Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Final Week of Preps at Belmont, Keeneland

Vino Rosso edged Code of Honor in the 2019 Jockey Club Gold Cup but was disqualified for interference; he would post a dominant win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in his next start. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The upcoming week of racing is a crucial one for owners of horses seeking an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships a little more than four weeks from now, as the final six Challenge Series "Win and You're In" preps will be held, each race granting the winner an automatic, fees-paid berth to the 37th World Championships at Keeneland Race Course on Nov. 6-7. 

On Wednesday, Keeneland hosts the JPMorganChase Jessamine Stakes for 2-year-old fillies on turf; it’s a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. Then, four Challenge Series races will be held at Belmont Park on Saturday – the Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes (a qualifier for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic); Flower Bowl Stakes (Maker’s Mark Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf); Champagne Stakes (TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare); and Frizette Stakes (Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies). The final “Win and You’re In” race of the prep season is held at Belmont on Sunday, where the Futurity Stakes offers a fees-paid berth to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint.

The Jessamine Stakes will be shown live on TVG, and all five of Belmont's preps will be featured on the NYRA-produced show “America’s Day at the Races." For a TV schedule, click here.

The 14 Breeders’ Cup races attract the best Thoroughbreds in the world to compete for $31 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 this weekend’s “Win and You’re In” races at Belmont and Keeneland:

Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes

The Jockey Club Gold Cup is arguably one of the top 10 most important races in the history the sport in North America. It was first run in 1919 and has been won by a group of horses that, taken in total, comprise a good chunk of real estate in the Racing Hall of Fame. Needless to say, the 1 ¼-mile test on Belmont’s main track (owing to the vast circumference of “Big Sandy,” the Jockey Club is still a race with just one full turn rather than two) has been an important Breeders’ Cup Classic prep since 1984.

In the very first running of the Classic, Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Slew o’ Gold was part of a three-horse charge to the wire in deep stretch and was bumped hard by Gate Dancer, forcing him into longshot winner Wild Again. Slew o’ Gold, the dominant part of a 3-5 favored entry in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, was placed second. He was voted champion older male of 1984 and entered the Hall of Fame in 1992.

In 1985 and 1986, Jockey Club Gold Cup runners-up Gate Dancer and Turkoman each finished second as well in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and 1989 dominant Jockey Club Gold Cup winner and future Hall of Famer Easy Goer did the same, losing to Sunday Silence in arguably the most exciting Breeders’ Cup Classic ever.

The 1992 Jockey Club Gold Cup was the pivotal race for that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. Pleasant Tap won the Gold Cup by a commanding 4 ½ lengths over 1991 Kentucky Derby winner Strike the Gold, with 1992 Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy another 2 ¼ lengths back in third after stumbling at the break. But in the ninth Breeders’ Cup Classic, held at Gulfstream Park, it was A.P. Indy who took command in the stretch to pull away and win by two lengths over Pleasant Tap. A.P. Indy would be voted Horse of the Year in 1992 and subsequently became one of the most influential sires in North American Thoroughbred breeding.

Tabasco Cat, fourth in the 1994 Jockey Club Gold Cup, lost by a neck to Concern in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. And then in 1995, a Jockey Club Gold Cup winner broke through to take the Breeders’ Cup Classic for the first time. That horse, of course, was the “unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar,” as racecaller Tom Durkin so memorably described in the ’95 Classic. Cigar merely went 10-for-10 that year, with his closest margin of victory a length in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. By the next fall, Cigar’s streak of perfection had ended in the Pacific Classic, and he finished second by a head to Skip Away in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and then third by a head to Alphabet Soup and Louis Quatorze in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. That would be Cigar’s final start, and due to infertility he would become one of the most popular residents of the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington until his death in 2014.

Skip Away repeated in the Jockey Club Gold Cup in 1997, setting the stakes record time of 1:58.89, and won the Breeders’ Cup Classic that year as well to join Cigar in the exclusive club. Carolyn Hine’s future Hall of Famer would then finish third in the 1998 Jockey Club Gold Cup and sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but win Horse of the Year for his overall campaign.

Moving on several years, 2005 Jockey Club Gold Cup fourth-place finisher Flower Alley came in second to Saint Liam in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. A year later, Bernardini easily prevailed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and then yielded to Invasor in the Classic. Both of those horses did so as 3-year-olds.

