Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Whitney Stakes Headlines Active Prep Weekend

Gun Runner dominated the 2017 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga en route to winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic that fall and then earning Horse of the Year honors. (Eclipse Sportswire)

After a two-week break, the Road to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships resumes this weekend in North America, with four Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” preps held at two of the sport’s iconic venues as the 2020 schedule unfolds on an adjusted schedule in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Saratoga Race Course and Del Mar each host two Challenge Series preps this weekend, starting Saturday afternoon in upstate New York. The historic $750,000 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga Race Course brings together some of the leading contenders for the $7 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, while the $500,000 Personal Ensign Stakes does the same for top horses in the dirt female division as an automatic qualifier for the $2 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

Saturday evening, the focus shifts to picturesque Del Mar in Southern California, where the winner of the $250,000 Bing Crosby Stakes gets an automatic berth to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. On Sunday, the $250,000 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar is the weekend’s second Challenge Series prep for the Longines Distaff. The  37th Breeders' Cup will be held on Nov. 6-7 at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky.

Saratoga’s two Challenge Series races will be broadcast live on the Fox Sports network. The Bing Crosby will be shown on both NBCSN and TVG, while Sunday’s Clement Hirsch will be on TVG. For more information about television, online streaming, and radio coverage of this week in horse racing, click here.

In addition to the four U.S. races, one other “Win and You’re In” qualifier takes place Wednesday, July 29, in England. The Qatar Sussex Stakes was added to the Challenge Series in 2015, offering an automatic berth in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile to the winner. The one-mile turf race is held at one of England’s most exquisite racecourses, Goodwood in West Sussex, as part of its annual summer “Glorious Goodwood” meet.

The 14 Breeders’ Cup races attract the best Thoroughbreds in the world to compete for $35 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 week:

Whitney Stakes

The Whitney was first held in 1928 and is one of Saratoga’s seemingly endless group of historic stakes races, won by greats such as Discovery (three times), War Admiral, Gallorette, Tom Fool, Kelso (three times, one of those via disqualification), and Dr. Fager through the years. The race has also made its contributions to Saratoga’s reputation as “The Graveyard of Champions,” with one notable example being Onion’s defeat of Secretariat in 1973. It’s no surprise, then, that the Whitney has consistently been a key prep race in Breeders’ Cup history ever since the World Championships began in 1984. That year, Whitney winner Slew o’ Gold finished third in the inaugural Classic at Hollywood Park but was elevated to second, when runner-up Gate Dancer was disqualified after lugging in and pushing Slew o’ Gold into winner Wild Again in a rough, but exciting finish (visit ABR’s website on Aug. 10 to read a new article looking back on the ’84 Classic). Slew o’ Gold was voted Horse of the Year in 1984 nevertheless and entered the Racing Hall of Fame in 1992.

In 1986, the filly Lady’s Secret put together a phenomenal campaign, winning 10 of 15 starts, including the Whitney in a 4 ½-length romp and later the Breeder’s Cup Distaff. She was voted Horse of the Year in 1986 and joined Slew o’ Gold in the 1992 Hall of Fame class. Another legendary filly, Personal Ensign, took down the 1988 Whitney for the 10th of her 13 career wins without a defeat, a career capped by a win in that year’s Distaff – the type of résumé worthy of being honored by a prestigious race name (see below).

In 1989, Easy Goer entered the Whitney off of an eight-length romp in the Belmont Stakes over Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Sunday Silence, and at Saratoga he handled older horses with ease under Pat Day in a 4 ½-length win. The Ogden Phipps homebred would go on to win the Travers Stakes, Woodward Stakes, and Jockey Club Gold Cup before a much-anticipated rematch against Sunday Silence in a thrilling renewal of the Breeders' Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park, with Sunday Silence prevailing by a neck.

After a relatively quiet few years, in 1995 Whitney runner-up L’Carriere finished a nonthreatening second to the “unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable” Cigar in that fall’s Classic at Belmont Park. A year later, the great Serena’s Song finished second in the Whitney by a neck to Mahogany Hall and would go on to finish second in that year’s Distaff as well. And in 1997, Skip Away finished a distant third in the Whitney but soon reached peak form and won the Breeders’ Cup Classic before fashioning a Horse of the Year campaign in 1998.

