications in determining the top contenders for several Breeders’ Cup races.

On Saturday, July 6, Belmont Park hosts its sixth annual Stars & Stripes Racing Festival, a racecard that signals the winding down of its spring-summer meet, which ends the next day. Saturday's Stars & Stripes card will be featured on NBC with live coverage scheduled for 4-6 p.m. ET. 

This year’s Stars & Stripes features five graded stakes, and one of them, the Grade 2 John A. Nerud Stakes, is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” qualifying race for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. The card’s two marquee events in terms of purse money are the Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes and Grade 1, $750,000 Belmont Oaks Invitational Stakes, both of which were renamed and moved to anchor the Stars & Stripes Festival beginning in 2014. Another stakes race on the card – the Grade 2 Suburban Stakes for older horses – has commingled with the Breeders’ Cup Classic through the years.

This year’s Breeders’ Cup is scheduled to be held at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 1-2.

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 an automatic 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 John A. Nerud Stakes as well as a look back at how three other stakes on Belmont’s Stars & Stripes card have factored into the Breeders’ Cup results in years past:

John A. Nerud Stakes

The John A. Nerud Stakes was previously named the Belmont Sprint Championship Stakes, and in 2014 took the place of the James Marvin Stakes, which was run at Saratoga Race Course from 2008-2013, on NYRA’s stakes calendar. The race became a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” qualifier in 2017, and was renamed for 2019 to honor the late Hall of Fame trainer John Nerud, one of the most influential figures in the Thoroughbred industry during the 20th century. 

The best horse to run during the race’s era as the James Marvin probably was 2011 winner Jackson Bend. That Florida-bred millionaire ran third in the Preakness Stakes in 2010, won the James Marvin on Saratoga’s opening day in 2011, and would thrive over the next several months in one-turn races, running third in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint.  

In 2014, Clearly Now won the Belmont Sprint Championship on the inaugural Stars & Stripes card, and runner-up Palace and third place-finisher Salutos Amigos would go on to run sixth and seventh in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Private Zone, third in the ’14 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, became one of the best sprinters in the country over the next year, winning four graded stakes, including two Grade 1s, and romping in the 2015 Belmont Sprint Championship by 3 ¼ lengths over Clearly Now. He went on to finish three-quarters of a length behind champion Runhappy in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Keeneland.

Private Zone finished fourth in the 2016 Belmont Sprint Championship behind another top-class sprinter, A. P. Indian. A.P. Indian in turn checked in fourth in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Sprint but was elevated to third when runner-up Masochistic was disqualified for a medication violation weeks later.

In its first year as a Challenge Series "Win and You're In" race, the 2017 Belmont Sprint Championship drew a high-class, competitive field, and 7-5 favorite Mind Your Biscuits proved much the best, defeating Awesome Slew by 3 ½ lengths. Mind Your Biscuits would train on to finish third in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Del Mar, and he continued to compete at a high level until last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic, his final race.

Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes

The Jamaica Handicap, a turf race for 3-year-olds held during Belmont Park’s fall meet through 2013, was renamed and given a substantial purse boost to become the featured race of the Stars & Stripes card. Two horses that won the Jamaica at age 3 would eventually become Breeders’ Cup winners: Artie Schiller (2004 Jamaica, 2005 NetJets Breeders’ Cup Mile) and Court Vision (2008 Jamaica, when he defeated the great champion Gio Ponti, and 2011 TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile in a 64.80-1 upset).

Mr Speaker took a thrilling first edition of the Belmont Derby Invitational in 2014 by a neck, but the two key participants in the race who would make major noise in that fall’s World Championships finished sixth (Toast of New York) and eighth (Bobby’s Kitten). Shortened up in distance, Bobby’s Kitten flew by the field on Santa Anita’s downhill turf course to capture the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, while Toast of New York just missed winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic when finishing a game second behind Bayern, with California Chrome third.