Curlin (Eclipse Sportswire)

In 2007, another 3-year-old went one better and became the third Jockey Club Gold Cup-Breeders’ Cup Classic winner. Curlin had already run third in the Kentucky Derby, first in the Preakness, and second in the Belmont as he entered the autumn racing season and had a strong argument to make as champion 3-year-old among a very high-quality group. But then Curlin defeated older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup for the partnership of Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Stables, Padua Stables, George Bolton, and Midnight Cry Stables, winning by a neck over Lawyer Ron. He came back to defeat many of his 3-year-old rivals convincingly in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on a sloppy Monmouth Park main track. Curlin was named champion 3-year-old male and Horse of the Year by Eclipse Award voters, and would extend his dominance well into his 4-year-old campaign. He repeated in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and then ran fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Santa Anita Park’s then-artificial main track to conclude his career with another Horse of the Year award.

Claiborne Farm’s and Adele Dilschneider’s Blame finished second in the 2010 Jockey Club Gold Cup to New York mainstay Haynesfield, but he returned in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs to hand champion racemare and eventual Horse of the Year Zenyatta her only defeat in arguably one of the most exciting races of this century. A year later, it was the Jockey Club Gold Cup runner-up once again who took the Classic at Churchill, as Drosselmeyer backed up his 2010 Belmont Stakes win with another long-distance triumph in the 2011 Classic. And in 2012, Jockey Club Gold Cup third-place finisher Fort Larned scored a career-defining win when shipped to Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, turning back Mucho Macho Man (who would win the Classic a year later) by a half-length at odds of 9.40-1.

Effinex, third to Tonalist in the 2015 Jockey Club Gold Cup, was a distant second to Grand Slam champ American Pharoah in the ’15  Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland. The 2016 Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Hoppertunity finished fourth in that year's Breeders’ Cup Classic. And in 2018, globe-trotting Thunder Snow lost the Jockey Club Gold Cup in the final strides to 45.50-1 longshot Discreet Lover, giving longtime owner-trainer Uriah St. Lewis a breakthrough victory. Thunder Snow then ran a good third behind Accelerate in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

Last year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup was one of the most exciting in recent memory, as Vino Rosso edged Travers Stakes winner Code of Honor by a nose after an extended stretch duel. Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable’s charge subsequently was disqualified by Belmont Park stewards for bumping Code of Honor in deep stretch, but he would clearly establish supremacy five weeks later at Santa Anita, winning the Longines Classic by 4 ¼ lengths (Code of Honor was seventh). Vino Rosso, who made his final career start in the Classic, was voted champion older dirt male at the Eclipse Awards.

Champagne Stakes

The one-mile Champagne Stakes was first held in 1867 and is the key race for New York-based juveniles on the road to the Breeders’ Cup. Tank’s Prospect, third in the Champagne in 1984 (the race was run at Aqueduct that year), finished second to Chief’s Crown in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Over the next three years, a few horses emerged out of the Champagne to capture minor awards in the Juvenile, but the first really important year occurred in 1988. That’s when 1-2 Champagne finishers Easy Goer and Is It True reversed positions in the fifth Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. Eugene Klein’s Is It True upset Easy Goer by 1 ¼ lengths in the Juvenile, but Easy Goer would still win the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male before going on to even greater feats in 1989 Triple Crown races and the Breeders' Cup, all of them involving his archrival Sunday Silence (see above).

In 1989, Rhythm finished second to Adjudicating in the Champagne but would win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile convincingly and earn champion honors for owner Odgen Phipps and trainer Shug McGaughey. A year later, Thomas Valando’s Fly So Free became the first 2-year-old to take both the Champagne and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, romping in both races under Jose Santos en route to the Eclipse Award at year’s end.

Three years after Fly So Free’s feat, D. Wayne Lukas-trained Timber Country became the second juvenile to win both races, taking the Juvenile by a widening two lengths under Pat Day. The son of Woodman trained on to become a leading Kentucky Derby contender at three; he finished third in the run for the roses to stablemate Thunder Gulch, won the Preakness, and then was retired due to injury while training for a start in the Travers.