That year, Awesome Again completed the first Whitney-Breeders’ Cup Classic double, winning the 1998 Whitney by three lengths under Pat Day (one of Day’s five wins in the race) and then the Classic by three-quarters of a length in a wild finish where he split horses late and surged to victory. The 24-year-old subsequently became a cornerstone stallion for Frank Stronach’s Adena Springs in Kentucky.

Another great racehorse turned standout sire, Medaglia d’Oro won the 2003 Whitney by turning the tables on Volponi, who had won the ’02 Classic by a stunning 6 ½ lengths at odds of 43.50-1. Medaglia d’Oro would run second again in the ’03 Classic, this time to Pleasantly Perfect. In 2004, Whitney winner Roses in May finished second to Ghostzapper in a Breeders’ Cup Classic that launched the latter into superstardom. 2005 Whitney runner-up Saint Liam would fare better in that fall’s World Championships, however, scoring by a length in the Classic and earning Horse of the Year honors. His vanquisher in the ’05 Whitney, the pure speed horse Commentator, defeated Saint Liam by a neck that year and won the Whitney again going gate-to-wire in 2008. 

One of the decade’s best tallied the second Whitney-Breeders’ Cup Classic double in 2006, as Invasor held off Sun King by a neck at the Spa and then defeated Bernardini in the Classic at Churchill Downs for Shadwell Stable and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. The Argentine-bred never lost in the U.S. through five starts, and also won the 2007 Dubai World Cup. He was named 2006 Horse of the Year and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013.

Four years later, another horse won the Whitney and the Breeders’ Cup Classic – and for racing fans, it’s the latter win that will forever be permanently etched into Thoroughbred racing lore. Blame had already established himself as one of the best older horses in training with a score in the Stephen Foster Handicap, and his close win over top-class Quality Road in the Whitney further enhanced his reputation. After coming in second to Haynesfield in the 2010 Jockey Club Gold Cup, Blame entered the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs as many people’s exacta filler behind defending Classic champ Zenyatta. Instead, Blame and Garrett Gomez took the lead in the stretch and somehow held off Zenyatta’s closing rush to win the Classic by a head and end the beloved racemare’s streak of 19 wins without a loss.

In 2012, Fort Larned took the same summer and fall route as Blame to the Breeders’ Cup – winning the Whitney, starting in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (finishing third), and then winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic. A year later, Mucho Macho Man finished third in the Whitney to Cross Traffic but won the Classic. And in 2015, Honor Code defeated eventual Las Vegas Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Liam’s Map by a neck in a thrilling Whitney before running third behind Horse of the Year American Pharoah in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland.

Three summers ago, Gun Runner defeated Keen Ice by a comfortable 5 ¼ lengths in the Whitney, the second of what turned out to be five consecutive Grade 1 wins to close out his career. The Steve Asmussen-trained son of Candy Ride went on to take the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga – the Spa’s other elite race in the older male handicap division – and then win the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar and the Pegasus World Cup Championship before retiring to co-owner Three Chimneys Farm’s stallion barn in Kentucky. The 2017 Horse of the Year is an almost sure bet to be yet another Whitney winner to eventually earn a spot in racing’s Hall of Fame.

Last year’s Whitney winner, Bob Baffert-trained California invader McKinzie, subsequently finished second to Whitney third-place finisher Vino Rosso in the Breeders’ Cup Classic back at his home base of Santa Anita Park. Instead of targeting a repeat bid in the Whitney, McKinzie is entered in Saturday’s Bing Crosby Stakes at Del Mar (see below).