Last year, Catholic Boy won the Belmont Derby Invitational by a head over Analyze It, and the versatile 3-year-old would notch a Grade 1 win on dirt several weeks later with a powerhouse score in the Travers Stakes Presented by Runhappy at Saratoga. He stayed on dirt to contest the Breeders’ Cup Classic and ran 13th after a poor start, and has returned at age 4 to win the Dixie Stakes on turf. Interestingly, Catholic Boy is slated to start in the Suburban Handicap on Saturday (see below) to add more multiple-surface luster to his résumé.

Belmont Oaks Invitational Stakes

Similar to the Belmont Derby, the Belmont Oaks Invitational started as a stakes race for 3-year-old fillies during Belmont’s fall meet before being moved to the Stars & Stripes card in 2014. Named the Garden City from 1998-2013, its first winner to make an impact on the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf made a big impact indeed. Frank Stronach’s Perfect Sting won the 1999 Garden City as a 3-year-old, finished sixth in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, and then fashioned an Eclipse Award-winning 4-year-old season in 2000 that culminated with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Churchill Downs.

In the subsequent years, several Garden City winners performed well in the Breeders’ Cup, such as Wonder Again (third in the ’04 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf) and Alterite (third in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf). Since moving to July and being renamed, the Belmont Oaks Invitational has featured a host of talented 3-year-old fillies. Catch a Glimpse, winner of the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, won the 2016 Belmont Oaks by outlasting Time and Motion on the front end.

A year earlier, 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Lady Eli took the 2015 Belmont Oaks with ease before she was sidelined for more than a year with life-threatening laminitis. She returned in 2016 to win the Grade 1 Flower Bowl Stakes and just miss in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf. Lady Eli won three more graded stakes in 2017 – two of them Grade 1s – and was retired after finishing seventh in the Filly and Mare Turf.

New Money Honey, winner of the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, won the 2017 Belmont Oaks over Sistercharlie by a neck in a thriller. Neither of those two ran in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf that year, but Sistercharlie returned in 2018 to win four out of five races, all Grade 1 stakes, culminating in a rallying score over British invader Wild Illusion in the Maker’s Mark Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf. The Peter Brant-owned mare received the Eclipse Award as champion turf female for her stellar 2018 campaign. Athena, winner of the 2018 Belmont Oaks, finished fifth in Sistercharlie’s Filly and Mare Turf.

Suburban Stakes

The 1 1/4-mile Suburban Handicap has a rich history dating back to 1884, and in the Breeders’ Cup era several of its winners have excelled on the World Championships stage, including Hall of Famers Easy Goer (second to Sunday Silence in a 1989 Breeders’ Cup Classic worthy of its name, first in the ’90 Suburban), Skip Away (first in the ’97 Suburban and Breeders’ Cup Classic), and Invasor (first in the ’06 Suburban and Breeders’ Cup Classic).

More recently, Mucho Macho Man won the 2012 Suburban, finished second behind Fort Larned in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, and a year later won the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic in a heart-pounder over Will Take Charge. Effinex, winner of the 2015 and 2016 editions of the Suburban, was runner-up in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic to American Pharoah and seventh behind Arrogate in the 2016 Classic.

Keen Ice, whose claim to fame will always be upsetting American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers Stakes, won the 2017 Suburban in another upset, this time over Shaman Ghost. The son of Curlin, who had finished fourth in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic and third in the 2016 Classic, was forced to miss the 2017 Classic due to injury and was retired to Calumet Farm shortly before the World Championships.

Diversify, winner of last year’s Suburban Stakes, was recently retired from racing and will reside at Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Home in Kentucky. His former stablemate Catholic Boy, as mentioned above, is targeting Saturday’s Suburban in a campaign to build his race record and burnish his future credentials as a stallion. Claiborne Farm purchased an interest in his stallion rights in May and will stand him after he retires from racing.

Of interest: The Grade 2 Great Lady M Stakes held this Saturday at Los Alamitos has a recent connection to the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, as Finest City won both races in 2016. However, the Great Lady M was held in April of that year rather than in midsummer. Finest City ran again in the Great Lady M Stakes the summer after her win in the World Championships and finished third. Marley’s Freedom won the Great Lady M last year and finished a close fourth in the Filly and Mare Sprint, and remains one of that division’s leading runners in 2019. She will try to win the Great Lady M again on Saturday.

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