In 1995, two Champagne Stakes also-rans – fourth-place finisher Unbridled’s Song and sixth-place finisher Hennessy – finished 1-2  in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Both would become successful stallions, Unbridled’s Song especially so as the sire of Arrogate, among many others. A year later, Champagne sixth-place finisher Acceptable nearly upset Boston Harbor in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, with Champagne winner Ordway third. And starting in 1998, for three straight years horses exiting the Champagne – Aly’s Alley (sixth), Chief Seattle (second), and Point Given (second) – each ran second in their respective Breeders’ Cup Juveniles. Point Given would go on to win the 2001 Preakness, Belmont, Haskell, and Travers Stakes and be voted Horse of the Year as a 3-year-old.

Afleet Alex, like Point Given one of the most popular and accomplished 3-year-olds of the first decade of this century, finished second as a 2-year-old in both the Champagne and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. A year later, Champagne winner First Samurai checked in third in the Juvenile. And two years after that, War Pass dominated both races to become the third dual winner and a cinch choice for the Eclipse Award. Unfortunately, Robert LaPenta’s charge would only race three times at three before retiring; he passed away in 2010, early in his stud career.

Arguably one of the most talented juveniles of this century, Uncle Mo became the fourth dual Champagne-Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner in 2010. He only raced three times total as a 2-year-old, romping by 14 ¼ lengths in a six-furlong Saratoga maiden and then taking the Champagne by 4 ¾ lengths and the Juvenile – his first two-turn race – by 4 ¼ lengths at Churchill Downs. Like War Pass, Uncle Mo would only race three more times at three before retiring. But his stud career is something else entirely, as he’s already sired a classic winner in Nyquist and several other graded stakes winners from his early crops.

Union Rags, winner of the 2011 Champagne, finished a good second to Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile before maturing into a Belmont Stakes winner in 2012 and then retiring to a promising stud career. In fall 2012, Todd Pletcher-trained Shanghai Bobby captured the Champagne by a dominant five lengths before shipping to Santa Anita for the Juvenile. Under a skillful ride from Rosie Napravnik, Shanghai Bobby held off He’s Had Enough by a head to become the fifth 2-year-old to win both races.

2013 Champagne winner Havana finished second to New Year’s Day in that year’s Juvenile, also held at Santa Anita, and the 2016 Champagne winner, Practical Joke, finished third to Classic Empire and Not This Time in the Sentient Jet Juvenile. 

In 2017, Firenze Fire won the Champagne by a half-length over the maiden Good Magic. Four weeks later, however, it was up-and-coming Good Magic who visited his first winner's circle on a larger stage, romping by 4 ¼ lengths in the Sentient Jet Juvenile at Del Mar. Good Magic earned champion 2-year-old male honors for 2017 and went on to accomplish more great things as a 3-year-old before his retirement, while Firenze Fire continues to thrive on the track after being shortened up to sprint and mile-distance races. 

Sackatoga Stable’s Tiz the Law dominated the Champagne Stakes in 2019 but skipped the Juvenile at Santa Anita. He’s trained on to win this year's Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and the Runhappy Travers Stakes and finish second in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. Tiz the Law is targeting the Longines Classic on Nov. 7. 

Frizette Stakes

Belmont’s filly companion race to the Champagne Stakes was first held in 1945. The one-mile test sent its first notable runner to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies in the second year of the World Championships, as 1985 Frizette winner Family Style ran second by a length to stablemate Twilight Ridge at Aqueduct. Three years later, 1988 Frizette runner-up Open Mind won the fifth Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs en route to an Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old filly for owner Eugene Klein and trainer D. Wayne Lukas. That superb filly would go on to win important Grade 1s at age three, including the Kentucky Oaks and Alabama Stakes, and finish third in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff while picking up another Eclipse Award. She was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.

Meadow Star (BloodHorse Library)

Meadow Star became the first filly to sweep both races in 1990, and Carl Icahn’s filly absolutely dominated, rolling by 14 lengths in the Frizette and then by five lengths in the Juvenile Fillies, also at Belmont Park. The Juvenile Fillies was the seventh in what would extend to a nine-race win streak to begin Meadow Star’s career. One of the most popular fillies of the early 1990s, she finished fourth against males in the 1991 Wood Memorial before notching two more Grade 1 wins against her gender – including the “Mother of All Gooses” over Lite Light – and then never winning again in her final eight starts.

Educated Risk and Heavenly Prize won the 1992 and 1993 renewals of the Frizette and finished second and third in their respective editions of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. And in 1994, William T. Young’s precocious filly Flanders became the second Frizette-Juvenile Fillies winner by romping to a 21-length score in the former race and then edging Serena’s Song by a head in the latter. Flanders won all five of her starts during a championship juvenile season but never raced again after 1994 due to injury.