Personal Ensign Stakes

The Personal Ensign was named after Ogden Phipps’ champion filly and 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff winner in 1998 and prior to that was run as the John Morris Handicap (from 1986 to 1997) and as the Firenze Handicap (from its beginning in 1948 to 1985). There was not a lot of crossover between this race and the Distaff through the early 1990s, although Versailles Treaty did finish second in both in 1992, and Heavenly Prize won the John Morris and finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in 1995. But in 1999, that all changed in a very big way. Beautiful Pleasure, owned by John Oxley and trained by John Ward, took the Personal Ensign by 2 ¼ lengths over odds-on favorite Banshee Breeze and then defeated that foe again in a swiftly-run ’99 Distaff at Gulfstream Park. Not surprisingly, Beautiful Pleasure would receive the champion older female Eclipse Award for ’99, and she would go on to win the 2000 Personal Ensign and finish second in the 2001 edition as well.

In 2004, Storm Flag Flying, the champion juvenile filly of 2002, won the Personal Ensign, defeating ’02 Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner and Horse of the Year Azeri. Storm Flag Flying would go on to finish second to another champion and Hall of Famer, Ashado, in the ’04 Distaff. Ginger Punch, winner of the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Distaff and that year’s champion older female, returned in 2008 to take the Personal Ensign. And in 2012, the great Royal Delta finished second to Love and Pride in the Personal Ensign before winning the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic, as it was then named, at Santa Anita Park. The Bill Mott trainee returned in 2013 to win the Personal Ensign, which turned out to be her final career victory.

Five years ago, Stopchargingmaria finished fourth in the 2015 Personal Ensign but summoned a peak performance to win the Breeders’ Cup Distaff months later at Keeneland (Personal Ensign winner Sheer Drama finished fourth in the Distaff). In 2016, Forever Unbridled finished third in both races during a campaign that placed her just behind superstars Beholder and Songbird. The Dallas Stewart-trained daughter of Unbridled’s Song had improved substantially by the time the 2017 Personal Ensign rolled around, however, and proved her class by defeating Songbird (runner-up in the 2016 Longines Distaff) by a neck in a game effort. Forever Unbridled subsequently trained up to the 2017 Longines Distaff and capped off an Eclipse Award-winning season by winning that race against a quality field.

Abel Tasman and Elate finished second and fourth, respectively, behind Forever Unbridled in the 2017 Longines Distaff, and in 2018 finished 1-2 in a thrilling renewal of the Personal Ensign, which Abel Tasman won by a neck. Elate returned last summer to face top-class Midnight Bisou in the Personal Ensign, and once again the race turned out to be one of the season’s undisputed highlights, as Midnight Bisou prevailed by a nose after a prolonged stretch duel. Elate would train on to run fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, while Midnight Bisou finished the year as runner-up to Blue Prize in the Distaff. Midnight Bisou has come back to once again reside atop the older dirt female division through the first half of 2020 and is listed as a probable starter in Saturday’s Personal Ensign.

Bing Crosby Stakes

The six-furlong Bing Crosby Stakes, named after the Del Mar co-founder and Hollywood legend, was first run in 1946. During the 1980s, the race did not have much of an impact on the Breeders’ Cup Sprint as East Coast sprinters were dominant at the World Championships. That changed in 1992, when Thirty Slews won the Bing Crosby in August and, two races later, captured the Sprint at Gulfstream Park over the filly Meafara, in the process giving an up-and-coming trainer named Bob Baffert his first Breeders’ Cup win.

Four years later, Lit de Justice pulled off the Bing Crosby-Breeders’ Cup Sprint double as well, taking the latter race at Woodbine. With that win, Jenine Sahadi became the first female trainer to score a Breeders’ Cup victory – and she would pick up another Sprint trophy one year later with Elmhurst.

The great sprinter Kona Gold was omnipresent on the national scene for a six-year stretch spanning the turn of the century. Trained and co-owned by Bruce Headley, the gelding finished third in the ’98 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, second a year later, and then won the 2000 renewal at Churchill Downs. That year, he also won his first of two consecutive Bing Crosbys, and he was granted champion sprinter honors at the Eclipse Awards.