In 1995, My Flag finished second to Golden Attraction in the Frizette but improved in the Juvenile Fillies at Belmont, defeating Cara Rafaela by a half-length with Golden Attraction third. And the Frizette-Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies connection remained strong in 1996, as Storm Song became the third dual winner by putting together the two best races of her career back-to-back. The Dogwood Stable filly won the Frizette by four lengths and then the Juvenile Fillies by 4 ½ lengths with Craig Perret aboard.

Storm Flag Flying joined Meadow Star, Flanders, and Storm Song as a Frizette-Juvenile Fillies dual winner in 2002. The Ogden Phipps homebred would finish second to Ashado two years later in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, her final start. Ashado, third in the 2003 Frizette, then ran second to Halfbridled in the Juvenile Fillies early in her Hall of Fame career.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s Balletto won the 2004 Frizette and finished second in the Juvenile Fillies to Sweet Catomine. Three years later, Indian Blessing became the fifth Frizette-Juvenile Fillies winner, dominating both races by a total of 11 lengths. Those were only the second and third starts of her career, and the daughter of Indian Charlie would train on to compete well through her 4-year-old season, winning 10 of 16 career starts with five seconds and earning nearly $3 million before she was retired.

Sky Diva (won 2008 Frizette, third in Juvenile Fillies) and R Heat Lightening (second in 2010 Frizette, second in Juvenile Fillies) made good showings in the World Championships leading up to yet another standout dual race winner in 2011. My Miss Aurelia, owned by Stonestreet Stables and George Bolton and trained by Steve Asmussen, won her first two races at Saratoga, including the Grade 2 Adirondack Stakes, at sprint distances, but she really turned heads when stretched out to a mile in the Frizette, which she won by 5 ½ lengths. Sent off as the 2.10-1 favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs, the daughter of Smart Strike made those odds look like a gift in a three-length romp over Grace Hall. The champion filly would continue to perform well in her 3- and 4-year-old seasons, finishing second to Royal Delta in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (Distaff), but she was at her best during an undefeated juvenile campaign.

In 2013, Ria Antonia finished a well-beaten fifth in the Frizette (won by Artemis Agrotera) but outran her 32.30-1 odds considerably in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita. She was elevated from second to first in that race after She’s a Tiger drifted out and made contact as the two fillies neared the finish line.

The 2017 Frizette Stakes played out in similar fashion to the above-discussed Champagne with Firenze Fire and Good Magic, in that the runner-up became a Breeders’ Cup winner. Caledonia Road finished 3 ½ lengths behind Separationofpowers in the Frizette and thus was sent off at 17.30-1 odds in the Juvenile Fillies at Del Mar. With Hall of Famer Mike Smith in the irons, the Quality Road filly swept into contention in early stretch and powered clear to a 3 ¼-length score as Separationofpowers finished fourth. The filly was voted champion in her division for 2017.

In 2018, Jaywalk became the seventh filly to win both the Frizette and the Juvenile Fillies, romping by 5 ¾ lengths in New York and then backing that up with a 5 ½-length runaway at Churchill Downs. D J Stable and Cash Is King’s charge was an easy choice as champion 2-year-old filly of 2018 based on her late-season efforts.

Covfefe, fourth to Jaywalk in the 2018 Frizette, would excel when shortened to sprint distances, winning the 2019 Filly and Mare Sprint at Santa Anita. The same can be said of the 1-2 finishers in last year's Frizette, Wicked Whisper and Frank's Rockette. Both have returned in 2020 to win graded stakes races as sprinters and could square off in next month's Filly and Mare Sprint at Keeneland.

Flower Bowl Stakes

The 1 ¼-mile Flower Bowl Stakes, first held in 1978, has been without a doubt one of the most influential Breeders’ Cup preps in the entire event since the Filly and Mare Turf was first run in 1999. Nearly every year it seems, a filly or mare exiting the Flower Bowl goes on to hit the board in the Filly and Mare Turf, which is contested at distances between 1 1/8 and 1 3/8 miles, depending on the host track.

Many Flower Bowl females to shine in the Breeders’ Cup have not necessarily been the race winners. But that was not the case in 1999, when James Toner-trained Soaring Softly won the Flower Bowl by a length and then posted a three-quarter-length win in the inaugural Filly and Mare Turf with Jerry Bailey in the irons. The Kris S. filly defeated Irish-bred Coretta in both races.

In 2002, Flower Bowl fourth-place finisher Starine spoiled Banks Hill’s attempt at a Filly and Mare Turf repeat with a 1 ½-length win over that champion, resulting in a Bobby Frankel-trained exacta. And from 2004-06, the ultra-consistent racemare Film Maker exited the Flower Bowl three times – where she finished fourth, third, and second – to finish second, third, and second again in the Filly and Mare Turf (2006 Flower Bowl winner Honey Ryder finished third in the ’06 Breeders’ Cup behind the great Ouija Board and Film Maker).

In 2007, Lahudood became the second dual winner of the Flower Bowl and Filly and Mare Turf, taking the latter race on a very soft Monmouth Park turf course by three-quarters of a length over Honey Ryder. In 2009, Flower Bowl winner Pure Clan was runner-up to England’s Midday in the Filly and Mare Turf, and Midday returned in 2010 on the heels of three consecutive Group 1 wins in Europe. The Henry Cecil trainee was sent off as the 9-10 favorite at Churchill Downs, but it was Flower Bowl fifth-place finisher Shared Account who won the photo finish by a neck in a 46-1 upset for Sagamore Farm and Graham Motion to spoil Midday’s bid for a repeat.

In 2012, Flower Bowl runner-up and French import Zagora won the Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita by three-quarters of a length for owner Martin Schwartz and trainer Chad Brown. Since then, Brown has won three more Filly and Mare Turfs – in 2014 with Dayatthespa, 2015 with Stephanie’s Kitten, and 2019 with Sistercharlie. Dayatthespa defeated ’14 Flower Bowl winner Stephanie’s Kitten in the Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita, completing an all-Chad Brown exacta in emulation of his mentor Bobby Frankel a dozen years earlier.

A year later, Stephanie’s Kitten closed out what is almost certain to be a Hall of Fame career with a Flower Bowl-Filly and Mare Turf double. Her final win was at Keeneland, which held the Breeders’ Cup for the first time in 2015. Keeneland is also the home base of Stephanie’s Kitten’s owners-breeders Ken and Sarah Ramsey, which made for a poignant winners’ circle celebration at the picturesque Lexington track.

In 2016, Brown’s champion Lady Eli won the Flower Bowl but came up a nose short to Queen’s Trust in the Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita. And last year’s Flower Bowl winner, 1-5 favorite Sistercharlie, ran a late-closing third for Brown behind British invader Iridessa in her bid for a Filly and Mare Turf repeat.

Futurity Stakes

The Futurity Stakes at Belmont was added to the “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series schedule in 2018. Uncle Benny, winner of the 2018 Futurity Stakes, actually did not compete in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint but instead started in the 1 1/16-mile Juvenile Turf at Churchill Downs, where he ran a valiant second to European invader Line of Duty, losing by a half-length and being bumped by that foe in deep stretch.

Last year, Wesley Ward-trained Four Wheel Drive became the first horse to sweep the Futurity-Juvenile Turf Sprint double, winning at Belmont by three lengths and at Santa Anita by three-quarters of a length.

JPMorganChase Jessamine Stakes

Rushing Fall (Eclipse Sportswire)

Keeneland's JPMorgan Chase Jessamine Stakes offers the winner an automatic berth in the Juvenile Fillies Turf, and 2008 Jessamine winner Laragh finished a close third in the first-ever running of that Breeders’ Cup race at Santa Anita Park. House of Grace achieved the same results in each race a year later, and believe it or not, Kathmanblu did the same thing in 2010 with a first in Jessamine-third in Breeders’ Cup combo. Over the next several years, most of the top finishers in the Jessamine contested the World Championships, a few of them running well without winning ... but that fruitless streak ended in 2017.

Rushing Fall took the JPMorgan Chase Jessamine by a dominant 3 ¼ lengths for owner e Five Racing Thoroughbreds and trainer Chad Brown and then shipped to Del Mar and won the Juvenile Fillies Turf by three-quarters of a length over Best Performance. Rushing Fall has remained in elite form since then, winning eight more graded stakes, including five Grade 1s. She has won a staggering five graded stakes at Keeneland, second only to Wise Dan's seven graded stakes in the storied track's history.

Last year’s Jessamine winner, Sweet Melania, checked in third in the Juvenile Fillies Turf behind Sharing.

newsletter sign-up

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