In 2004, Bing Crosby winner Kela finished second to champion Speightstown in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, and ’08 and ’10 Bing Crosby winners Street Boss and Smiling Tiger each finished third in their Breeders’ Cup tries. In 2011, Amazombie edged Force Freeze by a neck to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs, and the next year took the Bing Crosby, with Mike Smith aboard for both wins. Another top-flight Bing Crosby runner made his impact in a different Breeders’ Cup event, as Goldencents finished second in both the ’13 and ’14 Bing Crosbys but took bigger prizes each fall, winning the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in back-to-back years.

In 2017, the Bing Crosby was notable for a rough start to the race, when favored Drefong – the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner in 2016 – tossed Mike Smith. Roy H, runner-up to Ransom the Moon in the Bing Crosby, came back to win a Grade 1 stakes at Santa Anita Park and then returned to Del Mar to take the Sprint by a length over Imperial Hint (Ransom the Moon finished fifth, and Drefong sixth). Roy H received the Eclipse Award as champion male sprinter for 2017.

Incredibly, the 2018 Bing Crosby scenario played out exactly the same with regards to the top two finishers. Ransom the Moon defeated favored Roy H by 2 ¼ lengths at Del Mar, but Roy H took the bigger prize in the fall, repeating in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs.

Clement L. Hirsch Stakes

Del Mar’s Clement L. Hirsch Stakes was conjoined with the Breeders’ Cup Distaff from the very start. Paula Tucker’s Princess Rooney, one of the dominant racemares of her era, won what was then named the Chula Vista Handicap by 2 ½ lengths as the second of five consecutive victories to close out her career. Her finale came in the inaugural World Championships at Hollywood Park, where she romped by seven lengths under Eddie Delahoussaye. Princess Rooney was voted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1991.

During the rest of the 1980s, several Chula Vista/Clement Hirsch winners performed respectably in the Distaff, and in 1990 another eventual Hall of Famer achieved the double. Bayakoa, who won the 1989 Distaff at Gulfstream Park, won the Chula Vista two races before taking her second Distaff in a row, this time at Belmont. She was honored as champion older female by Eclipse Award voters in both ’89 and ’90.

Sid Craig’s Paseana won the ’92 Distaff, finished second in ’93, and then won the ’94 Chula Vista. Del Mar’s race was renamed after Clement L. Hirsch, one of the track’s original directors, in 1999, and in 2002-’03, Azeri emerged to take back-to-back runnings of the race during the midst of an incredible four-year run that saw her win 17 of 24 races and receive four Eclipse Awards, including 2002 Horse of the Year. She won the ’02 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Arlington Park by five lengths.

As dominant as Azeri was during her early 2000s heyday, the magnificent Zenyatta was a cut above from 2008-’10. She won three consecutive editions of the Clement Hirsch from 2008 to 2010 over what was, at the time, a synthetic main track at Del Mar, and also captured the ’08 Distaff (then named the Ladies’ Classic) and ’09 Classic at Santa Anita, which also featured an artificial-surface main track. As all contemporary racing fans know, Zenyatta’s quest for a perfect 20-win career record came to a heartbreaking end in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs when she lost to Blame (see above), but her legion of fans, a sizeable number of them based in Southern California, will never forget her brilliance.

Since Zenyatta’s reign, the Clement L. Hirsch has remained a key Distaff prep, with winners such as Include Me Out (third in the ’12 Distaff) and Iotapa (third in the ’14 Distaff) performing respectably in the World Championships. Beholder, arguably the best racemare in North America since Zenyatta and already winner of the ’13 Distaff, won the 2015 Clement Hirsch prior to her amazing romp in the TVG Pacific Classic. Those races, and a win in the Zenyatta Stakes, set B. Wayne Hughes’ superstar up for a showdown with American Pharoah in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland. Unfortunately, Beholder had to miss the race due to illness, which disheartened racing fans across America but in retrospect set the stage for an incredible 2016.

In 2016, Beholder hooked up with Stellar Wind, who finished a close second in the 2015 Longines Distaff, in the Clement L. Hirsch for one of the summer’s most exciting races. Stellar Wind gamely outdueled Beholder to win by a half-length, and, as it turned out, the Clement Hirsch served as a prelude to a Longines Distaff for the ages when the two met again at Santa Anita, joined by unbeaten 3-year-old filly Songbird.

Beholder closed out her career with a thrilling nose win over Songbird, and while Stellar Wind was not at her best that day, the John Sadler-trained mare came back strong in 2017 to win a three consecutive Grade 1 stakes, including the Clement Hirsch by a neck over Vale Dori. Stellar Wind failed to fire in the Longines Distaff that November at Del Mar, finishing eighth, and days later sold for $6 million to Coolmore at the Keeneland November breeding stock auction. She raced once more in the 2018 Pegasus World Cup Invitational, finishing sixth, and has since commenced her breeding career in Ireland.

Qatar Sussex Stakes

Up until 2018, the Qatar Sussex Stakes did not send a winner to the Breeders’ Cup since it became a "Win and You're In" race in 2015, but several winners from earlier years have made an impact on the World Championships. They include Barathea, second in the 1994 Sussex, who won that year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill Downs, and 2000 Sussex winner Giant’s Causeway, aka “the Iron Horse,” who finished a valiant second to Tiznow in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic before becoming one of the most influential North American sires so far this century until his passing in 2018.

In 2008, Sussex 1-2 finishers Henrythenavigator and Raven’s Pass reversed those positions in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Santa Anita Park’s synthetic main track. That race may, over time, serve as a hallmark reminder of a brief, now almost forgotten, era in North American racing when artificial-surface main tracks seemed to be the wave of the future.

The 2017 Sussex winner, the gelding Here Comes When, did not make the transatlantic trip to Del Mar for the Breeders’ Cup, but heavily-favored runner-up Ribchester did. He finished fifth behind World Approval in the Mile as the 7-2 second betting choice. 

In 2018, Lightning Spear won the Sussex by 1 ½ lengths over Juddmonte Farms’ Expert Eye. Both horses made the trip to Louisville for the Breeders’ Cup Mile, and at Churchill Downs it was Expert Eye who brought his best form overseas, rallying late under Frankie Dettori to defeat Catapult by a half-length (Lightning Spear faded in early stretch to finish seventh).

Last year’s Sussex Stakes runner-up, Circus Maximus, finished fourth in the TVG Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita; the Aidan O’Brien trainee is entered in Wednesday’s race.

Other weekend stakes:

The four domestic “Win and You’re In” races slated for this weekend are the definite headliners, but two other graded stakes at Saratoga have made an impact on the World Championships through the years despite not being Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series races. The H. Allen Jerkens Memorial Stakes was known as the King’s Bishop Stakes until 2016, when it was renamed to honor the legendary New York trainer. The seven-furlong race for 3-year-olds, usually held in late August, has been won by such stars as Squirtle Squirt (won both the 2001 King’s Bishop and Breeders’ Cup Sprint), Hard Spun (won the 2007 King’s Bishop, second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic), and Caleb’s Posse (won the 2011 King’s Bishop and the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile). In 2015 and 2016, two extremely fast 3-year-olds won both the King’s Bishop/H. Allen Jerkens and then the Breeders’ Cup Sprint – Runhappy and the aforementioned Drefong.

Saratoga’s Bowling Green Stakes was won in 1987 by eventual ’87 Turf winner and champion Theatrical, when it was held at Belmont Park. More recently, globe-trotting Flintshire won the 2016 Bowling Green; he would train on to finish second in the Longines Turf (as he had also done in 2014) and be voted champion turf male for 2016. Lastly, at Monmouth Park, the Monmouth Oaks has been won in years past by such luminaries as Life’s Magic (won the 1984 edition on the Jersey Shore, finished second to Princess Rooney in the inaugural Distaff and won it a year later) and Silverbulletday (won the 1998 Juvenile Fillies and the 1999 Monmouth Oaks). In 2000 and 2001, two 3-year-old fillies won both the Monmouth Oaks and the Distaff: Spain, who upset the Distaff field at odds of 55.90-1 at Churchill Downs, and Unbridled Elaine, who posted a less robust 12.30-1 upset when she defeated Spain by a head in the Distaff at Belmont Park a year later. 

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